Programming and Programmer Languages: Beyond "Hello World"?

Interesting discussion (of old) on the StackExchange blog podcast about coding in other natural languages.

Other than English, that is.

So,should programming languages should be localized or not? The podcast mentions the case of Microsoft Excel’s Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) language, which was localized from US English (the source/target paradigm framing the discussion is revealing in itself). The practice was not continued. I should disclose I was a Microsoft employee at the time. I should also disclose that I have no clue as to why the decision was made and then reversed. Perhaps someone can enlighten us? It is not the only language that Microsoft localized by the way. WordBasic, the Word for Windows forerunner to VBA was also localized into a number of major languages. Pretty much all trace of these localization initiatives appear to have been scrubbed from memory and Internet alike.


German localization of Microsoft WordBasic: Whatever were they thinking? (Source)

Given the expense, effort and care we see in localizing UIs and documentation, I do wonder though why some programming or scripting language functions and names are not localized, particularly the visual ones used in language-sensitive countries, regions or markets, or by particular types of end users of software.

A matter of user experience I expect, though from a technical and business perspective it is easy to see how English language-based programming facilitates open source, open standards and global development efforts. What a pain it would be to have to learn say, French as well as the Java language!

Wikipedia has a list of Non-English-based programming languages, by the way.

As for the thought that all programmers need to speak English (and American English at that), or at least English to some level, there is a lot of energy from within the development community itself on the subject (all of it in favor of English, no surprise). Check out this somewhat unappealing titled Ugly American Programmer piece on the Coding Horror blog for a start.

Some think developers themselves are part of the problem, perpetrating a myth about not speaking English well. Others say it’s essential for developers have functional English to be a “hacker”, others say English is mandatory because programming languages aren’t localized, and others posit that a lack of English betrays a lack of passion and interest in technology generally. Some have even turned developers grappling with English into an whole comedy act on Twitter (@devops_borat).

Read into it. Make up your own mind. But consider this: English is clearly the lingua franca of programming. But what about all that information around the language itself: The documentation, the community forums, the support organizations, the development conferences, and the customers for developed applications? And, does not speaking or reading English play so well with the stakeholders and ecosystem that surrounds software development?

How often have we, as localization professionals, heard the claim that “Oh, we’re not localizing that UI/demo/developmentguide because developers/administrators/technicians all speak English anyway”?

But, do we even have the research to back up the argument either way?

Ultan Ó Broin
Ultan Ó Broin (@localization), is an independent UX consultant. With three decades of UX and L10n experience and outreach, he specializes in helping people ensure their global digital transformation makes sense culturally and also reflects how users behave locally. Any views expressed are his own. Especially the ones you agree with.


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