March 21, 2008

No English Spoken Here

I've never had the opportunity to learn a foreign language before, outside of the pidgin-Spanish I can remember from 7th-8th grade. Coming to Shanghai and attempting to learn Mandarin has been an adventure. A frustrating and difficult adventure, but a worthwhile and rewarding one also.

At the same time as I'm trying to learn a new language (or at least get some basic handle on it), I'm reviewing the documentation of newer writers here. After three years, NI and LabVIEW style, as well as general best practices for technical writing that we employ, are pretty much second nature to me. So it is refreshing to have to think about our style guides in terms of new writers: having to explain and document things that I have not thought about, at a detailed level, for at least a little while. I imagine it's a similar feeling to the feeling my Chinese colleagues have when I ask them questions about Mandarin -- at least, I hope it is :-)

This experience has taught me one other thing: we do not write English at NI. What we write is an ultra-specific and precise dialect that I haven't thought up a funny name for yet (but I'm working on it). This means that the English you practiced in college, on essays and exams and in emails to your professors, will not suffice. We have our own highly-specific ways of writing and editing documentation. Suddenly you're presented with new symbols, words, terms, and rules in which those objects can, cannot, and must be combined.

I experienced this over three years ago when I first started at NI. I like to think I had a decent command of grammar coming out of college -- but in terms of NInese, I was unaware of just how little I knew. No split infinitives? Where do I put the "only" in this sentence? I have to repeat this edit in how many places? Why is there colon here, but not there? You mean we can't we say "drop"?

Learning these new symbols and patterns of communication was, just like starting to learn a foreign language, very frustrating. And this is on top of the actual technologies I was expected to write about, which required their own set of learning curves. And of course there's the processes that surround our documentation - sending documents to review, using Perforce and LabVIEW, and so on. (Look what NI has done to me -- I almost never write 'etc.' anymore, even in non-work writing situations.) Of course there's a reason for (almost) every decision and item in the style guide and the practices we follow. But figuring these out was a steep learning curve. Starting to learn Chinese must have triggered these same reactions in my brain, because it is only now that I made the connection between learning a foreign language and starting fresh at NI.

To be fair, we're up front with all this. We tell job candidates and new employees that the learning curve is high and it will take quite awhile before they feel comfortable here. We don't expect anyone to grasp all our intricacies on the first day, or even in the first month. But I wonder if we should tell them that their English is only partially useful here -- to succeed, they will need to learn a new language.

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