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Less Wrong and non-native English speakers

28 Post author: kilobug 06 November 2011 01:37PM

Hello Less Wrongers.

I'm still relatively new to the LW community, but I would like to share with you a few comments and ideas for making LW a better place for non-native English speakers.

There are two classes of people among non-native English speakers (of course, those boundaries are fuzzy) :

  1. People who, like me, are relatively fluent in English, but not who don't have the same fluency at English as natives do.
  2. People who don't speak much English at all.

The problems are of course different between 1. and 2., but yet I can see ways to improve things to both categories.

Moderately fluent English speakers

Being a member of 1., here are my feelings after a few months of lurking and then trying to participate a bit in LW, from my own French pov :

  1. LW is still quite US-centric in many ways. That's not much of a problem, at least for me who is used to dealing with US citizen from IRC or other Internet places, but it still something to keep in mind. Political question of Yvain's census/survey (please Yvain don't take that personally, overall you're doing a great and useful thing with that survey, so thanks to you), your  is a clear example of that, but it's much more general.
  2. Writing an article on LW is not easy for non-native English speakers. I tried twice, and twice I got many remarks about my English skills. I don't take them badly, thanks for those who took the time to point to my mistakes and explain them so I can improve, but still, it feels like it's harder to participate.

I don't have any magical solution from 1., except for anyone to try to be more careful when stating things which are culture-dependant, but it's part of the most general problem of excepting short inferential distances.

For 2., I'm wondering if it would be possible to have some LW to volunteer to review articles done by non-native English speakers, and improve the English quality, before the article is published to LW in general. Do you think the idea is good overall ? Would any of you volunteer to do that ? If so, it would be nice to include a paragraph about it, or at least a link to a page explaining the modality (how to submit an article to that team, ...), on the Welcome to Less Wrong page.

Non-English speakers

I don't think non-English speakers (or people with only basic English skills) can reasonably participate on LW itself, of course. But there are ways to still be able to offer them ways to become stronger, I'm thinking about translation.

Right now I'm helping Adrien with the French translation of HP:MoR. There are also attempts to translate some parts of the Sequences into other languages. In the mirror way of the "having native English speaker to help correct the English of non-native", us the non-native can help by participating to the various translation efforts. But that give raise to several questions :

  1. What are the legal issues about translating HP:MoR and Sequences ? Since Eliezer is linking to the translations of HP:MoR from his fanfiction.net page, I guess he approves of them. But what of the Sequences ? It would be nice to have some official stance from him and other people writing in the Sequences to know what they feel about translations. I'm not a fan of the copyright system in general, but I still would consider an utter lack of respect to someone to translate his work against his will.
  2. How can the team be coordinated, and how can newcomers to Less Wrong know that efforts are underway and requiring help ? Once again, I think it would be nice to have some page (maybe on the wiki ?) with the undergoing efforts, who is participating in which, how to contact them, and have a link to it from the Welcome to Less Wrong page.

Any opinion on those suggestions ? Any volunteer for joining some of the teams ? Anyone from "the staff" who could answer about the legal issues, and about the opportunity of including those pointers in the "Welcome to Less Wrong" page ?

Comments (43)

Comment author: Normal_Anomaly 06 November 2011 02:51:20PM *  14 points [-]

For 2., I'm wondering if it would be possible to have some LW to volunteer to review articles done by non-native English speakers, and improve the English quality, before the article is published to LW in general. Do you think the idea is good overall ? Would any of you volunteer to do that ?

I would be happy to review articles. Could orthonormal or a mod add the following paragraph to the welcome thread, perhaps after the "note for theists" in "A few notes about the community"?

If English is not your first language, don't let that make you afraid to post or comment. You can get English help on Discussion- or Main-level posts by sending a PM to one of the following users (use the "send message" link on the upper right of their user page). Either put the text of the post in the PM, or just say that you'd like English help and you'll get a response with an email address.
* Normal_Anomaly
* Randaly
* shokwave
* Barry Cotter

Comment author: Randaly 06 November 2011 05:11:34PM 11 points [-]

I'd also be happy to review articles.

Comment author: shokwave 07 November 2011 04:22:54AM 7 points [-]

I'd be happy to review and edit articles.

Also, the LW Public Goods team will probably look over your article if you post it there.

