Speaking different languages

As a dutchman living in Quebec, Canada – one of those parts of the world where francophones (french-speaking people) are surrounded by anglophones (english-speaking people) and yet thrive speaking french almost exclusively – I sometimes run into the “corner cases” of language related coding standards – e.g. the language comments are supposed to be written in.

In the computing industry, english is the de-facto language of choice for correspondence and documentation. Maybe in some more-or-less-distant future that will be mandarin, but I kinda doubt it. Most source files are presented to the compiler in ASCII, a 7-bit encoding that encodes most of the Latin alphabet – i.e. the subset used in english – and is sufficient to encode all of the C and C++ language’s operators, functions, keywords, etc. That, of course, should come as no surprise.

What might come as a surprise to some is that the french language cannot be encoded in ASCII: french uses a lot of Latin letters – or glyphs I believe they’re called – that are no available in ASCII because they have something added to them w.r.t. the ASCII equivalent. For example, “how are you”, which the French literally ask as “how it goes”, is written, in french, as “comment ça va?”. “That won’t work” translates to “ça ne marchera pas”, etc. In “extended ASCII” – an 8-bit variant of ASCII, the C-cedil (ç) is character number 135.

Some compilers choke on such characters – most modern ones don’t, but some still do – which leads to a strange kind of IM-french in comments, which comes pretty close to being unreadable, even for francophones. As a result of this, some corporate coding standards have started banning french from the comments, mandating english-only in stead. This has two effects, both of which are far from desirable. First, it’s illegal for companies of more than 50 employees because of Quebec’s language laws, which impose on companies that they have to allow for a french-speaking working environment for their employees (even for non-native non-french-speaking employees that aren’t Canadian). This means that companies that enact such coding standards can face heavy fines unless they can justify the use of english (i.e. justify that the source code is to be read by anglophones – e.g. customers).

The second undesirable effect is that the quality of the english is often.. (let me put this mildly) lacking. This results in the comments – and parts of the code – being in a language commonly called “franglais”: a weird mix of french and english that is hard to understand unless you read it out loud with a french accent and know it’s this weird mix.

I’ve also seen one coding standard in which the norm is to use your own native language – which is presumably the language you can write best in and which assumes that everyone on the team can read the native languages of everyone else (or that comments aren’t all that important). When I came accross this one, I pointed out that there would probably be no-one on the team that would be able to read dutch. They corrected me: there was another dutchman in the company but they agreed that I should write my comments in either english or french – which was (supposedly) what was meant by the standard’s authors.

Running into these little issues is a good way to poke fun at our differences. I hardly think it illustrates anything other than “two-dimentional thinking” (as Spock said about Kahn in Star Trek II): intelligence without experience; and I would tend to argue that the same kind of flaw is apparent in Quebec’s language laws, but I guess protecting one’s national identity must sometimes take precedence over productivity.

About rlc

Software Analyst in embedded systems and C++, C and VHDL developer, I specialize in security, communications protocols and time synchronization, and am interested in concurrency, generic meta-programming and functional programming and their practical applications. I take a pragmatic approach to project management, focusing on the management of risk and scope. I have over two decades of experience as a software professional and a background in science.
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3 Responses to Speaking different languages

  1. This topic is quite interesting. You have some experience at programing in France I believe, how does it compare? What about the Netherlands?

    • Hi Michel,

      Yes, I do have work experience in France, in Paris. The situation there is quite different: they are not surrounded by anglophones and can safely assume that everyone speaks only french, so the working language is french, as are all internal documents.

      Comments, however, are usually written in the same mixture of english and french as they are here in Quebec, although the “franglicismes” – the newly minted words that are a mash-up between french and english – are different, mostly because there are less purely french words that replace english words and are commonly used (which may seem surprising).

      As an example, take “E-mail”. In France, they use the english word (E-mail) rather than the new french “courriel”. The “académie française” (which is a group of so-called “immortals” of literary prowess) only recently adopted the word “courriel” but it is still not widely used.

      AFAIK, it is not illegal, in France, to write internal documentation in english, no matter the size of the company. However, it is very unlikely that all of your colleagues will be able to read the document if you don’t write it in french. They are usually also a lot more pedantic on the grammar and spelling of the written french, which stems from the way they are taught in school. This means, for example, that two words that are pronounced the same but do not mean the same thing are not as interchangeable in French french as in Québécois french. One striking example is the use of é vs. er (regardé vs. regarder) which are used very interchangeably here in Quebec. The kind of spelling and grammar “mistakes” that this incurs would be frowned upon in France.

      In the Netherlands, everyone is expected to speak at least one other language – usually english – and be proficient in that other language. In computing, you are usually expected to be fluent in english. The Netherlands are simply too small to be able to refuse, as much as the french do, to speak another language. I hardly have any professional experience developing in the Netherlands, so I wouldn’t want to comment on the dutch software development culture too much, but I’d expect there to be far less mangling of either language.

      Also, dutch uses the same subset of the Latin character set as english with hardly any additions (there are actually a few, but not that many and you can get around them) so I’d be surprised if a compiler would choke on correctly written dutch comments.

  2. paercebal says:

    Hi Ronald,

    We worked together for a few months in Pars, and yes, the language was french.

    I now work at GLTrade/Sungard, which means that our code and comments must be in english. There’s no way to avoid it, as we have developers all around the world (Australia, Tunisia, Hong Kong, etc.).

    The result is sometimes a “*glish”, each local writting his/her own version of english comments. But not matter that, english is an easy enough language to be understandable by all people in the teams, including those not confortable enough with the language…

    Bye !

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