English In The Tech Field

By Peter Martin

Not until I left the United States did I come to realize how much English content of all kinds dominates the international world. I had known this intellectually from traveling, when I had seen that Hollywood movies play in theaters on all continents and that Beatles and Bob Marley songs are maybe the most popular, well-known songs around the world. But I hadn’t appreciated what English’s omnipresence means for English learners until I started teaching the language—and until I started making friends who have learned or are learning English.

I’ve already written here about how English has come to dominate international business, travel, and technology. In that post, I made the argument that it is important to be able to write well in English because so much communication between people, even in non-English-speaking countries, happens in writing and in English. But I didn’t mention that, because English is so common, it’s also easier to learn than lots of languages.

My most recent example of this came outside of class, from my girlfriend. Isabel is from Colombia, and she learned English in school and in London, where she lived for a year. She’s a web designer, and though her employers have mostly been Colombian, English has been a major part of her work. Since she designs for the web, she has had to learn web languages that, though they have names other than “English,” incorporate lots of English—so much so that knowledge of English makes learning the technical languages easier. HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and perhaps all major programming, style, and script languages were developed by Britons and Americans. Starting with their names—HTML is an acronym for HyperText Markup Language, and CSS is an acronym for Cascading Style Sheets—they use English vocabulary to express concepts. Knowledge of even basic English surely helps any programmer or designer work in the languages. After all, if you have to learn what terms like “text,” “color,” and “width” mean before you can start using the languages, you’re behind someone who learned those terms long before she knew how to code anything.

But the prevalence of English in the tech field, while a disadvantage to those who don’t understand the language well, also helps people learn it. To expand her professional repertoire, Isabel has been teaching herself JavaScript recently. She has been using a book in French (her French is better than her English, and she didn’t find any good Spanish books on JavaScript), which was translated from English, and watching a lot of video tutorials on YouTube, all of which are in English. She mentioned yesterday that the tutorials have helped her listening comprehension a lot—even after hearing me speak so much English for the last year!

The help Isabel’s English got from YouTube tutorials showed me that I’ll never be able to imagine all the resources English learners have at their disposal. If ESL students choose to expose themselves to English while learning and working on other things, they can probably find English resources on any subject they want—and they can multitask, learning English while they’re learning something else. Good language resources don’t always have to be presented as ESL resources; in fact, they can take any form, as long as they’re in English and engage people. Some of the best learning, of course, is what we learn when we’re not trying to learn.

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