Improve tech comm by knowing a foreign language

Knowing a second language can help your tech comm work in a couple of ways. The benefit is probably not great enough in itself to justify learning a language, but if you have or had other reasons, it’s worth to consider these side benefits.

Making decisions in a foreign language

I got to think about this when I read a story in Wired that “thinking in a second language reduced deep-seated, misleading biases”. Psychologists at the University of Chicago conducted a study (abstract, full text in PDF) that asked “Would you make the same decisions in a foreign language as you would in your native tongue?”

In a foreign language, we use the same experiences and processes to evaluate situations and estimate risks. However, “a foreign language is like a distancing mechanism. It’s almost like you’re a slightly different person,” says Boaz Keysar who led the study (Business Week). According to the study, thinking in a non-native language emphasizes the systematic, analytical reasoning process. Thinking in our native tongue, on the other hand, leaves more room for the complementary intuitive, emotional decision process: “The researchers believe a second language provides a useful cognitive distance from automatic processes, promoting analytical thought and reducing unthinking, emotional reaction” (Wired). (Whether an analytical process yields “better” decisions is an entirely different story…)

Making tech comm better with a foreign language

For the past 12 years that I’ve worked full-time as a tech writer, I’ve written almost exclusively in my second language English, though I did occasionally translate my English writing into my native German. The study’s conclusion that a second language provides a “useful cognitive distance … promoting analytical thought” explains what I’ve experienced in my work in either language, beyond the limits of actual study:

1. A second chance to learn how language works. Many writers I’ve talked to have a solid grasp of their native tongue, but cannot necessarily explain the rules why something is right or wrong. When you learn a second language consciously, you also learn about grammar (again), its powers and limitations. And you can understand how something what works in one language can be similar or even different in another. For me, writing in English certainly made me a more conscientious “grammarian” in either language.

2. Mirroring the “distance” of users. In my experience, the distance that a second language brings is basically pragmatic incompetence: In a foreign language, I’m not as fully aware of the social context, of how time, space and inferred intent contribute to any communication act. I may trip over an idiom I don’t understand, or I may fail to see the irony of a statement and take it at face value.

In tech comm, this linguistic challenge is actually a benefit, because many of my readers share in that distancing experience. My readers may read my documentation in their second language. Or they might use the product in a context and for a purpose that is more or less different than intended and documented. This is why localization is harder than just translation. Internationalization can even become an accessibility issue, when a product no longer works properly in a certain context. So facing similar pragmatic uncertainties makes me a better advocate of the users I write for.

Your turn

If you know a second language, do you find it helps your writing? Do you have other reasons or benefits beside the ones I listed?