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Being a bilingual developer

Chen Hui Jing
🇲🇾👾🏀🚲🖌👟💻🖊🎙🦊🧗‍♀️🎹🏳️‍🌈
Originally published at chenhuijing.com on ・5 min read

It’s been a while since I wrote a pure opinion post. If this is your first encounter with me, let’s just say I am a relatively opinionated person. The “Opinion” tag is third on the most-used list of tags on my site (behind “CSS” and “Design”). So today’s opinion is about language.

In theory, I am bilingual, fluent in both English and Chinese. In reality, English is my working language. I write emails, blog posts, documentation, talks, content and so on in English 95% of the time. Working language (especially in tech) and daily use language is really quite different IMO.

Some background on my background

So I grew up straddling the border of Malaysia and Singapore, living in Malaysia while studying in Singapore. Singapore uses English as its medium of education, with students’ mother tongues being taught as a single language subject.

Illustration of commuting

Being Malaysian Chinese though, I conversed mostly in Chinese with my Chinese friends but all of us, regardless of ethnicity, slipped in and out of our mother tongues and English without skipping a beat. It was mostly a mixture of English, Chinese, Malay, plus a smattering of dialects.

We can then skip forward about a decade later when I started getting interested in East Asian typography. That was around 2016, when I learned about the HTML Ruby element, then vertical writing modes in CSS.

One thing led to another and soon I was down a rabbit hole of Unicode specifications, W3C documentation and research into the digitisation of Chinese publishing.

I got in touch with the Chinese Layout Task Force and volunteered to help out with some outstanding translations from Chinese to English, because the Requirements for Chinese Text Layout document was to be written in Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese as well as English.

Most of the content was first written in Chinese, and at the time, some of it hadn’t been translated to English yet. Translating Chinese to English was fairly easy for me because English was my main working language.

Illustration of volunteering to do translation

Our calls were in Chinese though, and I gradually improved my Chinese vocabulary, which had stagnated since I left school (there’s only so much variety in daily conversation, much of it mundane).

I had started reading more typography articles written in Chinese as well, but still didn’t feel I was good enough to write original Chinese content.

The turning point

In 2019, I was invited to speak at CSSConf China, and chose to give my talk in Chinese. Because it seemed like a good idea at the time. Also, it was like a bucket list kind of thing, you know. “Give talk at conference in mother tongue.” *check*

Thankfully, the fates gifted me the opportunity to cross paths with Wei over a month before the conference date. And she pretty much edited out all the weird sentence structures I had in my script.

The talk went reasonably well. I personally think the audience had lower expectations of my standard of Chinese given I wasn’t local (dis is a good thing), and was maybe pleasantly surprised I kind of sounded local.

Southeast Asian Chinese are almost entirely migrants from Southern China, the conference was in Shenzhen. A small plus was that I could speak Hokkien and a bit of Cantonese, which are dialects used in Southern China.

By then I had also joined Nexmo as their APAC developer advocate, and having no prior experience in DevRel (hey, I never complain about lucky breaks), my strategy the first year was to throw everything at the wall and see if anything sticks. At the same time hoping the wall doesn’t fall over.

One of those ideas was to have localised content, so I started attempting to write Chinese content. That was REALLY slow going. It took me probably 3 times longer than if I would have wrote the same thing in English, but hey, the only way to get better at something is to do it, no?

Some random thoughts and insights

CSSConf China was the first non-English conference I had attended and the speakers were amazing. It is hard to put into words but the feeling was different from other conferences I’d attended before. I don’t know if it was because I had to parse the words I heard differently because it was a different language.

What was indisputable was how each speaker had such a distinctly different style and personality that shone through on that stage. I feel that Chinese is a much richer language than English and perhaps that’s why it felt more memorable to me.

Of course, I am biased here. So reminder to all that this is an Opinion, and you are free to have yours and disagree with mine. However, medium of delivery aside, I also learned about how different developers operated in China, as well as how similarly they did things.

Which made me wonder, how much perspective is hidden away from each and every one of us because things lose meaning in translation and certain concepts just don’t come through if you do not speak the language. I say this as a musing, because I have no solution.

But there is a treasure trove of content written by Chinese developers that I only discovered after my experience at CSSConf China. Which made me think, what about all the other languages the world’s developers share content in?

Some of you may say, learn more languages then? Easier said than done, my friends. Personally, if I hadn’t grown up Chinese, I doubt I’d be able to pick it up later in life, it just feels hard as a second language (but maybe that’s the same for every language and I’m just shit at languages).

I once asked a couple friends of mine who spoke multiple languages what language their thoughts were in. For me, it’s both in about equal measure. One mentioned she thinks in English but counts in French. Then I also discovered not everyone has a running monologue in their head ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

So what’s your point?

I actually don’t really have one, so maybe this wasn’t an opinion as much as it was a bunch of random musings. The only analogy I can come up with is that each and every one of us has a unique yet constantly evolving algorithm for processing the inputs we encounter in our lives.

Illustration of processing external inputs

The exact same inputs will be processed completely differently by two different people, hence the output will probably never be the same unless via chance coincidence. They could be similar or close enough for people to develop some sort of connection, and I think that’s probably the best we can do.

Does that mean someone with a vastly different output is wrong? I don’t think so. Our processing algorithms are an amalgamation of our personalities, our environments and our life experiences. To me, language, which is closely intertwined with culture, has a large influence on the latter two vectors.

Maybe my opinion is this. Being able to be fluent in multiple languages not only benefits from a communication standpoint, but also allows us to have broader world views because language literally impacts how we think about things.

Anyway, I feel really lucky to have grown up in an environment that allowed me to be fluent in two languages. That is all.

