Globalization—Language and Dialects

Published in volume 23, issue 3, June 2013

This issue has two excellent papers. The first, Testing and verification in service-oriented architecture: A survey, by Bozkurt, Harman and Hassoun, is another detailed survey from the CREST centre at UCL. The authors do a wonderful job summarizing testing research on service-oriented architecture, covering no less than 262 papers. (Recommended by Atif Memon.) The second, Parallel mutation testing, by Mateo and Usaola, presents new ideas that dramatically increase the speed at which we can perform mutation analysis. The paper presents a new tool, Bacterio, and results from three studies on five algorithms to execute mutants in parallel. (Recommended by Byoungju Choi.) Note that because of previous papers co-authored with the authors of these papers, Co-EiC Rob Hierons was not involved with the handling of the survey paper, and Offutt was not involved with the mutation paper.


I wrote about The Globalization of Software Engineering in my last editorial [1]. One of the most obvious aspects of this trend, of course, is language. For software engineers to interact on a global scale, we must be able to communicate. And currently, the primary international language is English. Why English?

In his very long history of civil wars among English speaking peoples, Philips [2] put forth a compelling argument for how English become our 21st century international language. In brief, British/American colonists beat French hunters and trappers in the 1750s (called the French/Indian war in the USA and part of the Seven Years war in Europe), English speakers went on to settle the North American continent in the 1800s, the Allies won World War I, and the USA finished World War II with less damage than most other combatants. International air flight then become the first global business where everybody (primarily pilots and air traffic controllers) had to be able to communicate in real-time, without translators, then English-language television and movies spread throughout the world, and finally, the World Wide Web gave everybody the ability to talk with everybody else ... if we could share a language.

That's a fascinating story and interesting theory, but what really counts is that at this point in history, we use English for global scientific communication. While the hundreds of exceptions and odd quirks (articles, nouns and pronouns with gender, "their / there / they're," "though / through / tough") often make us grumble "why English?", my linguistic friends tell me English has certain advantages. It has a huge vocabulary, allowing us to be very precise and exact. It is also structured to discourage ambiguity and is not well suited to metaphors. While this may make poetry hard, English works well for law and science.

What does this have to do with the globalization of software engineering? We are building a global community of scholars and practitioners. Most people who join this community have advanced education (at least college degrees and often PhDs), thus most join the community with at least moderate fluency in English. But if our papers have too many language problems, readers either do not understand or find the papers too painful to read. Moreover, speaking is different from writing, and scientists with limited speaking abilities have trouble interacting at conferences.

The tail also wags the dog. As English has gone global, it has changed. British use many words that are rare or unknown in North America. And it's very common to mix English with words and grammar from other languages; we've all heard of "Hinglish," "Spanglish," and "Chinglish."

Linguists also hypothesize the emergence of new dialects of English. The most widely known dialects are probably "standard British English" (like on BBC) and "standard American English" (like on CNN). Indian English is another, or possibly several others. I grew up speaking Appalachian English ("How you'ns doin'?" "We hain't bad.") [3]. Newly emerging dialects may include Northern European English (often English words with Germanic sentence constructs) and Chinese English (fewer articles and verbs omitted when they are clear from context). It's hard to imagine what will happen in the next century or two, but it's likely that English will continue to partition into more dialects. Perhaps we will have many dialects and a semi-standardized International English [4].

Regardless of how English changes, new members to the international software engineering community will still need years to improve their language skills. This process is explicitly supported in many places. Most graduate classes in Sweden are taught in English. Spain has an "international PhD," which requires study visits to universities abroad, and Brazil has a "sandwich program," which sends PhD students abroad for a year. Some South Korean universities require MS students to score well on the Test Of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), which was created to determine whether foreign students were ready to study in universities in the USA. Encouraging better English skills is an important role for governments.

As individuals, we also must support this process. First, reviewers and editors must be patient with young scientists who are still struggling to master English. Of course the papers must be understandable, but we should look beyond the writing and focus on the ideas. We must also be prepared to offer constructive criticism for how to improve. As advisors, we must encourage our students to improve their English as much as possible before leaving the nest. I tell my students to make friends who are not from their home country, and send them to our English Language Institute. Students at universities in non-English language countries should be encouraged to find ways to improve their language and writing skills, and be given as many opportunities as possible to do so.

A good friend of mine went from almost incomprehensible to being more articulate than most native English speakers in five years. One of my students went from being halting and nervous in English to starting conversations and asking public questions at conferences in two years. Their successes demonstrate that language skills can be significantly improved. Please help and encourage your students and junior colleagues to work on their communication, and demand that they reach competence before graduation.

[1] Jeff Offutt. The Globalization of Software Engineering (Editorial), Wiley’s journal of Software Testing, Verification, and Reliability, 23(3), May 2013. http://www.cs.gmu.edu/~offutt/stvr/23-3-May2013.html (last access April 2013).

[2] Kevin Philips. The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, & the Triumph of Anglo-America Basic Books, New York, NY, 1999.

[3] Appalachian English, Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appalachian_English (last access April 2013).

[4] International English, Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_English (last access April 2013).

Jeff Offutt
9 April 2013