Comment author: Barry_Cotter 08 November 2011 12:50:06PM 2 points [-]

Happy to review articles.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 06 November 2011 07:25:06PM *  8 points [-]

There are two classes of people among non-native English speakers

Most active participants who are not native English speakers seem to be safely fluent, so outside both of these categories.

Comment author: [deleted] 06 November 2011 09:50:42PM *  7 points [-]

In my experience (as a dyslectic non-native English speaker) people are not so prone to correct spelling and minor grammar error on LW, but rather fastidious about choice of words and phrasing and that I guess can be a problem even for people who consider themselves as fluent in English, but I consider that a necessarily evil, cause one of the things I really like about LW is that you are encouraged to express yourself as precise as possible.

Comment author: Logos01 07 November 2011 08:07:25AM 1 point [-]

but I consider that a necessarily evil, cause one of the things I really like about LW is that you are encouraged to express yourself as precise as possible.

I wonder if our habit of dissecting the meanings of the terms we use has any impact on the readability of our more "intuitionally distant" (unfamiliar / obscure / highly-technical ) concepts for people such as yourself.

Comment author: [deleted] 07 November 2011 09:14:00PM *  0 points [-]

Well that depends on what you mean by readability, you (I) have to put in a lot more effort to understand some arguments, but since people usually refer to other posts it's often possible to follow someones reasoning to a greater degree in comparison to other forums/blogs I have encountered. But doesn't that go for native English speakers as well?

I think expressing yourself in proper LW-lingo is a bigger problem for non-native English speakers than actually fully grasp the arguments. Edit: That might go without saying, writing a good book is harder than reading one.

Comment author: Cthulhoo 07 November 2011 09:28:25AM 5 points [-]

In my introductory post a few weeks ago I briefly mentioned a similar issue, so I basically second kilobug remarks. By the way, as soon as my job stops devouring all of my time, I would like to help translating part of the sequences in Italian.

More importantly, anyone remotely rational will probably have already prioritized learning English.

I want to reply to this point, and I'm interested to read the opinion of the community on the subject. In my opinion, part of your duty as a rationalist is to spread you knowledge to a wider audience. This is what I do, anyways, trying to popularize LW ideas among my friends. Needless to say, many of them haven't ever heard before about biases and Bayes theorem, and a fair number doesn't have a degree or can read English well enough. So, when I manage to raise some interest in one of the site's topics, I would like to be able to redirect them to some of the material of the site, but, unfortunately, I can't. I'm not saying that they would all have become perfet rationalists if they could read the Sequences, but even small improvements aren't to be discarded, in my opinion. To summarize, while the quote from ArisKatsaris is basically true, I think that we should also think to the potential positive effect for a wider, difference audience.

Comment author: betterthanwell 06 November 2011 06:54:37PM *  11 points [-]

If one does not speak much English at all,
then one should probably play in a different sandbox.

I would not discuss philosophy in Chinese, because I do not know the language. If there was a sufficiently awesome website in Chinese, then perhaps I could be inspired to learn the language. Perhaps I could return, and participate later.

Less Wrong has lower tolerance for sloppy thinking and sloppy writing than most other playgrounds on the Internet. This is great for at least two reasons. A high bar for entry helps weed out trolls. A high bar for entry gives one an incentive to improve.

The allergy to sloppiness likely harkens back to the unique and interesting moderation policy of Eliezer Yudkowsky's SL4.org, and its mailing list. Compared to SL4, Less Wrong is a welcoming and friendly place.

Because SL4 is liable to die quite soon, because many readers will not be familiar with it, and because the moderation policy includes some good writing advice, I find it pertinent to quote an excerpt here:

Our high standards:

It is the explicit policy of this list not to rehash the basics. SL4 is for advanced topics in futurism and technology. If we've discussed it once before, or if it's something we think posters should already know, you may be courteously referred to the archives, or to another list.

Check your spelling. Check your grammar. Check your punctuation and capitalization. Use apostrophes and commas. Don't quote entire messages in your reply. Don't use HTML. Don't post one-line replies. (If it's not worth a well-written paragraph, is it really worth posting?) Don't send attachments to the list. Around 200 people read this (as of September '02), so if it takes you one minute to save each reader two seconds, you've saved well over six minutes total.

Lurk for a week or read a few archived messages before you begin posting.

This is a science-literate mailing list. If you're still unclear about whether humans evolved or were planted on Earth by flying saucers, you're welcome to read SL4, but you probably won't like what you read, and your first post will probably be your last. There could be an exception to this rule. We just haven't encountered it yet.

