It's been obvious for some time that when you ask a question on SO has as much influence on how well it is answered as how you ask a question. Of course this is likely related to timezones and culture and such (e.g. asking a question at 12AM GMT will result in a different audience than 12PM GMT because the users online at the time are likely different).

Lately I've found that even when answering questions, you're plagued by the same problem (then again it could just be that my timezone overlaps with 2 distinctly different areas of the earth). This can lead to a very harsh reality that interaction on SO should be discouraged during specific hours (which I haven't yet mastered).

Ignoring the obvious culture shock/lack of basic English language skills (non-english speakers tend to be online posting questions/answers while most people in my timezone are sleeping) it seems obvious that SE would want to provide answers to questions that are relevant to their user's geographic location (or at least to the extent that all of the parties involved speak relatively the same language share similar cultures.

Reading this again it almost sounds as though I want to divide the audiences, though that isn't the case. We've all experienced the "foreigner" (from our perspective) with insufficient language skills to be able to effectively communicate their issues. This results in both the asker and the answerer's frustrated because they can't understand each other.

As far as I've seen, SO strictly supports English (of any common variety) so what is the right way to deal with questions asked by obviously non-English speaking people? I keep looking for a button that says, "Not understandable due to language/culture barriers" but I end up using "Not a question" or "Too localized" because of the lack of options.

I'm not saying I know the right way to handle this situation, short of commenting that it is cumbersome and at least a distraction. It just seems that SO would want to be able to provide a language/culture dependent (or possibly independent) environment that was able to facilitate a more general and cross culture friendly experience for everyone.


5 Answers 5


I keep looking for a button that says, "Not understandable due to language/culture barriers"

In the current UI, that one is labeled edit. If you can think of a better label, please consider suggesting it.

but I end up using "Not a question" or "Too localized" because of the lack of options.

Yes, if a question is broken beyond repair (that is, it cannot be rescued by editing), then "not a real question" would be your next recourse.

It just seems that SO would want to be able to provide a language/culture dependent (or possibly independent) environment that was able to facilitate a more general and cross culture friendly experience for everyone.

I don't know how to square that with your earlier comment that you don't want to divide the audiences. Yes, I sympathize with the concern that there are a whole lot of really badly formulated, completely unintelligible questions posted to Stack Overflow. This is probably particularly bad for me, because despite the fact that I am a native English speaker from the United States, I'm active online answering questions during the middle of the night when most people in my locale are sound asleep. That means I see the questions posted by people from other parts of the world whose command of the English language is less than stellar. However, I don't think the problem is fixable by dividing audiences, because that also splits up the available knowledge.

I think standardizing on the English language as required is the correct solution to the problem. Obviously that doesn't mean everyone will magically become a master of the language, much less a native speaker. But we do expect people to try, and we should all be willing to help those people out by editing their posts. If someone repeatedly indicates that they are not willing to try, well then their questions should be closed relatively unsympathetically.

  • I appreciate the feedback and I'm aware that this is how we generally solve this problem, but just because I can't understand what is being asked that doesn't mean someone from the same background/ethnicity won't. There seems to be this false sense of reality that technology terminology/understanding is universal when it's not.
    – M.Babcock
    Mar 13, 2012 at 4:27
  • Regarding your edit: I'm in the same boat. It's going on midnight here and all of the houses around me are dark. I don't expect a magic bullet, I just have yet to see any acknowledgement of the problem, so I figured I'd bring it up and see what others had to say. Since you are very much so in the same shoes, have you seen the same difference?
    – M.Babcock
    Mar 13, 2012 at 4:31
  • 2
    I guess I should really be asking if it is enough to edit a uncomprehending, non-English speaker's question if they won't be able to understand the answer from the level that is necessary to know that their question has been answered to the best ability of someone who understands both the language and the technology (not that I'm ever both at once). We end up with only partially comprehensible questions (which are impossible to search for because the rarely, if ever, contain the text we would expect) and the answers require 20 pages of comments to sort out what they meant.
    – M.Babcock
    Mar 13, 2012 at 4:40
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    @M.Babcock: Hmm, yes that is a reasonable question. I think that's totally fine, but then again, I probably see things a bit differently than most of our users. I think when push comes to shove, we're here to amass a collection of valuable knowledge, rather than to help individuals with their specific problems. Most people just want a good answer to their question. (And yes, I'm starting to see some really bad questions recently. I would swear it wasn't this bad 8 months to a year ago, but maybe I'm just forgetting...) Mar 13, 2012 at 4:42
  • I guess I can say that I'm fortunate to be in shared circumstances, but unfortunate enough that there isn't really an answer. It definitely is a frustrating and exhausting process though.
    – M.Babcock
    Mar 13, 2012 at 4:47

To me, the only solution that will be able to fully include non-english speakers is healthy, living, breathing branches of Stack Overflow in other languages.

That is a difficult enterprise, and there seem to be no concrete plans to do it yet, at least not publicly. It may never happen (although that would be a shame).

As long as there are no local branches, it's "speak (some) English or die" on SO. You need a basic command of English to be active here; a friendly community member giving translation help is a great thing, but it is not guaranteed to always happen.

I'm sure there are many fine people who see their contributions unfairly closed just because their English language skills are not perfect, and I agree that stinks. In an ideal world, they would all get help from the community, helping them fix their language errors to make the question shine, and learn English as they go along. But in cases where such help is not forthcoming - decoding human language is much more difficult than many a programming question! - closing is the only viable option, and an act of self-defense by the community. Also as Cody Gray says - SO is not primarily a support site to help individual users. It's supposed to be an archive of great questions and answers.

