English may be the uncontested lingua franca of most development communities in our (post-?) Pax Americana age. But for developers who prefer working in other languages, the Ubuntu world has taken a big step toward making it easier to contribute without understanding English. That's a particularly smart move for an open source project such as Ubuntu. Here's why.

As Ubuntu developer Daniel Holbach discussed recently, translating documentation on Ubuntu development into languages other than English has long been a goal of the project. That vision has finally become reality with the release of the first non-English version of the Ubuntu Packaging Guide documentation, which explains how to make software contributions to Ubuntu.

For now, the only complete translation available is Spanish. But the story is bigger than that, because this sets a precedent for offering development documentation in many other languages via a new system that will make it easier to translate the guide, and keep translations up-to-date as information changes.

Beyond the Spanish version, progress has also been made for translating the Packaging Guide into several other languages. Of these, the version nearest completion, interestingly enough, is Russian. Brazilian Portuguese follows not too far behind.

Translation and Open Source

In many senses, open source software has long been more friendly toward the non-anglophone world than its proprietary alternatives. Because the open source model makes it easy for anyone to translate applications into the language of his or her choice, users are not restricted to the language versions made available by developers themselves. It's no surprise that Ubuntu supports many more languages than Windows.

And if open source products are appealing to non-English speaking users for this reason, they also theoretically enjoy a leg up with programmers who prefer to work in a different language. Ubuntu developers are thus doing the smart thing by acknowledging that not everyone who stands to make technical contributions to the operating system works primarily in English. Addressing this need helps to strengthen the Ubuntu community while also ensuring that as many programmers as possible are able to volunteer their expertise to advance Ubuntu development. In a channel where voluntary labor is so important, removing linguistic barriers is crucial.

Of course, although I don't have any statistics, I highly doubt there are legions of skilled developers out there who have previously not considered contributing to Ubuntu purely as a result of language issues. Most educated programmers can likely read and write English well enough to participate if they choose--after all, since most programming languages are filled with English words, it would be pretty difficult to become an excellent developer without learning some English along the way.

Still, the efforts that Holbach and his team have undertaken to assist developers whose first language is not English sends a positive message about Ubuntu's openness toward participants of all backgrounds. And they just may draw in some valuable contributions from programmers who would otherwise not go to the trouble of wading through English-only documentation.