Sniper-based moderation

"I had assumed that the function of a moderator was more akin to a sheepdog herding the outlying members than a sniper picking off the fringe." -- Mike Deering inadvertantly sums up SL4's exact philosophy of moderation.

English is not my mother tongue. As a non-native English user, I feel that my English mastery is good enough for most everywhere on the Internet other than Less Wrong.

It is frustrating to be called out on silly mistakes you would never make in your native language. Seize the opportunity to level up in English, be hard on yourself, use reference tools, and your fluency will slowly increase. Near-fluency will give way to fluency, you will be better off from the effort.

SUGGESTION: For speakers of foreign tongues who want to improve, maybe add an "editorial input solicited" - tag. As a signal that you welcome the picking of nits and other improvements. A "Crocker's Rules" of wordcraft? If there was one I would happily apply it to this reply.

"Editorial input solicited" is perhaps not a super catchy term. Better suggestions are welcome.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 06 November 2011 07:30:30PM *  8 points [-]

This allergy toward sloppiness harkens back to the unique and interesting moderation policy of Eliezer Yudkowsky's SL4.org, and its mailing list. Compared to SL4, Less Wrong is a welcoming and friendly place.

(Actual quality of discussion on SL4 was significantly worse, so this seems to be a fake explanation.)

Comment author: steven0461 06 November 2011 09:24:03PM *  1 point [-]

Actual quality of discussion on SL4 was significantly worse

Worse total or worse per comment?

Worse considering what ideas were available at the time or worse regardless?

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 06 November 2011 09:37:38PM 2 points [-]

Without controlling for anything, including topic selection. Worse general impression (which I can't easily parse in terms of "per comment"), significant portion of low quality comments (comments that bad are rare here), and less high quality participation (but then, overall volume was smaller as well).

Comment author: Logos01 07 November 2011 08:14:28AM -1 points [-]

and less high quality participation (but then, overall volume was smaller as well).

Don't underestimate the impact of voting mechanisms in their ability to screen out poorer-quality discussion. (As someone who is frequently downvoted on LW, I can state from personal experience that while this is often done persistently on the basis of individual sentiment rather than in terms of contribution to the dialogue, the impact is relatively equivalent either way: by seeing the opinions of others to the comments of others, we learn how to better sculpt our own comments.)

Comment author: TheOtherDave 06 November 2011 07:58:07PM 4 points [-]

Well, OK, since you asked: should be "you will be better off from the effort"

Comment author: betterthanwell 06 November 2011 08:26:48PM 2 points [-]

I had written off as of. How sloppy of me. Thanks for your assistance.

Comment author: Nectanebo 07 November 2011 03:17:58PM 2 points [-]

The "Crocker's Rules" of wordcraft is a great suggestion, it would be of great use to anyone who may be less confident with their English. It may help people who may not be as willing to post to become less timid as it acts in a way as a disclaimer of English ability.

I know that I personally spent a lot of time lurking before posting due to my lack of confidence that I would be able to contribute effectively due to a number of reasons, but this suggestion could definitely reduce that list of reasons for other unconfident lurkers by one; a positive step for welcoming more potential rationalists into the community.

I definitely think this is a valuable concept to expand on. A catchier term would be great, or perhaps abbreviations could become commonplace some time in the future. Perhaps someone could even be able to engineer the site so that people could choose to display an icon next to their name if they welcomed such input?

Comment author: cadac 07 November 2011 08:52:22PM 1 point [-]

Wouldn't this create a lot of annoying clutter in threads? Maybe create a dedicated discussion post where people correct the posts of people who invoked Crocker's Rules of wordcraft. This would probably require that whoever corrects a mistake also sends a PM to the non-native speaker in question.

(I'm happy if anyone corrects my posts.)

Comment author: betterthanwell 07 November 2011 10:36:42PM 1 point [-]

Receiving a couple of suggestions for minor corrections made me realise the same thing. Discussions will bulk up with suggestions that are useful to the recipient. Enough of these could add more perceived noise to the comments than they will improve the signal of the target post. Private messaging the poster avoids this. But is less rewarding than to point out other peoples mistakes in public.

Comment author: dlthomas 07 November 2011 11:11:06PM 1 point [-]

A straightforward approach might be a means of tagging comments, and filtering/searching based on tags? That way, if I want the substance of the conversation I can filter out wordsmithery, and if I am looking to improve my writing I can see what suggestions others needed?

