Is English speaking necessary for developers?

There’s been quite a few blog posts and tweets lately around the following (slightly distorted) quote:

“If you don’t know English, you’re not a programmer”

The original quote was a little different but almost as offensive so I won’t dignify it with a link. The best discussion on this quote can probably be found on Scott’s blog. It quickly morphed into a discussion on whether you needed to speak English to be a *great* developer. I still disagree with this simply because I know several excellent developers who speak little or no English. Of course I won’t disagree that it’s harder, and that knowing English certainly is a (big) plus.

But rather than rehashing various arguments I’d like to bring some perspective to this topic.

Please try to imagine for just a minute how different your world would be if Chinese developers were the overwhelmingly dominant community in the field. This is actually not that far fetched and might actually happen at some point in the future. After a while, wouldn’t a good part of the literature be available in Chinese only? So in this hypothesis, let me ask you…

Would you then be willing to learn Chinese? Would you then agree with the following?

“如果你不会英文, 你就不是一个程序员”

(Thanks to Hong Li for the translation)


  • Je serais pas d'accord! You'd need to speak Chinese!

    More seriously, I think that either having access to good translations or being able to speak the main language is mandatory if you wish to master a field.

    Obviously, English is too simple a language to have successful translations of programming books (just have a look at the French O'Reilly chapter that went bankrupt a few months ago).

    However, I do think that the English-speaking world is too self centered, and does not wish (in its vast majority) to reach for the resources and talents in other languages. The lingua franca is English today, but I think things would (will?) be very different if an other language becomes the main technical language.

    I'm not sure Russian and Chinese hackers know English, though. And they are apparently not THAT bad :P

  • Shows up as a bunch of boxes for me. I think that we benefit from a common language in the software development world in the same way air traffic control is all conducted in one language (English). That said, I can in no way defend that initial comment, as it simply isn't true.

  • if you don't know English, it is very hard to become a great programmer.

    My 2 cents.

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