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Paolo Melchiorre
Paolo Melchiorre

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FLOSS and linguistic diversity

Thoughts on linguistic diversity in FLOSS, arising from the Italian translation of the Django documentation.

TL;DR Over the past week, the Italian Django community has translated an important part of Django's documentation into Italian, allowing for online publication and considerably increasing linguistic diversity in the community.

Linguistic diversity

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
— Nelson Mandela

I have been dealing with FLOSS (Free Libre and Open Source software) for more than 20 years and I must admit that the community has grown a lot and the issues dealt with within it have improved.

A very important issue that has become important lately is the diversity of people in the community at all levels. I am happy that these issues are particularly present in the Django community, the one in which I participate most actively. I also try to contribute to the increase of diversity, among other things by participating as a coach in the Django Girls workshops.

One type of diversity that is rarely talked about, in my opinion, is linguistic diversity. Unfortunately, in an area such as computer science where English has been the lingua franca from the very beginning, it is easy to forget that in reality most of the users and developers of FLOSS software are not native English speakers.

Personally, I had to combine my work commitment and participation in the community with the study of the English language in order to effectively contribute to the community, for example to write my blog or to give my presentations at conferences.

Many developers, mostly native English speakers, will tell you, in good faith, that the language problem is secondary, that you just need to contribute the code. The reality of the facts is unfortunately different. More than once I have been forced to edit a PR more to fix the English text inevitably contained in it (eg: docstring) than to improve the code, and sometimes just to "harmonize" the English style in that project.

My personal experience and also that of the local FLOSS communities I attend make me declare with certainty that the first barrier to entry into the FLOSS community is the language barrier, which is even more so for newcomers to the community.

Django documentation

"Everything you need to know about Django."
— Django documentation

A week ago, on Twitter, Curtis Maloney expressed his surprise at not seeing an Italian translation of the Django documentation. At that point I realized that that lack was a major barrier to entry to the Django community, which kept out a huge number of potential contributors and even more of Italian speaking Django users around the world.

After pointing this out, with the contribution of the fantastic Italian Django community a competition was started to translate the hundreds of untranslated strings in the introduction of the Django documentation. Thanks to the generous contribution of so many members of the community, to my surprise, the task was completed in just five days.

I hope that the availability of the Italian translation of the Django documentation will have the ripple effect of further increasing linguistic diversity in the community and helping to complete the translation completely.

Improvement proposal

"… higher scores indicate material that is easier to read; lower numbers mark passages that are more difficult to read."
— Flesch–Kincaid readability tests (Wikipedia)

The international Django community should increase the attention dedicated to this type of diversity with a very simple initiative:

  • increase the readability of the English used in its documentation, code, website and communications in general.

There are established algorithms for measuring the readability of an English text (e.g. Flesch–Kincaid) and also many excellent python libraries (e.g. textstat) that support these algorithms. It would be enough to start measuring the readability of the published texts (e.g. documentation) and rephrase the more complex parts using a more accessible English.

A more readable English would have two immediate effects:

  • it would help community members who are not native English speakers to read, therefore have limited vocabulary or are not familiar with local American or English slang
  • it would simplify the work of translating the documentation into other languages, allowing an increase and access to people who do not know English at all

I hope to continue to be an active member of this community and to make my contribution so that it grows also from the point of view of diversity, including linguistic diversity.

You can find the names of all Italian translators in the PR:


This article and related presentation is released with Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license (CC BY-SA)


Originally posted on my blog:

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