Comment author: fortyeridania 06 November 2011 11:20:40PM 1 point [-]

I like your suggestion.

Here's another point:

For speakers of foreign tongues, who want to improve,

Cut the first comma to make your clause restrictive.

(In standard usage, the phrase as written implies that all speakers of foreign tongues want to improve; without a comma, it refers only to those speakers of foreign tongues who actually want to improve.

Comment author: beoShaffer 06 November 2011 03:04:22PM 3 points [-]

There already is a translation project, but it seem that it is both fairly small and hard for potential users to find. Specifically, go to the sequences page on the wiki, the final section is for the translated versions.

Comment author: komponisto 07 November 2011 12:13:30AM 4 points [-]

One thing that would make it easier to find would be for people to link to it more often.

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 06 November 2011 08:19:41PM 8 points [-]

In regards to a translation of the Sequences: Is there truly a significant segment of the population out there that would potentially be open to benefit from reading the Sequences, and yet they haven't prioritized learning English already?

Knowledge of English is probably the single most important piece of knowledge a person can have in the modern world -- it's utility highly multiplicative, because anything significant is currently translated to English, and sooner rather than later.

More importantly, anyone remotely rational will probably have already prioritized learning English.

So, in short, I'm not sure a cost-benefit analysis favors a translation of the Sequences to a different language.

Comment author: prase 07 November 2011 09:53:23AM 5 points [-]

I am sure that knowledge of English is one of the most important skills for almost everybody. I am far less sure that this includes the level of fluency which enables reading articles on philosophy.

The cost-benefit analysis should take into account utilities of the translators, which may include not only promoting LW ideas, but also promoting their own language (by increasing the number of high-quality texts in that language), improving their own translation skills, spending time they would otherwise procrastinate...

Comment author: steven0461 06 November 2011 09:31:33PM 4 points [-]

Maybe the main benefit from translations is capturing Google searches for key terms in non-English languages.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 06 November 2011 09:20:58PM 8 points [-]

If the Sequences will be translated by volunteers, they are the ones that should do the cost-benefit analysis. In my opinion, translating everything would be an overkill, but translating selected articles could be useful. Perhaps the most rational approach would be to translate something, then measure the impact, and then decide whether to continue or not. The answer may be different for different languages.

anyone remotely rational will probably have already prioritized learning English

English is very useful, there is no doubt about it.

However, I know a few people who don't speak English, for various reasons. Some of them claim to be not gifted for languages; they tried learning, and they failed. Just because languages are easy for me, they are not easy for everyone. Others have learned different languages, which at the moment seemed like a good choice, and now they hesitate about learning yet another language. There are some people who were reading LW when they were 13 years old; I can imagine a 13 years old person that hadn't mastered English yet, especially if they have bad teachers. I like the idea of providing some useful texts for these people. (Just like I like that some people are translating HP:MoR to other languages.)

Learning English is a rational choice, but people should not be required to learn English before they can learn how to be rational. Just like they don't have to learn English before they can use Wikipedia.

Comment author: fortyeridania 06 November 2011 10:47:23PM 6 points [-]

the most rational approach would be to translate something, then measure the impact

How would one measure the impact? I thought this was still a question mark for the English version.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 07 November 2011 08:06:33PM 1 point [-]

If there is a rule that the discussion under the translated article should be in the same language, then we can translate a few articles and look at the discussion below them. If there is no discussion, or just the same 2-3 people talking, then it does not make sense to continue. If there are 10 or 20 people talking, then... well, it depends on translator's cost-benefit analysis.

(There are usually more people reading than talking on web. I heard about the 1:10 rule -- of 10 people reading the site, 1 will register to write comments; of 10 people writing comments, 1 will write an article.)

Then there is a question about type of the impact: are all those LW readers improving their lives, or just procrastinating? This I don't know. (I propose a "null hypothesis" that the ratio of readers who really benefit from reading LW will be approximately the same in all languages.)

Comment author: prase 07 November 2011 09:46:19PM *  2 points [-]

If there is no discussion, or just the same 2-3 people talking, then it does not make sense to continue.

The new readers attracted by the translated texts should have some time to find the site; if you translate one article on LW into Swahili, there will almost surely no discussion, even if there was a big number of potential Swahili speaking LWers: those who already read the English version have probably commented on the original article and have no reason to comment on the translation; for those who would become regular users of the Swahili version a single translated article isn't enough.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 06 November 2011 11:16:54PM 0 points [-]

If the Sequences will be translated by volunteers, they are the ones that should do the cost-benefit analysis.

