It's obvious to me that there's a trend now on Stack Overflow of relatively low-quality questions from new users who are non-native speakers with low or intermediate fluency in English, or at least claim to be.

It doesn't take a genius to work out that this may be because some of them struggle to read and fully comprehend the various English-language notices and admonitions that Stack Overflow has put in place to try to deter low-quality questions over the years - from welcome pages, to automated content filters displaying terse rejection messages.

I am not saying that such non-native speakers always ask bad questions, of course - far from it! - I am saying that a noticeable number of the low-quality questions, are from such non-native speakers.

What could we do about this particular problem?

  • 4
    +1 an interesting question and a genuine concern. If it's difficult to understand the site (especially given how unique it is) then how can you expect to participate. A fair discussion I'd say.
    – Bart
    Commented Nov 16, 2013 at 19:48
  • 2
    Related: How about translating the SO FAQ into foreign languages? I don't think that's a good idea anymore, though
    – Pekka
    Commented Nov 17, 2013 at 0:14

5 Answers 5


There's a bit of an update to this as part of the Stack Exchange Quality Project (related here | related on MSO). Some new review queues will be created, one of which is specifically designed for folks that enjoy helping people that want to ask good questions, but can't because they're struggling with improving their communication skills.

A language barrier is one reason someone might struggle and perhaps flail a bit while trying to communicate their ideas, plenty of native speakers simply choke when they need to express their thoughts in writing. This special queue will be designed specifically to assist those that have the time, skill and patience to help others to do so.

It'll be work, the system will do its best to help you make sure that you make 'angel' edits, or a single edit that is going to help the person nail the question. It's also going to help ensure that your process, or rather how you edited becomes a learning experience for the question author.

This queue (at least how it exists on our drawing board) will be fed from a sort of triage - a queue where folks can send great questions right to the front page, total crap to the rubbish bin, and diamonds in the rough to a place where they'll get help.

Nothing is carved in stone yet, but language barriers should only be show-stoppers when you simply can't reach people enough to tell them that they need to include the right kind of information (mostly, in code, what they searched, etc).


If the question being asked is bad, vote to close.

If the phrasing is bad, edit it to clean it up.

(If the original question is in a foreign language, vote to close. No sense in struggling through a translator or having someone else transcribe the text.)

I don't take native language into account when I look at a question that needs to be cleaned up - if it needs to be fixed, I'd rather fix it if and when applicable. If it can't be, or it shouldn't be, then vote-to-close and downvote would be a good approach.

I don't see a problem to the current way this is handled.

  • 7
    Not that I necessarily disagree with your answer, but this question seems to be an invitation to brainstorm a bit, and you've simply described the status quo. If your intention is to say that you don't think the problem raised is actually a problem, or that no new solution is required, could you perhaps make that a bit more explicit?
    – jscs
    Commented Nov 16, 2013 at 19:36

I can't begin to imagine how difficult the site must be for non-native English speakers who struggle with the language. Programming is difficult enough to begin with, and to express yourself, or even to understand the site you're participating on well enough to participate without problems can't be easy.

You could think of providing all kinds of localized support, and this has come up in various forms. One of the answers here speaks of translating the various notices into localized versions. And there have been proposals in the past to provide a form of translation service, where one could ask questions in their native language, and have them translated before being posted on the site. But I think neither of those options are a true solution.

The only real solution I see (besides the users actually learning the English language to a level where they can participate without any problem) is to create localized versions of the site. Start a Stack Overflow in Chinese, or whatever language can provide for an audience that is large enough for such a site to be sustainable.

And it's exactly this idea, and concerns regarding it that have been brought up in the past. It's quite an involved step to take, but it's not a stopgap measure. If done well, it provides those users who have difficulty participating purely due to language with a platform where they can do so without hesitation. And though it might not be comforting of satisfying to hear, if you really wish to participate on Stack Overflow, you might just have to work on your English.


What you can do is to help them in understanding how to post here. Instead of criticizing their bad English grammar or the way they punctuate their spellings.

