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Why you should use English versions of your OS and other software

Even though I’m writing this blog in English, I know I have a considerable number of readers in non-English-speaking countries, such as my native Poland. This post is for them. If you are American, British, Australian, New Zealand(ish?)Kiwi — sorry, there’s nothing for you here. See you next week.

Now for the rest of you. As you can probably figure out from the title, I’m going to try to convince you to use English versions of your software. Now, I am the webmaster of a site which tells you how to learn English, so you might expect I would tell you how daily exposure to English menu items, system messages, help files, and all the other textual UI elements will program your brain with correct English. (Which, by the way, would all be true.)

But today I’m not going to write about the importance of getting English input every chance you get. Instead, I will give you a very practical reason to install English versions of your operating system and other software rather than versions localized in your native language.

Suppose you have just updated the drivers for your nVidia card. Unfortunately, something has gone wrong and every time you reboot your machine you see the following error message:

Sterownik ekranu przestał działać, ale odzyskał sprawność.

(The error message is in Polish because, in this example, we will assume you are Polish and use the Polish version of Windows.) “Motyla noga”, you curse to yourself while opening your Web browser. If there’s one thing you’ve learned online, it’s that the Internet has the answer to your computer question. Other people must have had the same problem and there must be a forum post somewhere which has the solution.

But what are you going to type into Google? What keywords would be likely to occur in this forum post you want to find? In all likelihood, the poster would have quoted the error message itself.

Except they would have quoted it in English, not Polish. Let’s face it — it is much more probable that the solution to your problem is posted on one of the many English-language tech forums than on one of the few Polish-language ones. A Google Groups search on “nVidia” turns up 17,000,000 group threads in English and only 211,000 in Polish (1/80 of the English figure).

So now you’re stuck with your Polish error message, trying to figure out the exact words the English version might have used. “The screen driver has failed?” “Malfunctioned?” “Stopped working?”

Of course, I have an English-language version of Windows, so if I am having computer issues, I can simply read the English error message off the screen (in our example it’s “The display driver has stopped responding and has successfully recovered”), type that magic phrase into Google together with the name of the malfunctioning device or application and boom! — within minutes I’m reading about the secret registry setting that makes it all okay.

Now that I think about it, having an English-language version of Windows probably accounts for something like 30% of my troubleshooting ability. Moreover, using English-language software is useful not only when troubleshooting — I find it equally helpful when I just want to learn how to do something in Windows, Office, Photoshop or even a Web app like GMail. I can just search on the names I see instead of wondering what is the English name for warstwy dopasowania (adjustment layers). And I can apply the solution more easily because I don’t have to translate all the names back into Polish.

It would perhaps behoove me to give you “the other side” of the argument, but the matter seems pretty clear-cut to me: If you want to get help with your software (and who doesn’t?), it helps to use the same version that most of the potential helpers use. And with this, I leave you.

42 Comments so far

  • yogeshp

    I do completely agree with you on this…… We should use English version of software. This will eventually solve many problems…. and helps us get answers to most of computer related problems….

  • Stecki

    You are absolutely right about that. There often is another important reason for using the English-language-version: Access to early-releases and early-access to updates. Many products/uopdates are released in English first and only later on translated. So if you rely on fast updates for functionality or security, you HAVE to use english versions.

    • Bieńkowski

      But isn’t that _wrong_? Why would you possibly want to limit new releases/features/updates to only a small section of your customer base?

      In a free market users’ demands for equal access to early releases would cause the company to distribute early releases in more than just English.

      • Karel Bílek

        Local languages don’t make sense in ideal free market.

        Problem is – translating things is hard. It takes non-trivial time and effort to translate things to all the languages in the world.

        Most often, English version of software is done first. Then, it’s translated to other languages. Should the main English version wait, until all the local translations are done, or should it be released first and the local languages later?

      • Nathan

        It’s not a question of “want[ing] to limit new releases/features/updates” to only English-language users.

        It’s just a question of resources. Most US developers (and many/most Indian) developers write their documentation, comments, and products in English first.

        Then, the product is handed over to a separate team for translation and localization. In a perfect world, that localization step would take no time and no money. But in a competitive market, developers often prefer to release the product as soon as its ready to the English market rather than waiting for the localization step to take place and then doing a synchronized release.

