As a native English speaker I’ve had a distinct advantage in learning how to program. I know I’ve taken this for granted numerous times, and I’m willing to bet other natively English-speaking developers have too.
Every once in a while though I find myself working on a project in other languages. Much like trying to navigate in a foreign city where you don’t read or speak the language or fully understand the street signs, it can be a little disorienting and humbling. I always emerge with a greater appreciation for multilingual people.
Some memorable occasions where code and language collided for me:
Earlier in my freelance career I was asked to debug some ActionScript for a Flash-based project (I’ve been around a while). I was not overly familiar with ActionScript, but to make matters more challenging the project owner had hired a firm in Brazil to do the original build. The site was well documented, but it was all in Portuguese, which I do not speak. I remember I had Google Translate open in another tab to copy & paste the comments into as I tried to parse what parts were doing what.
I had a very basic request for a long-standing client to help them change DNS records for their new host and email service we’d setup. When the time came I learned the owner of the various sites we’d been working on was based in Germany, and though they had registered the site at 1and1, which I was familiar with, I had to use their German language portal to access the DNS records. I’m not a fan of 1and1’s services in general, but navigating their crappy portal in a language I don’t speak was an extra layer of frustration, though thankfully I also saw a bit of humor in the whole situation.
I was asked to provide a Chinese translation for an event registration website. The language was provided in an email, which I simply had to copy and paste into the correct place. This went fine, but it definitely drove home the face I had no idea what was on the page, that I knew nothing about how to format the text or change the font, if that request had come in. Also, though not really part of my job, I like to proofread the things clients provide, even if its only a quick glance. In this instance I could’ve been pasting complete gibberish for all I knew.
I promised to take a look at my relatives’ website for their men’s clothing business an give a few thoughts and pointers, particularly about getting e-commerce up and running so they could actually sell things online. This business is based out of a small-is town outside of Belgrade, Serbia. Despite my efforts, I do not speak passable Serbo-Croatian (Moj srpski je sranje, brate), and people really do not buy things online much at all over there as it turns out, though that’s starting to change. The feedback I realized I could give turned out to be surprisingly limited. Even giving rudimentary SEO advice when you don’t speak the language is a funny thing — “So, on this page where you’re selling shirts, let’s be sure to have shirt in the title and your main navigation… so, which word is shirt again?”