How Can We Get More Non-English Speakers Contributing to WordPress?

3 minute read

There are more WordPress users who are non-English speakers, yet nearly all code contributors to WordPress are fluent in English. That sounds problematic to me. Why is that, and can anything be done to fix this situation?

Huge Potential in Non-English-Speaking Contributors

There is an interesting inconstancy in the WordPress community:

  1. from my observations, most WordPress core contributors in Slack and Trac are very proficient in English (either they’re native English speakers or their English is so good they may as well be)
  2. according to surveys, most users of WordPress are from countries where English is not their first language.

It seems to me that English-speaking countries are disproportionately over-represented among WordPress contributors. If there are more non-English users, why aren’t there more non-English contributors? Why are English speakers more likely to contribute and non-English speakers more likely to just consume?
This represents a major mis-alignment. English speakers are making decisions about software used primarily by non-English speakers- a minority making decisions for the majority has always led to trouble (think of basically any national revolution).
I think WordPress has grown so much in non-English speaking countries because of its efforts to democratize publishing– anyone, even non-English speakers, should be able to setup, use, and modify WordPress. And it seems to be pretty successful at that. But if those non-English speakers contributed to WordPress proportionately as much as they used it, not only would their needs be met, but we’d double the number of contributors.

Why is Contributing to WordPress Core so Hard for Non-English Speakers?

For starters, because the code and all the communications are in English only. (Whereas interface and documentation are well translated.) As an English speaking developer, a few times I’ve had to deal with documentation and code written in another language and it’s a pain. At Event Espresso, I’ve advocated doubling the cost for such work because of the trouble working in another language.
But for WordPress it’s not just a matter of contributors needing to run everything through google translate. Contributing to software in a foreign language isn’t like just using software written in a foreign language. Here’s the additional difficulties I see:

  1. There are lots of technical and slang terms in use (eg PHP and IMO), many of which you don’t find in a translation dictionary or Google Translate
  2. When contributing to code, you’re often explaining half-developed, abstract ideas (I have enough trouble with that with my team and we’re all fluent English speakers). What’s more, you not only need to explain an idea to others, you need to convince them your solution is the best and worth the effort. That takes a lot of well-placed words.
  3. Native English speakers use lots of filler words, often to be polite. Eg a fluent English speaker might say “if you don’t mind, go ahead and implement the fix at your leisure”, whereas a non-fluent English speaker might just say “fix it.” This means non-fluent English speakers both have trouble understanding others, even when they’re fairly good at English, and come off as rude to others.
  4. Besides just talking about software, a big part of contributing to code is convincing others that they’re not wasting their time with you- that you’ll give more than you take and be won’t be a jerk. When your English is only good enough to convey information, but not build rapport, you’ll often get brushed off as a nuisance.
  5. Lastly, there are lots of unspoken rules about contributing to open source, many of which I’m still learning after being involved in it for over 5 years. For example, I recently heard if you want to help in an upcoming release of WordPress, you really ought to be involved from the planning stage. If you appear online with suggestions a few days before the first beta release, your suggestions are too late to actually help, and so your contributions won’t be as well-received.

So What can be Done?

I think excellent work is being done to make WordPress usable by non-fluent English speakers, as the results show. But facilitating them contributing in an English-only environment is hard. Here’s some ideas:

  1. Give them the benefit of the doubt. When they say “give me reply”, mentally insert the formal filler words like “please give me a reply when you can”
  2. Be patient. They might need to explain their ideas twice, as might you.
  3. Be straightforward. Explain your ideas simply and succinctly, avoiding slang terms. This is probably a good idea anyway, as it takes great mastery of a subject to explain it simply.

Those are my ideas anyway. Pretty unsatisfactory, I know. I’ve been a non-native speaker a few times, but rarely a non-native speaking developer. I don’t have the answers to the problem, but I do think we should start by acknowledging there is a problem– or at least, that there’s an opportunity. We need more non-fluent English speaking contributors.
What do you think can be done to help get more non-English contributors involved in WordPress?

3 thoughts on “How Can We Get More Non-English Speakers Contributing to WordPress?

  1. I also recently had a GitHub interaction that sparked some of these thoughts:
    I got the impression @webpetal was accustomed to getting brushed off because their slightly-less-than-fluent English. I think I may have been guilty of that before, subconsciously thinking that if someone doesn’t speak English well, they also don’t know anything about programming. Looking at it now, it seems clear those two attributes are independent.

  2. While watching a presentation by Jenny Beaumont, see, I learned many French-speaking WordPress users are reluctant to contribute because it all happens in English.
    Jenny pointed out, though, that
    1. Most French speakers have had at least some education in English,
    2. You don’t need to be a great English speaker, you just need to be able to get your message across (although I do think that being tactful requires a pretty good knowledge of English)
    3. Many other contributors don’t speak English fluently either anyway

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