More Bad English, Please

by Joe Brockmeier - Mar. 22, 2010Comments (17)

Mailing List

I'd like to see more bad English on mailing lists, and fewer apologies from non-native speakers about their poor English skills. There's nothing to be ashamed of in trying to communicate in a second, third, or fourth language and not being an expert. And it'd be a shame if non-native speakers let fear or embarrassment hold them back from making a vital contribution or asking a question that could help them succeed in contributing or using FLOSS tools.

One of the wonderful things about open source is that it's multi-national, the truest "melting pot" anyone could hope to find. Millions of people participate in English-language mailing lists for using and developing open source because it's the most common language among participants. But for many, it's not their first (or even second, or third) language and the only practice they may get with written English is participating on FLOSS mailing lists. So, along with a variety of cultural perspectives, you also get some folks whose English skills (or their estimation of their English skills) are less than perfect.

If I had a dollar for every email I've received that included an apology for "poor English," I'd be within shouting distance of a comfortable retirement. But there's no apology necessary, and that needs to be said rather loudly. I want to see more bad English on mailing lists!

First of all, no one should feel the slightest shame or embarrassment about making a good faith effort to have a productive conversation with someone else. There may be room for improvement, and people should be admired for making a continual effort to learn new languages or improve their language skills.

Second, people who are embarrassed with their ability to communicate are likely to speak up less. To hold back questions for fear that they're not going to be understood. To hold back expressing ideas because they might not get the point across as well the first time. One of the great things about the time I spent with Novell was that I had the opportunity to meet and speak with many people around the world who love free and open source software, and being part of the larger community. Unfortunately, far too many of the people I met where embarrassed by their proficiency with English. Several contributors I've spoken to have admitted reluctance to participate in discussions because they were embarrassed by their skill level with English, or because they feared they wouldn't be understood.

Often, this fear is misplaced altogether. Many of the people who have expressed concern about their English were, while not quite fluent, certainly proficient enough to be understood. Even when there is a moderate language barrier, there should be no shame felt or conveyed for someone trying to participate in their non-native language. If anything, those of us who are monolingual owe the rest of the group an apology for speaking only the one language.

I've been reading Linchpin by Seth Godin. He talks extensively about fear holding people back from doing good work, from making art, from being the most productive they could be. And I think fear plays a large role when someone feels the need to apologize for their language skills. Fear that they're going to be rejected, misunderstood, or simply ignored because they don't speak the language as well as others.

But that isn't true, or at least it shouldn't be. Most communities, and certainly those worth one's time as a contributor, are eager to hear from everyone. Even if that means a bit of extra work understanding someone. Who cares if a person's English isn't perfect when they're doing good work or trying to learn? Lurking behind some slightly mangled English you'll often find brilliant and talented contributors who are a delight to work with. So I'd like to see a lot more bad English on mailing lists, and I bet you would too. Spread the word.

(Photo from / CC BY 2.0)

John Mark Walker uses OStatic to support Open Source, ask and answer questions and stay informed. What about you?


For the past 12 years I've worked with a lot of non-native English speakers. Often their grammar is actually more correct than what we're used to hearing the native English speakers use. I hope your post helps encourage more people to speak up in any language -- we can always run it through Google translate, if necessary.

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Sorry for my poor English... (ok, just kidding).

My first language is Japanese and I know my English is not good, so this post is very nice to me, and any other people who has fear to use English. Thank you very much to write such a good article.

In addition, IMHO, non-native English users like me always need feedback means someone understand what his/her want to say. I want to say all of people "Please say something if you find non-native English post."

Anyway, can I translate your post in Japanese and put a public site? Or someone already do that? If it is free to me, I'll do that (I can't promise when I will finish 'cause of my English ;).


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Good Evening.

I am non-English speaker and Japanese speaker. I read your article translated by writer. Your article encouraged me.Thanks so much. I will try to do my best to increase the skill of writing English.


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I'm Japanese and not native English speaker.So I can only speak poor English.

And I don't have courage bacause of that.

But your article gave me courage to join FLOSS projects.


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I have now been amazed. Whenever I talk in English, I thought about my bad English.

This article taught me that I don't have to feel a fear when talking in English.

Your words have encouraged me.

Thank you Joe Brockmeier.

P.S. as Cordy said, translation(ja) was written immediately. good job.

