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?


7 Responses

  1. Great post! English is my native language, and I teach college English courses, but it’s my knowledge of French that helps me truly understand how grammar and style work. (I’m not fluent in French; I can speak enough to carry on a conversation and get around in a francophone country.)

    Perhaps it’s similar to how we appreciate our hometowns more after coming home from a long trip; “being away,” whether from a place or from speaking in our native language, helps us better understand and appreciate others’ experiences in learning an L2.

    I’m glad you brought up that many of your readers are reading your work in their second language. It’s sometimes a challenge to refine our work so non-native speakers can follow our procedures without trouble. Idioms come very naturally to native speakers, but L2 speakers may take them literally or gloss over them since they don’t make sense on the surface. (I do this with French, sometimes.) Going back to Complete Beginner mode is helpful for me. I ask myself, “If I were a total beginner at [X], and if English were my second language, what kind of instructions would I like to see here?”

    Knowing another language *does* make my writing better, whether it’s tech comm or more creative endeavors. Thank you for posting on this!

    • Thanks, Rachael! I really like your comparison of coming home to your hometown/native language, and given my time abroad, I totally agree: It’s the coming back after a long absence that makes me appreciate what I’ve taken for granted – and how weird it must seem to temporary visitors of my town/language.

      I’ve been wondering lately how much relying on a second language might even be a kind of accessibility issue – not least if documentation is not available in your native language. I think I’ll have to explore this some more… 🙂

  2. Great post, Kai. Love the ideas you present here. I also wonder how speaking a second language affects innovation on engineering teams in general.

    • Thanks, Melanie, and you’re welcome. I’d be curious to hear about engineering innovation thanks to a second language. I just know how it created some problems in the past, for example, when German car manufacturers build plants abroad and ran into problems which were admitted primarily cultural, but no doubt aggrevated by the language chasm.

  3. Hallo Kai

    Great post! It ties in with my own experience. I speak a few languages to varying degrees of competency. Most of my technical writing is in my native language, but I’ve done a bit here and there in Dutch. I also write to friends in other languages. That may be even harder than technical writer, due to precisely that need for emotional connection that you mentioned.

    Another aspect is working in another country or region where the people speak your own language, but a different dialect. I’ve spent some time in South Africa, Britain, Australia and the United States. Nothing brings home the complexities of localisation better than working with the people.

    Perhaps this offers a good opportunity for persuading employers to finance a trip or two. 😉

    Cheers, Sarah

    • Thanks, Sarah, interesting points! I’ve actually found that informal language second language proficiency came easier to me than tech writing – maybe because I’ve live abroad as a teen?

      I’ve tried to circumvent the trouble with dialects by aiming for an “internationalized” English which leans towards American English (the “globalised media” version), but omits most dialect specifics.

  4. […] Source: A technical writer’s blog post from Kai Weber: Improve tech comm by knowing a foreign language. […]

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