There are only 2 - 3 options for a beginner (well obviously like me) which are

  1. Edit the question, if you think that this can be made useful. Remove anything that is not related to the question, edit simple mistakes and typos, try to clarify the topic and the subject. But do not change the question.

  2. Flag it, so that moderator can help the user, by either deleting the question if it's too low quality or by editing the question. So that he can learn that I should use this type of subject or this topic in future to ask questions.

  3. Comment on the post, so that he can know where he is wrong.

  4. If you have enough reputation points, vote to close the post, and it might get closed as unclear.

Well believe me, when I started to use Stack Overflow I did not know how to ask, when to ask, where to ask. These three options are must-know for each. I am not an English or an American, but this community made me feel like I can speak this language and can understand how they use words. So you need to be patient and help them in learning this language.

It takes time in start, but as the community helps them, they learn it :)

You're somewhat right, since the low-quality posts for you at least are actually from non-natives. Because it's difficult for you to understand their English as they're making a lot of mistakes in their posts which is really frustrating and sometimes irritating too.

So on my choice, Stack Overflow is a well organised community where people not only learn how to code, they learn how to treat their fellow programmers, they learn how to speak English and how to be on-topic (as there is some strictness too :D..)

  • 4
    Keep in mind that your English is quite good though. And that explaining something to you, be it in a comment, or by showing you a message, is pretty trivial. That will not be the case for all users. And given the site's wide-spread popularity and Google ranking, you will attract a large and diverse audience.
    – Bart
    Commented Nov 16, 2013 at 19:54

I have an idea. How about we:

  1. identify the most problematic countries and regions by IP geolocation, possibly including any IP ranges that have previously been blocked due to the volume of bad quality questions that have originated from them in the past, then
  2. launch a crowdsourcing effort to translate the notices and admonitions that I mentioned in my question into the language(s) commonly spoken in these countries or regions, then
  3. place large, noticeable language buttons somewhere where new users will see them (e.g. in a new interstitial page immediately after account signup), allowing/forcing new users to choose their UI language?

Then new users would actually have a better chance of understanding our community norms. Maybe... we could even adjust the "bluntness" of the language to match cultural norms of each country...

What do you think?

  • 4
    Not a bad idea, but localization is more involved than just translating the text. For one, there are bound to be layout issues as a result (since English tends to be more terse than other languages). For another, any copy change we make after that would require someone to translate it. Last but not least, geolocation only gets you so far - people use proxies, especially coming from some countries like China where that may be their only option for actually visiting our sites in the first place.
    – Adam Lear StaffMod
    Commented Nov 16, 2013 at 19:24
  • I don't think this is a unique idea, I recall seeing it before, but I can't find it at the moment. However, I think there is some merit to the idea. Commented Nov 16, 2013 at 19:26
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    My country is well known for pirating software... why should I be blocked for something done in my country that is not my fault. I'M INOCENT!
    – Braiam
    Commented Nov 16, 2013 at 19:26
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    Also, changing the UI language without allowing folks to post in their native language is probably not going to have much effect on the question quality since the askers would still have to form a question in a language they're not very familiar with.
    – Adam Lear StaffMod
    Commented Nov 16, 2013 at 19:27
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    @Braiam Nobody's talking about blocking people here. Or software piracy, for that matter.
    – Adam Lear StaffMod
    Commented Nov 16, 2013 at 19:28
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    I wonder how positive an experience it would be though. It might be helpful in having them understand what the site's about. It might stop some content from coming in. But will it actually improve their content? Or will it simply be a deterrent? I have more faith in localized sites then.
    – Bart
    Commented Nov 16, 2013 at 19:28
  • @Braiam well exactly - such blocks were instituted a while ago, and my proposal might allow them to be removed, if it was successful! Commented Nov 16, 2013 at 19:28
  • 1
    This might be a good start, but basically just pushes the problem around: when the (translated) information is misunderstood, misinterpreted, ignored, or disagreed with, the ongoing interaction would need to be translated back and forth as well.
    – jscs
    Commented Nov 16, 2013 at 19:29

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