I don't feel there is a truly time zone specific problem though. In my experience in GMT+1, even though there are spikes and lows, low quality questions manage to come in from every longitude. :) It's the site's ongoing task to find ways to deal with them.


I have raised something similar in the past, but let me try another take on it two years later:

This is a community-driven site. Let someone in the community volunteer to solve this problem. Someone should put up a web site, or publish an email address, where people with poor English skills could post requests for translation. This volunteer or other volunteers could do the translation, then the OP could copy and paste the result into [so].

This permits the translation while keeping the translation function itself outside of the Stack Exchange network.

At the same time, it would give us some feel for how well this would work if it became part of the Stack Exchange network. I recommend that the translated text should include a tag line like "Translated by Joe's House of Translation", including a link to the site. These tag lines, unlike the usual case, would not be edited out. Their purpose would be to give us an idea of how well these translated questions fare.

A multiplicity of translation options would also teach us what works and what doesn't work. These might differ based on language and culture, in ways that us Western-centric native English-speakers cannot imagine.

It shouldn't be left to us to imagine it: let someone who knows the languages and cultures involved imagine it for all of us, and let the result of their imagination magically appear on these sites - in decent English.

  • +1 (here and on your old question) - I like the idea in principle, but in my experience good technical translators are (1) hard to find and (2) even harder to get to work for free.
    – M.Babcock
    Mar 13, 2012 at 16:26
  • @M.Babcock: I'm not so much looking for good technical translators as people who speak the same language as the OP - as well as English. Mar 13, 2012 at 16:39
  • If that's the case then doesn't google translate (or your favorite other online translation service) already fill this need?
    – M.Babcock
    Mar 13, 2012 at 16:40
  • I don't know how many languages Google Translate deals with. In any case, I think that more might be gained from local communities - but only local communities of common language and culture for the purpose of translation. I somewhat doubt that Google Translate can do a good job with the hundreds of languages in India for example. It might handle the top one or two, but I'm not certain that's what's required. I prefer to let the speakers of those languages come up with their own solutions, then paste the result into Stack Overflow. Mar 13, 2012 at 16:44

I'm not sure if it's already been suggested (most things have), but I sometimes wonder whether instead of 'excuse my English', people should instead tag their question with their native language. Then other generous souls with a better command of English could find them easily, edit them into shape, and then remove the tag.

That won't help for the answers of course...

  • 3
    Tagging with your native language should not be encouraged. It's a meta tag.
    – ChrisF Mod
    Mar 13, 2012 at 9:23
  • @ChrisF, yup, but it would be a temporary meta tag.
    – Benjol
    Mar 13, 2012 at 9:25
  • 4
    Nope. It would become a permanent meta tag because people are lazy.
    – ChrisF Mod
    Mar 13, 2012 at 9:26
  • 1
    This isn't a bad idea, but I don't think it belongs in the tag system. Perhaps a separate flag queue? (Like we need another one of those!) Mar 13, 2012 at 9:27
  • 2
    @ChrisF, well they could be time-bombed. A question that hasn't been edited into shape after x hours/days could be automatically marked for deletion. But I guess if people knew that, they'd never stick the tag on, so you'd be back to square one. We do need some way to join people who like to edit to people who are aware their English isn't great.
    – Benjol
    Mar 13, 2012 at 9:29
  • Great concept! I combined both our ideas in my edit. Mar 13, 2012 at 9:57

Perhaps they should be allowed to post in their native language as well, along with their attempt at English. Those people who speak both languages sufficiently can then more easily improve the English version.

I just noticed Benjol's answer has more or less the same idea. Adding flags to those questions which aren't proper English could be a nice mechanism. However they would have to be visually distinct, so they are recognizable as special tags. Just like e.g. the tag on Meta.

Once somebody improved the English version the tag could be removed. I would love to be able to ignore all questions with 'foreign language' tags, waiting for people who speak that language properly to improve the English version of the question.

  • 1
    and the answer in both languages too? If they have problems asking in english they probably won't understand a non-trivial answer. Mar 13, 2012 at 10:02
  • 1
    @MatthiasBauch, I'm not sure that's a valid concern, generally people find it far easier to understand a foreign language than to generate something which is understandable. And they can always use Google translate or something, if they can't even get the gist.
    – Benjol
    Mar 13, 2012 at 10:06
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    @Steven, that's definitely already been suggested (though I can't be bothered to look up where). Personally, I think your proposition is taking it a bit too far. We're a helpful bunch, but we're not a free translation service.
    – Benjol
    Mar 13, 2012 at 10:07
  • @Benjol You are right that could be what it turns out to be. But if the people asking the question would write the questions in English the same as they do now, the foreign language version would only be relevant meta-data. Of course when allowing this, people would probably spend less effort on their English version. Mar 13, 2012 at 11:26
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    This would have the same problems as a full-fledged localized version of SO would: unless everything is translated immediately - which is an unrealistic expectation - you would amass an unmoderable pile of what essentially is trash (because it serves zero purpose to the community). Translating stuff for people could be the focus of an external help site, but it wouldn't work on SO
    – Pekka
    Mar 13, 2012 at 11:29
  • @Pekka I saw a recent TED talk that was doing such a thing ... From the guys behind recaptcha. They translate the web by offering language courses. It's called Duolingo. Interesting stuff! :) Untranslated questions could be placed in a queue, and only be posted on SE after they are translated. Although the highly technical content might make a big part of the question difficult to translate. Mar 13, 2012 at 11:46

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