Bearing the consequences isn't necessarily related to ability to make correct decisions.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 06 November 2011 08:27:08PM *  3 points [-]

Knowing English is a good choice in the modern world, but not everyone has good access to resources. Also, the Sequences are supposed to encourage rationality, so there's some advantage in making them available to people who aren't yet making the best instrumental choices.

I would hope that if the Sequences (or at least some of the most important articles) are translated, this could work as an incentive to learn English.

Comment author: betterthanwell 06 November 2011 08:52:50PM *  1 point [-]

If the sequences are reworked into a book, and the English version of the book does sufficiently well, the publisher would have an incentive to pay a professional to do this job. I don't know how common it is for non-fiction books to be translated from English. You would probably need a "best-seller" for this to be realistic, but it could well happen.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 06 November 2011 09:25:15PM 4 points [-]

My impression is that translation from English is more common than translation into English (definitely true for science fiction) but I don't know what the threshold is.

There's at least one advantage to in-house translation. The odds are better of getting a translator who understands the concepts.

Comment author: Logos01 07 November 2011 08:05:43AM 0 points [-]

My impression is that translation from English is more common than translation into English (definitely true for science fiction) but I don't know what the threshold is.

I have a sneaking intuition that this is more to do with the fact that English is the more common medium for most things from the outset than some other implied directionality.

A decent case-study of whether this is valid is to find some category of work that is frequently not in english by default and has a global audience. The most popular of such that springs to my mind is anime.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 07 November 2011 12:28:50PM 0 points [-]

My only point was looking at the question of at what point something gets translation paid for by its publisher. I don't know how much anime is translated by the company that produced it, and how much it gets translated by fans.

Comment author: Logos01 07 November 2011 12:34:06PM 0 points [-]

I don't know how much anime is translated by the company that produced it, and how much it gets translated by fans.

Well, either metric (compared against itself, anyhow) would still be useful for deriving the principle in question.

Comment author: betterthanwell 06 November 2011 11:18:32PM 0 points [-]

(And is under contract to actually finish the job within a reasonable deadline.)

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 07 November 2011 01:20:04AM 1 point [-]

Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't think translating the Sequences needs to be done by a single person or group, though consistency would be good.

Decent translations of single articles would be better than nothing.

Comment author: falenas108 07 November 2011 02:01:11AM *  2 points [-]

Consistency would probably be pretty important for the Sequences. Eliezer frequently reuses phrases to reference previous ideas without having to explain any further. (Ex: phrases like cashed thoughts, leaky generalizations, how an algorithm feels from the inside.)

If people used different translations for these phrases, it would be much harder to read. Having those phrases repeated over and over acted as an extremely convenient way to express complex ideas.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 07 November 2011 03:44:13AM 1 point [-]

A reasonable point. I suppose it's possible to work on consensus translations for important words and phrases, but that might be even more work that getting one person to do the translation.

Comment author: dlthomas 07 November 2011 04:08:44AM 3 points [-]

As long as we allow edits, there's no reason these can't be settled on gradually, is there?

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 06 November 2011 05:10:01PM 2 points [-]

Is there any "official policy" on using other languages at LW site? If there is, perhaps it should be more visible. If there isn't, let's think about some guidelines.

I think it would be nice to provide a place for people speaking other languages, but on the hand, we should not fragment the community unnecessarily. Good new ideas that arise in non-English discussions should be translated back to English.

People speaking other languages than English should be encouraged to write an article in their language. The title of a non-English article should start with a ISO 639-1 language code, like this: "[sk] Môj článok". This convention could be later used by software to provide a list of articles in given language, or use a correct HTML language tag.

The discussion should be in the same language as the original article, if possible. If someone has only a passive knowledge of given language, they can answer e.g. in English, but generally it is preferred to answer in the same language.

If the article and the following discussion is just a translation of existing English content, or it is wholly related to use of the given language (for example discussions about LW wiki localization), or if it has very low karma, then it is not important for English speakers. In other cases someone should later translate the article in English, perhaps also with selected parts of discussion.

The author of non-English article by posting their article implicitly consents to anyone later posting the English translation of their article, on LW. I hope it is safe to assume that people who post on LW in English also wouldn't mind the translations of their texts, if the translation is published on LW.