Non-native English speakers

Non-native English speakers

OpenStack projects communicate in English, and our documentation is written in US English. However, many documentation contributors have English as a second (or third, or fourth) language. This poses many challenges for non- native English speakers, but there are some things that native English- speakers can do to make it easier to include non-native speakers in our community. This chapter contains some suggestions for both native and non-native English speakers to help make our community more inclusive and welcoming for all people.


This chapter was written based on the wonderful talk given by Masayuki Igawa, Dong Ma, and Samuel De Medeiros Queiroz at in 2017. Thank you for their permission to use this content, and for their feedback and support during development. You can watch their original talk on YouTube: Non-native English speakers in Open Source communities: A True Story or read their article on Tips for non-native English speakers working on open source projects.

New contributors with English as a second language

Challenges related to language skills are easier to overcome than cultural ones. Cultural differences need to be respected, while English skills can always be improved.

In order to brush up on your English skills, be in contact with the language as much as you can. Do not think about your limitations. Just do your best and you will improve eventually.

Read as much as you can, because this will help you gather vocabulary. Communicating through chat and mailing lists daily helps, too. Some tools, such as real-time dictionaries and translators, are very useful with these platforms.

Talking to others or yourself helps you become comfortable speaking out more frequently. Having one-on-one conversations to express your ideas is easier than discussing in larger groups.

Speak and write your opinion, and ask your questions; this participation is always a good opportunity to exercise your English. Do not be afraid.

For meetings, make sure you prepare yourself in advance so you will be comfortable with the subject and more confident about the opinions you are expressing.

Make friends who are English speakers and talk more to practice your English skills.

Writing and reading blogs and technical articles in English are also great ideas.


This is the easiest but also the most important skill. It is the easiest because if you can not understand what is written you have the opportunity to read it again, or as many times as needed. If you encounter an uncommon phrase, expression, or abbreviation, you can use a dictionary or translator. On the other hand, it is the most important skill because for most open source projects the main means of communication are mailing lists and IRC.


English grammar is an issue especially for languages that structure sentences differently. This may pose a problem for communication in writing emails and communicating via IRC channels. For some, writing long and beautiful sentences is difficult, and the reliance on simpler sentences is prevalent because these are easy to write and convey understanding.


Listening is more problematic than reading and writing for non-native speakers. Normally, conversation between native English speakers is very fast, which makes following the discussions for those still learning difficult and limits their participation in those discussions. Furthermore, trying to understand the variety of accents in a globally spread community adds to the complexity. Interestingly, American pronunciation is often easier to understand than others.


Speaking is more difficult than listening because the participant’s vocabulary may be a bit limited. Furthermore, English phonemes and grammar are often very different from a non-native speaker’s mother language, making an interaction even more difficult to understand.

Working with non-native English speakers

For a native English speaker, it can sometimes be difficult to determine when a non-English speaker is having trouble communicating with you because of a language barrier, or because there are cultural challenges that are making it difficult. This can occur even between different English-speaking cultures. Cultural differences must be respected, while English skills can always be improved.

Here are some general guidelines for making your communications as clear as possible to a diverse audience:

  • Speak slowly and use simple words and sentences.
  • Do not ever make fun of non-native English speakers if you find something wrong about the English they use.
  • Try to encourage newcomers to express their opinions and make them comfortable enough to do so.
  • Remember that asynchronous written communications (such as email) are easier for non-native English speakers, as they have time to translate and understand. If you need to discuss a complicated topic, then this will often be the best option.
  • IRC meetings can often move too fast for non-native English speakers, and face-to-face communication (or video calls) are even worse. Always circulate meeting agenda or talking points ahead of time, give participants plenty of time to think about topics and raise questions before moving on to the next topic, and circulate detailed notes or minutes afterwards.

Some specific cultural things to remember

Each culture has different norms when interacting with other people. This section describes some specific cultural differences that you might encounter, along with some practical advice for native English speakers to try and overcome these particular barriers.

Americans and Australians especially are often very direct, even terse, in the way they communicate, which can come across to other cultures quite rudely. Chinese and Brazilian Portuguese speakers like to list the facts first and give the request or action at the end, so you may need to read through emails very carefully to find out what you are being asked for. This structure is also good to remember when you are writing to people who communicate in this way, as it will be easier for them to understand your request if it is in a format they are familiar with. Try to remember to start emails with a greeting, a compliment, a positive comment on the work being discussed, or an observation about a common topic (for example: “It’s been wonderful to see so many reviews from you recently.”, or “I really enjoyed reading your latest post to the mailing list.”), before getting into the main topic of discussion, especially if your main topic is negative. Additionally, remember to explain the background to your request and include any links or other information that might help form the context of your message.

In Japanese culture, people tend not to say yes or no clearly as a way to respect others and to avoid appearing argumentative. A common phrase in Japanese business language is “Zensho shimasu” (善処します), which literally means “I’ll do my best”, however the actual meaning is “I will do nothing”, or “no way”. This type of linguistic confusion has caused many problems between Japanese and English speakers, most famously between Prime Minister Eisaku Sato and President Richard Nixon in the 1960s. If, as an English speaker, you notice a Japanese speaker being a bit evasive in committing, or seeming to commit to too many things, check in with them in a private email. It will be much easier for them (from a cultural perspective, anyway) to say yes or no privately, than on a mailing list or IRC.

In Chinese culture, people prefer to just say yes, instead of saying no or trying to negotiate. This is largely due to the complex Confucian culture, one of the books of which is ‘Doctrine of the Mean’, which teaches leniency. In practice, however, this means Chinese speakers will often take on much more than they actually want to. If, as an English speaker, you notice a Chinese speaker taking on a lot of projects, try to politely give them a way to refuse. You might try to say something like “You have a lot of things to do right now, are you sure you want to do this too?”. That will give them an opportunity to give you a plainer answer, rather than simply agreeing out of politeness.


Do you have an interesting point to make about your culture? Patches are welcome to this section! Explain the difference, and give some advice for English speakers on how to overcome it.

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