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

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


OpenStack is a huge community that is spread around the world and as with most open source projects, the primary language used is English. This means that non-native English speakers face communication and cultural challenges on a daily basis when participating in the ecosystem.

Here are a few of the challenges and some tips on how to overcome them.

Reading: This is the easiest but also the most important skill. It’s 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 mailing lists and IRC are the main communication channels.

Writing: English grammar is an issue especially for languages that structure sentences differently. This can be a problem when writing emails or using IRC. For some, writing long and beautiful sentences is difficult, but simpler sentences are easier to write and understand.

Listening: This is more difficult for non-native speakers. Normally, conversation between native English speakers is very fast, making it more difficult for those still learning to follow discussions and often limits their participation. Trying to understand the variety of accents in a global 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 be a bit limited. English phonemes and grammar are often very different from a non-native speaker’s mother language, making things even more difficult to understand.

Cultural differences will have an effect on how people interact in the open source community. For example, the Japanese tend not to say “yes” or “no” clearly as a mark of respect for others and this can cause misunderstandings with those from other cultures. In China, people prefer to just say “yes”, instead of “no” when trying to negotiate.

Communication styles can vary too. For example, Chinese people like to list facts first and give a thesis at the end. This can sometime cause some confusion. People from other cultures may be short and direct when giving responses, which may sound a little rude to others.

Tips for 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. Don’t think about your limitations. Just do your best and you will improve over time.

Read as much as you can to help gather vocabulary. Using chat and mailing lists daily helps, too. Some tools, such as real-time dictionaries and translators, are very useful on these platforms. Talking to others or even yourself will help 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; 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 their English. Try to encourage newcomers to express their opinions, and make them comfortable enough to do so.


Masayuki Igawa, Samuel de Medeiros Queiroz and Dong Ma will be presenting on this subject at the OpenStack Summit in Boston on May 10th.  Learn more about their session at this link.


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