Tips for non-native English speakers working on open source projects

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The primary language of most open source projects is English, but open source users and contributors span the globe. Non-native speakers face many communication and cultural challenges when participating in the ecosystem.

In this article, we will share challenges, how to overcome them, and best practices for easing onboarding of non-native speakers, as non-native English speakers and contributors to OpenStack. We are based in Japan, Brazil, and China, and work daily with the huge OpenStack community that is spread around the world.

The official language of OpenStack is English, which means we communicate daily as non-native speakers.


Non-native English speakers face specific communication challenges when starting out in open source communities: they are related to limited language skills and cultural disparity.

Language skills

Let's focus on the specific language skills behind reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

Reading: This is the easiest but also the most important skill. It is the easiest because if you can't 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.

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

Cultural differences

Each culture has different norms when interacting with other people in the open source community. For example, the Japanese tend not to say yes or no clearly as a way to respect others and to avoid fighting each other. This is often very different from other cultures and may cause misunderstanding of what was expressed.

In Chinese culture, people prefer to just say yes, instead of saying no or trying to negotiate. In a globally distributed community as OpenStack, this often leads to the lack of confidence when expressing opinions. Furthermore, Chinese people like to list the facts first and give the thesis at the end, and this can cause confusion for people from other cultures because it is not what they expect.

A Brazilian, for instance, may find that discussions are driven in a similar way; however, some cultures are very short and direct in responses, which may sound a bit rude.

Overcoming obstacles

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 language 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.

Onboarding newcomers

A few initiatives from both newcomers and native speakers may positively affect the onboarding process.


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 blogs and technical articles in English are also great ideas.

Tips for native English speakers

Please speak slowly and use simple words and sentences. Don't make fun of non-native English speakers if you find something wrong about the English they used. Try to encourage newcomers to express their opinions, and make them comfortable enough to do so.

This article was co-written by Masayuki Igawa, Dong Ma, and Samuel de Medeiros Queiroz. Learn more in their talk at 2017 (#lca2017) in Hobart: Non-native English speakers in Open Source communities: A True Story.

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Masayuki Igawa is a software engineer for over 15 years on a wide range of software projects, and developing open source software related to Linux kernel and virtualization. He's been an active technical contributor to OpenStack since 2013. He is a core member of some OpenStack QA projects such as Tempest, subunit2sql, openstack-health and stackviz.

1 Comment

Thank you very much for your advices, I will put it into practice.

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