Language of IT has transformed global village

In the traditional villages of the not-so-distant past, people talked the same language or dialect. Today, the world (or the global village, as we have come to think of it) shares no less than 6809 living languages. The wonders of information and communication technology have made their way even to the remotest places on the planet. So what language do we use now, and how?

In the Beginning it was the (English) Word

English is the “mother tongue” of IT. The first human-readable programming languages used English words, and to this date, all computer-related terms are English. IT scientists and practitioners all must read, speak and write English with at least some degree of proficiency in order to claim and exercise professional status. But this is not to say that other languages are shut off from the IT circuit.

In today’s IT global village institution (a.k.a the global IT company), it is not uncommon for practitioners of the same ethnic background to conduct business among themselves in their mother tongue. A Canadian manager in such a company could not help to remark that, on the occasion of a status meeting for a coast-to-coast project, the Montreal team conducted their call in French, while the Winnipeg team had theirs in Ukrainian. …the vast majority of IT products and services are still designed and produced in North America, but in order to better sell worldwide, they will be delivered locally, using the local language…Text A researcher in a German institute, working on an international team, mentioned that while project discussions were conducted in German, many IT terms were used in English, to make sure there is no confusion among team members. In South-Asian countries, IT business is conducted exclusively in English. In a global economy, this practice is seen as an asset, but there are efforts to increase the usage of local languages, such as Urdu.

WWW (Words, Words, Words)

Some jurisdictions are more language-aware than others. French-speaking IT communities on both sides of the Atlantic are notorious for carefully coming up with a French equivalent for each English IT term, and for conducting campaigns to ensure the term catches ground. This is no easy task. Some languages — and cultures — are better equipped than others to support this effort. Other communities are simply not so adamant or not so careful with their translations. If texts in my own mother tongue are any indication, translating IT terms can often have awkward, silly or down-right laughable results.

While terms related to the IT technology of 20 or 30 years ago have become commonplace (“file”, “database”, “record”, “field”, ”layout”) and are now part of the “layman’s” vocabulary, when it comes to translating and integrating into naturally-sounding phrases terms such as “click”, “download” or “cookie”, it is still a struggle. The same IT term may have different fates in different languages: some languages found and assimilated a satisfactory equivalent for a word, while others did not, or gave up, and will just use the original English word. With IT being a global industry, and with the English language the official tongue of 104 states, one could think that delivering IT content in other languages is not a worthwhile effort.

And yet, as a quick look to the Web site of any global IT company will attest, this effort is front and centre in their quest to attract local audiences from around the globe. Indeed, globalization is delivered via localization: the vast majority of IT products and services are still designed and produced in North America, but in order to better sell worldwide, they will be delivered locally, using the local language: IT does not just speak French: there is Canadian French and there is Belgian French; there is Portuguese and then there is Brazilian Portuguese. IT marketing knows the subtleties that matter.

The Last Word

IT products and services have surely had an impact on languages, for better or for worse. The lives of people and businesses have already been enormously transformed all over the globe in less than a generation by these products and services. The transformation is unrelenting and the effect of technology has a way to penetrate into to all aspects of peoples’ lives — IT professionals or not. The effects on human language, this very thing that defines us as the superior species we think we are, have only started to unravel.

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–Andronache is a Toronto-based application developer who works for a large IT firm. She can be reached at [email protected]

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