antirez 3949 days ago. 369454 views.
Paul Graham managed to put a very important question, the one of the English language as a requirement for IT workers, in the attention zone of news sites and software developers [1]. It was a controversial matter as he referred to "foreign accents" and the internet is full of people that are just waiting to overreact, but this is the least interesting part of the question, so I'll skip that part. The important part is, no one talks about the "English problem" usually, and I always felt a bit alone in that side, like if it was a problem only affecting me, so in this blog post I want to share my experience about English.

[1] http://paulgraham.com/accents.html

A long story

I still remember me and sullivan (http://www.isg.rhul.ac.uk/sullivan/) both drunk in my home in Milan trying to turn an attack I was working on, back in 1998, in a post that was understandable for BUGTRAQ users, and this is the poor result we obtained: http://seclists.org/bugtraq/1998/Dec/79

Please note the "Instead all others" in the second sentence. I'm still not great at English but I surely improved over 15 years, and sullivan now teaches in US and UK universities so I imagine he is totally fluent (spoiler warning: I'm still not). But here the point is, we were doing new TCP/IP attacks but we were not able to freaking write a post about it in English. It was 1998 and I already felt extremely limited by the fact I was not able to communicate, I was not able to read technical documentation written in English without putting too much efforts in the process of reading itself, so my brain was using like 50% of its energy to just read, and less was left to actually understand what I was reading.

However in one way or the other I always accepted English as a good thing. I always advice people against translation efforts in the topic of technology, since I believe that it is much better to have a common language to document and comment the source code, and actually to obtain the skills needed to understand written technical documentation in English is a simple effort for most people.

So starting from 1998 I slowly learned to fluently read English without making more efforts compared to reading something written in Italian.
I even learned to write at the same speed I wrote stuff in Italian, even if I hit a local minima in this regard, as you can see reading this post: basically I learned to write very fast a broken subset of English, that is usually enough to express my thoughts in the field of programming, but it is not good enough to write about general topics. I don't know most of the words needed to refer to objects you find in a kitchen for example, or the grammar constructs needed to formulate complex sentences, hypothetical structures, and so forth. As I now can communicate easily in the topic I care most, and in a way that other people can more or less understand everything I write, the pressure to improve has diminished greatly… However I recently discovered that this was the minor of my problems with English.

European English, that funny language

So while I managed to eventually write and read comfortably enough for my needs, I almost never experienced actual communication in an English speaking country until recently. Before that I always used English with other european (non UK) people, such as French, German, Spanish people.
Now the English spoken in these countries is the English spoken at English school lessons… Phonetically it has almost nothing to do with American or UK English. They say it is "BBC English" but actually it is not. It is a phonetically greatly simplified English that uses UK English grammar.

*That* version of English, actually allows people from around the world to communicate easily. The basic grammar is trivial to grasp, and in a few months of practice you can talk. The sound of the words is almost the same in all the non-UK speaking countries in Europe. So it works great.

There is just one problem, it has nothing to do with the real English spoken in UK, US, Canada, and other countries where English is a native language.

English is a bit broken, after all

Now I've a secret for you, that is everything but a secret except nobody says it in the context of English VS The World: English is a broken language, phonetically.
In Italy we have a long history, but a very late political unification. Different regions talk different dialects, and people have super strong accents. Before 1950, when the "TV Language Unification" happened, everybody was still taking with their *dialects* and italian was only mastered by a small percentage of people. Sicilian itself, the language talked the most by my family, predates Italian by centuries (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sicilian_language*).

Still, guess what, nobody has issues understanding one of another region, or even from a Switzerland canton. Italian is phonetically one of the simplest languages on the earth, and is full of redundancy. It has, indeed, a low information entropy and usually words are long with a good mix of consonants and vocals in every word. There are no special rules to pronounce a word, if you know the sound of every single letter, plus the sound of a few special combination of letters like "gl<vocal>", "sc<vocal>", you can basically pronounce 99.9% of the words correctly just reading them for the first time.

The fact that people from different English speaking countries have issues communicating is already a big hint about how odd is English phonetically.
For instance for me and many other non native English speakers it is very very very hard to understand what the fuck an UK people is telling. North Americans are a lot simpler usually.

Because of this "feature" of English the problem for me is not just my accent, that is IMHO the simplest thing to fix if I'll try to fix it putting enough work into it, but the ability to understand what people are saying to me. IMHO the fact that Paul Graham refers to "accents" is a bad attitude of UK/US people in this regard, hey guys, you are not understanding us, we are not understanding what you say as well, and it is hard to find people that, once your understanding limits are obvious, will try to slow down the pace of the conversation. Often even if I say I did not understand, I'll get the same sentence repeated the same at speed of light.

Learning written english as a first exposure is the killer

In my opinion one fact that made me so slow learning English is the fact that I started reading English without never ever listening to it.
My brain is full of associations between written words and funny sounds that really don't exist in the actual language.
My advice is that if you are learning English now, start listening as soon as possible to spoken English.

The osx "say" program is a good assistant, it is able to pronounce in a decent way most English words. NEVER learn a new word without learning what is its sound.

Introvert or extrovert?

One of the things that shocked me the most with my experience with the English language is how not mastering a language can switch you into an introvert. I'm an extrovert in Italy where most people are extroverts, in Sicily where there are even more extroverts, and inside my family that is composed mostly of extroverts. I'm kinda of an attention whore I guess (I hope I'm not, actually, but well, I'm very extrovert). Now when I have to talk in English, I'm no longer an extrovert anymore because of the communication barrier, and I regret every time I've to go to a meeting, or to be introduced to another person. It is a nightmare.

It's too late, let's study English

English in my opinion is only simple grammatically, but is a bad pick as a common language. However the reality is, it already won, there is no time to change it, and it is a great idea to talk in English better, even if this means to put a lot of efforts into it. This is what I'm doing myself, I'm trying to improve.

Another reason I find myself really in need to improve my English is that in 10 years I'll likely no longer write code professionally, and a logical option is to switch into the management side of IT, or to handle big projects where you are not supposed to write the bulk of the code. Well, if you think you need English as a developer, you'll need it a lot more as you go in other divisions of a typical IT company, even if you "just" have to actually manage many programmers.

However as a native English speaker you should really realize that a lot of people are doing serious efforts to learn a language that is hard to learn: it is not an hobby, to master English is a big effort that a lot of people are trying to do to make communication simpler. Without to mention how trivial is to go back in the learning process as long as you stop talking / listening for a couple of weeks…

My long term hope is that soon or later different accents could converge into a standard easy-to-understand one that the English speaking population could use as a lingua franca.
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