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My native language is Serbian so I always think twice before I write something in english, because my spelling sucks. Very often I decide not to write at all.

Anyway, thanks for great post :-)

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FLOSS is mostly an American phenomenon => most information is in English, most communities use English => non-native English speakers/writers frequently afraid to participate.

All human languages are highly redundant. 99.99% of "bad English" is actually easy to understand, especially for native speakers. In rare cases some follow-up questions can clarify the writer's position.

Please don't be afraid --- less the perfect knowledge of English is the fact of life --- nothing to be ashamed of. BTW, practice makes perfect: start to participate in English discussions and you'll see your English will improve in no time.

(Oh, English is my second language too.)

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Most of the contributions I read with poor English spelling and grammar come from people who speak only English. It's sad that many of those who only speak one language don't bother to speak it well.

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This is reminding me that the first time I submitted a patch, it was to a project hosted on where all prior contributors had Japanese I tried to write the email to which I attached the patch in Japanese. The developer I sent it to responded in English :P

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Actually, I would like to answer by describing how ashamed I am when, as a non-native English speaker, I make incorrect statements or whatever that ruins the language - but I simply can not do it.

English is a beautiful and complex language, and I don't understand your point : "you don't find the right words in English ? ok, use it anyway !" . It's nonsensical. Using the native language of a minority to communicate worldwide is illogical, and it can only ruin the language itself. A lot of asian people (for example) are in trouble with learning English, and though we keep using it. I for one am unable to make a conversation, despite many years of learning.

There are some (artificial) languages which are way easier to learn and to use, and which are regular and easy enough to give you the self-confidence you need to begin a conversation in even one hour of learning. I will never understand why everyone keep thinking English is the solution to global communication.

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I would *love* to see this article translated into a range of languages and linked to prominently. I'm sure we could link it from the LinuxChix web site at least.

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The best way to fully learn a language is to actually use the language. My primary language is English. I have tried to learn other languages but I have not done well because I never used them and I would not speak up. Of course, I suggest taking English language courses to help build confidence.

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@ Eugene Lazutkin (Apr. 28):

"FLOSS is mostly an American phenomenon". Not exactly:

See, for example, USA vs Germany.


P.S. my English is really bad...

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I agree your opinion:

"Many of the people who have expressed concern about their English were, while not quite fluent, certainly proficient enough to be understood."

I'm Japanese and sometimes I hear "poor Japanese" talked by non-native Japanese speakers. I can understand almost of their words, because I am a native Japanese spearker. I think native speaker can read more meaning from "bad" words.

This post is very good. Thanks for "spread the word".

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I´ve taught esl for some years and I do notice their main problem is fear.

I´ve shared this post in order to make students see that fear will take them nowhere, they have to try, and realize the more they try, the more they speak the more secure they´ll be. Really thanks!

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Less apologising, more putting effort into articulating yourself. I'm a non-native speaker but certainly can spot the difference between trying to learn and being lazy and sloppy. I'll put up with the former, not with the latter. In the end there should be less bad english, especially from natives (*hint*), and more thoughtful discourse.

We're shooting for improvement, not for more unintelligible garble. I think that's the sentiment in the "stop apologising", anyway. And yes, the only way to improve is to practice, practice, practice, with just that bit of grammar and words to ease the way.

But for your message to be worth another's time, it must be clear you've done your utmost to reach out and share. For reference, this is echoed in EWD1300 (google it). We're all pressed for time and few of us are archeologists for brilliance hidden under poor language skills. As a non-native speaker, you get leeway, but you're expected to try and improve. As a native speaker, shit, you've been to school, haven't you?

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I think you're actually highlighting a nuance of the English language without realizing it.

When you say "Excuse me, do you know what time it is?" -- you're asking to be excused for the possibility that you're interrupting someone's state of being, whatever it may be. 99% of the time we don't expect to actually need to be excused, however. It's a form of politeness, a show of respect.

Similarly, when someone says "I'm sorry for my bad English" I don't think they say this because they feel bad or feel like a burden usually. That might be true *sometimes* but most of the time it's just a sign of respect. The intention is first and foremost to say "I do not speak good English". But saying this comes with the knowledge that, as such, you may make it more work for someone else to communicate with you, and so out of respect you add the apology.

I think it's a fine thing to say, and is respectful.

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