Echo Chambers

In keeping with his long tradition of thoughtfully incendiary blogging, Jeff Atwood of Coding Horror posted on the necessity/efficiency of English as a lingua franca for software developers.

Advocating the adoption of English as the de-facto standard language of software development is simple pragmatism, the most virtuous of all hacker traits. If that makes me an ugly American programmer, so be it.

So it goes, and it was, I’m sure, a reminder to native English speakers that they are fortunate to not have to learn another language in order to communicate with other software developers around the world. As you would expect if you were a frequent Coding Horror reader, the comments were full of offended and well-meaning developers who were angry at connotations of cultural imperialism. While communication would be streamlined if everyone spoke a common language, it would certainly be a shame to lose the world’s other languages.

When the story was posted to Slashdot – presumably a more rational and international community, the comments seemed to me to revolve more around a discussion of the use of English as a necessary common medium for code, comments, and technical documentation. There were vivid handfuls of stories from non-native English speakers on how they learned English – whether from Sesame Street, the Internet, or grade school. Snarky debates about the linguistic heritage of English, the relative usability of it, and so on. Fine points and spirited back and forth. All in all, nearly the opposite of the posts on Jeff’s blog. In all, the Slashdot echo chamber has a different shape that at this point reverberated with sounds of logical discussion. Particularly interesting to me was this post:

However, the main reason why finns speak pretty decent english is our school system. Studying english is mandatory from grades 3 to 9 in the elementary school and any route you continue from there also requires you to study english. We believe that in the modern world it is just a basic requirement for everyone to understand the same language.

I agree, a common language is necessary. Already the ability to speak the de facto language of the internet is a huge asset, for the individual and for all of us. More intriguingly, why the huge difference? The medium is similar.