  • obdghe

    I do that too=)

  • Ola Thoresen

    My experience is the exact opposite – but the conclusion is the same.
    Always, if I have an obscure error message, and try to google after it, the only other people who have had the same problem are either chinese, russian or polish =;-)
    And they have ofcourse explained in great detail in their own language how to fix it…

  • Greg

    I really agree too… Coming from Hungary, now in Taiwan, all the computers at a (supposedly) quite international workplace are Chinese only. Being the geek, I’ve been asked so many times how to fix things that inevitably go wrong – well, most of the time good luck with that! Most of the time I have to compare it to my English version system to figure out what could the messages mean. Extra point for windows error messages which you cannot copy paste. 😉

    • Paul Betts

      Actually, you can copy-paste standard message boxes, just hit “Ctrl-C” when you get the “Ok / Cancel” dialog to copy an ASCII version of the dialog to the clipboard.

  • Hugues

    I also set all my software to english for this and also because usually translations are second (or worse) grade. Either too literal or too abstract to correctly figure what it should mean. This is especially true for Adobe products but even Apple has literaly translated Windows (the product) to windows (the transparent thingy) in its most recent installer (this is for french, I don’t know if the other translators are more clever).

  • Jānis Veinbergs

    Hard to agree as people from other countries may poorly understand English.

    That’s a big problem to learn new computer (If you had context menu with items: Afgdfguw, Eetgreg, Uga, Boo, which would you choose?)

    If problems occur then, anyway, regular users are not those who would try and would fix them.

    For an experienced user, sure, use language you want and if you can’t find a solution to your trouble, try different keywords. Or reinstall nVidia driver in english version.

  • Kai

    Swiss-german Mac user here. Even though my english is more than adequate and my peers use english software, I make a point in using the german versions. I value the comfort higher than the potential to resolve issues easy.

    And when a problem arises (about 1x per month), I can quickly switch to english (os x app bundles are multilingual for the most part), find the english reference text, google it, solve it.

  • Jean-Philippe Gariépy

    I’d say this is a rather weak reason to use software in english. However I can’t deny the fact that it would make error message lookup harder in Google. So for those of you who write localized software, it a good idea to add a numerical ID to error messages (à la SQLSTATE) in order to help error lookup. Nonetheless, it turns that ironically your “Sterownik ekranu przestał działać, ale odzyskał sprawność.” example yields hits on Google.

    A better reason to use the english versions would be that translations are often very poor. This might not apply to OSes but it’s true for smaller applications. Sometimes we just can’t figure out what the intent is in the UI. Translations are often done partially, which is worse. Also, there is a lack of consistency in technical vocabulary for non-english languages.

    In Québec, linguistic laws require companies to have all software in french when available french. This often leaves no choice for the user but to use the french version.

  • pbmonster

    I mostly agree with you, although I guess getting help on error messages is not such an issue for a native german speaker (7M hits for “nvidia” on google).
    more important on my part are badly localised software and the annoying german habit to use the comma as the decimal separator…

  • Bieńkowski

    What about people who were too poor to afford learning English? Isn’t there a solid counter argument for advanced computer users to contribute to non-English documentation to help the underprivileged cross the digital divide?

    Ubuntu has a very good system for translating documentation, and applications. Perhaps a good exercise for your readers is to use these tools to translate English documentation into their native language?

    • Karel Bílek

      These people should use local versions.

      But this article is aimed at people, that can already read English. But it doesn’t say “Hey, let’s stop translating it, it is useless.” – noone says that, I think

  • maht

    Similar to my advice for Unix / Plan 9 users :

    Buy a US keyboard because :
    1) that will be the default
    2) remote systems assuem that’s the default
    3) key combinations are devised by people with a US keyboard

  • calder

    Stop using national characters, because plain ASCII is the most compatible character set. Not to mention abandoning UTF-8, because most websites use ISO-8859-1 code page.
    And good luck explaining to your friend how to fix his/her problem with operating system: “Click on… errr… in your system it will be called something like… eee… you have to search a big icon with a globe and computer mouse near it…”

  • yo

    I do that. but japanese can’t speak , read and write English.

  • Zhao

    Part of the reason why you have less google search result in Polish is that your language is not used as wide as English and the internet community is relatively small. But consider a much widely used language (than Polish), e.g. my native Chinese, we have quit a big internet community thus I think your point only holds for small Languages.

    • Tomasz

      Google Groups returns only 472,000 results for “nVidia” in Chinese (simplified and traditional combined). That’s still 1/36 of the English figure. I am assuming here that “nVidia” would not be transliterated into hanzi. Please correct if wrong.

      • Zhao

        Hi, I forget about this comment for a long time. I don’t know how you searched for Chinese pages, but I search Chinese pages of “nVidia” in (the second option below search bar), it returns 12,800,000 results, and that is about 1/4 of English results (58,200,000). Plus, indeed there is a Chinese translation for nVidia, “英伟达”, but people don’t use as often as the original name (~2,540,000 search results).