But I'm also curious to hear from anyone else who speaks multiple languages and whether or not you read and/or write articles in a language other than English? Do you have a completely different opinion from me? Would love to hear them if you don't mind sharing.

Discussion (16)

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lakatos88 profile image
Alex Lakatos 🥑 • Edited

I love that someone wrote this all down. I thought I was weird for having internal monologues with me. My process used to be: think in Romanian, translate to English, speak out English. But since I moved out of Romania, I've gradually started to lose that, to the point now I default to English. I really struggle when I go back to Romania, it takes a few seconds to find my words.

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huijing profile image
Chen Hui Jing Author

Now I wanna go back to Romania when u're there just to hang out >_<

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maureento8888 profile image
Maureen T'O

Hey! Awesome article on bilingual-isms! I grew up speaking Mandarin (parents from Taiwan) and later learned English in school. I grew up in the US and Canada so now, my English is better than my Mandarin, but I still can’t really read/write Traditional Chinese script 😂 as It e never got down to learning it even now, and my parents never pushed me to. Still, my quirk these days is counting in Mandarin (anyone experience this?!) but speaking more fluently in English. Also, losing a word in one language and making up for it in a thick accent with my other language (this was a meme; don’t quote me) 😂

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huijing profile image
Chen Hui Jing Author

My friend counts in French! Maybe mathematical concepts are a different beast :p

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maureento8888 profile image
Maureen T'O

LOL honestly 😄

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saurabhdaware profile image
Saurabh Daware 🌻

I love this article! Also, I'm trilingual :D (I speak Marathi, Hindi, and English)

My mother tongue is Marathi (It is one of the Indian languages spoken by the people of Maharashtra) so I speak to my parents and native friends in Marathi. Also, I studied in a Marathi medium school and till 5th class, we had all our subjects in Marathi. It was an advantage. It is easier to understand concepts in your mother tongue. After 5th, we had something called a semi-english. so we had Maths, Science in English and Geography, History in Marathi till 10th and after 10th everything has been in English only.

Hindi is a commonly used language in India. So it is generally used when you communicate with someone who has a different mother tongue. You never really have to learn it, you just start understanding it because of the people around you.

Funnily, I learned most of my English because of multiplayer games.

It hasn't really been an issue since I get to use all three languages every day. (Marathi with parents, Hindi with some friends and at local places, English in Tech Meetups, College, and some friends)

The only problem is I know maths tables in Marathi and I don't know 90% of the vegetable names in English 😂

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huijing profile image
Chen Hui Jing Author

wow, thank you for sharing ♥️
omg I feel u so hard about the vegetable names!!

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bengreenberg profile image
Ben Greenberg

I love this post! A book that gave me a lot of insight into how language shapes the way we think is Through the Language Glass. It became even the source for a talk on the subject I've given now twice at RubyConf and at Birmingham on Rails! :)

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huijing profile image
Chen Hui Jing Author

Ooooo, that's going on my reading list, thanks for the recommendation! :D

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aminmansuri profile image
hidden_dude • Edited

My "mother tongue" is English.. though I used to speak another language when I was small as well.

My school tongue was Spanish.

I did college in the US, in English.

I taught CS college in Spanish. It takes some adjusting to find the right technical terms that are often mistranslated.

I work both in English and Spanish interchangeably at a daily basis. I think in both languages interchangeably with ease. Though I more readily curse in English.

Most of the world is at least bilingual. We often treat it as something odd, but its actually the norm. But it used to be that people were made to feel ashamed for knowing another language (maybe still so) in some places. Monolingualism is rare. Most my African friends will say when asked that they know only 2-3 languages, but then if you ask more carefully they'll say they know another 2-3 "dialects" as well (which often are full local languages from different families). I'd say monolingualism is mostly in the US and maybe a few other places (even in the US its getting rarer).

But often it matters what your professional language is. I learned math in Spanish, so I didn't know how to pronounce "logarithm" when I went to college.

Similarly in Spanish I didn't know how to say "library" (as in "Java libraries") since in Spanish the convention is to mistranslate it to "librería" (when it should be "biblioteca" if you want to translate correctly). There were similar difficulties with words like "hash table" ("tabla de dispersión" I found in a book). Or "procedural programming" ("programación procedual" which is impossible to find almost anywhere). I find reading technical material in Spanish frustrating since the translators often mess up.

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huijing profile image
Chen Hui Jing Author

You touched on something (tangentially related) that I have also been thinking about more now that I'm older, and that is how media shapes our perceptions, at least it did more when I was younger. Because we got a lot of American entertainment on television when I was a kid, it seemed as if the "outside world" = "America" but the truth is most of the world is not America, and so much more diverse and interesting than what we were exposed to simply through media.

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emtes profile image
Enmanuel de la Nuez

I've been speaking English for 10 years and I still count in Spanish!

I totally agree that speaking more than one language changes the way you think about things. It does for programming languages too, right? Even though computing is fundamentally the same, writing Java vs. Lisp will probably influence how you design your algorithms. Similar tools for the same job can definitely influence how the task is done!

Super cool article 👍

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huijing profile image
Chen Hui Jing Author

you make a really good point that programming languages with their own paradigms also impact how we organise our thoughts around code

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buinauskas profile image
Evaldas

Sometimes I feel like my personality changes when I switch from Lithuanian to English. 🤔

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fcfidel profile image
Fidel Castro

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to give a presentation in my first language ( Spanish), since when I’m nervous I just start making up words :/

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huijing profile image
Chen Hui Jing Author

I tend to feel that because a lot of computing was pioneered in English-speaking regions, there are lots of terms and phrases that never have good equivalents

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