        I am trying to say that as long as the community is large enough, the power is not negligible. Moreover, if some software are used more within that community (e.g. ssh software to against GFW in China), sometimes there are more results than in English, and not to mention the convenience reading your native language.

  • carlos

    The same applies for web sites. For example, if you want to use the newest version of some sites, they appear in english first.

  • Aengus

    And, conversely, when I asked a completely (un-nerdy) friend of mine what the best things about being multilingual were, she said one of the top reasons had to be the ability to search for things on google — especially google images — in different languages.

    Works both ways, I guess, but in this instance, I can definitely see your point.

  • Nathan

    Good point, but really, software should give a numerical code with each error, so that you can look for that number in any language.

  • Andres Grino

    Yes! What “registro” means?: a) registry?; b) record?; c) log?
    My epiphany comes when I found this word in a manual: “cierre en anillo”. After getting the english version, I learnt that it’s mean “wrap-around”.

  • Eric TF Bat

    The closest I’ve ever come to speaking or reading Polish was singing Gorecki in a choir, but I have an added point to support what you say.

    I use Ubuntu Linux. For a long time, I used the KDE variant, Kubuntu. But any time I had trouble, I would google for help and get extensive advice on how to fix it… in the Gnome version, which is the default. (Gnome and KDE are windows managers. Imagine if different companies other than Microsoft all sold incompatible windowing systems for MS Windows, all of them running on top of the operating system, but with a task bar over here in one, or up there in another, and so on. That’s Linux.)

    So six months ago I upgraded to the Gnome version, and consciously decided to use all the software that came with it instead of choosing my preferred versions. The result has been as you said: it’s much easier to find answers.

  • Dennis Gorelik

    There are lots of other reasons to use English-version software:
    – It tends to be more reliable.
    – It gets new features earlier.
    – Bugs are fixed earlier.

    It’s also helpful to speak the same language.
    There is little advantage and a lot of overhead when using 100+ different languages on Internet.

  • Jorge

    If you know English in a proficient enough level I don’t see a reason not to use all your software in English. If you share a computer with your family you can have the same software in your native language for them.

    P.S. English is the language is the of the internet anyways, so I rather use English instead of my native language.

  • wildchild

    Agree with you. Also:

    – Lots of localized open source software sucks (Gnome, KDE for example)

    – In applications like Photoshop it’s easy to find required menu item or effect.

    I am also using english UI of my cell phone 🙂

  • Niko Schwarz

    I couldn’t agree more with your argument. Your argument, however, only explains why having everything in one language is good, not why that one language needs to be English.

    I hereby propose publishing all of your software henceforth only in – German.

  • dontWannaPounceBut

    @Niko You see, I love my native language too. But having everything in English makes sense. Its easily the most commonly spoken language on Earth. Keyboards are designed with English in mind. There are many language scripts for which keyboards are perhaps merely painful adaptations – nothing close to being ideal input devices for those.

    Perhaps English is already most common language used on internet and in software interfaces too. So, why not take advantage of that fact instead of wasting resources based on petty differences?

  • Dennis Gorelik

    @Niko Schwarz: why German? It’s not even in top 3 most popular world languages.

  • Srikanth

    We can always use google translator or for getting the translation. But i accept it may not be that exact to the english version error message and that helpful.

  • czesiu

    This post reminds me the polish translation of musical compatibilty meter:

    Your musical compatibility with … is Very Low

    Twoje porównanie z użytkownikiem … wypada: Fatalnie

    My translation back to english:
    Compared to user … you really suck

    Feel free to provide more close translation, I hope I’ve got the general sense right 🙂

    just noticed: it seems google translate now gets it wrong too|en|Twoje%20por%C3%B3wnanie%20z%20u%C5%BCytkownikiem%0A
    Twoje = Your
    porównanie = comparison
    użytkownikiem = user

  • WarsawExpat

    Hi there,

    Just found your website via typeit via antimoon.

    As an American trying to learn Polish, I actually insisted on installing the Polish version of Windows 7.

    A new OS in a new language = good times!

  • Johannes

    I could not agree more with your advice. Countless times I’ve attempted to ‘re-translate’ some message to english in order to get some useful search results. Fortunately I found the not-so-well-known page and use it for technical searches. It doesn’t seem to work with complete error messages but ‘Sterownik ekranu’ yields ‘display driver’, ‘przestał działać’ gets you ‘stopped working’ and ‘ale odzyskał sprawność’ retrieves the complete english translation of the error you cited. Quite valuable place to go to from time to time.

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