The English Advantage — Learning Tech Skills and Upskilling
After reviewing 300+ startup pitch decks, from all over Africa, I have noticed one striking similarity across most of them. They’re in English! There have been 3–5 pitch decks submitted in French and Arabic, but those are outlier cases. To some this is more of a duh! moment, but if we take a step back and look at it critically, this is an interesting phenomenon. For most African countries, English isn’t their first or official language. In fact, English is not even top 10 in the most spoken languages in Africa. The top 10 being: Arabic, Swahili, Oromo, Igbo, Amharic, Hausa, Yoruba, Shona, Zulu and Fulani. I can only speak and read one of these languages. Therefore, receiving a startup pitch deck that isn’t in English (the other language I speak and write), I immediately categorise it as unreviewable.
The English Advantage spans beyond just communicating your idea, company or team. It goes as deep as the ability to learn tech skills, developing tech and career growth in the global market. Given the broad nature of the topic, I’ll break this down into a series of articles under the title: The English Advantage. For the first one, let’s talk about learning tech skills and upskilling.
If you are a native English speaker, it may not have occurred to you that there is an English advantage in tech. I’ll give an example with my experience. I tried to learn how to code, back when I was young and ambitious lol! It wasn’t for me. Personally, I found it to be difficult and couldn’t quite get it. Yet all the commands were in English! When my teacher said ‘function’, I already knew what the word means, even without knowing its application in code. Therefore, it wasn’t hard to derive what it would mean in coding. However, for non-English speakers, you’d either need to understand the meaning of the word first, then contextualise it to coding. Or memorise it as a prefix to X code. This is a simple example, that greatly adds up to other aspects of learning/ upskilling in tech.
English Advantages with greater impact.
- Most programming languages and libraries are designed with English keywords, which makes it easier for an English speaker to understand these keys, e.g., knowing what a ‘component’ or ‘actor’ is before you can even write code.
- Resource documentation is mostly done in English. This applies to people who work on new programming languages, libraries and tools. Conversations that happened when these tools are built and improved are in English. Therefore, for one to know the latest work you need to understand the language. There is of course translation, but this happens later. Further, not for all resources are translated and translation is limited to just a handful of languages. In Africa, this is even less.
- It is harder to apply tech that isn’t widely used in your (lingual) ecosystem. For example, if PHP is being used predominantly in francophone regions, then French speakers will opt to use it as it’s the language with the most available resources, even though there may be a better option depending on the desired application. Consequently, you are limited to the tech that is readily available around you. For an English speaker, there is likely never a problem like this.
- Being an open-source contributor becomes harder; as stated, most discussions happen in English.
- Limited career growth. Most global tech companies operate in English. As the world becomes smaller and smaller, everyone aims to be global talent. So, if you wish to be a global tech employee you’ll have to learn English first or at some point.
Is there a way forward?
First, we could use localised content as an entry to learning tech skills. This would reduce the language barriers to getting into something like programming. When content is in your first language, free and readily available, it can serve as an excellent motivator to learn and it can help demystify some of the myths such as ‘code is hard to understand’. More importantly, this would filter out people by skill and potential and not by language ability. The goal here is not necessarily to teach everyone, everything in a local language, but to create a learning path for them.
The second is upskilling in tech. Teaching English is a form of upskilling. Tech is global and English is inevitable. Tech companies looking to get into CSRs and build the next generation of techies should definitely look into ‘simple skills’ such as English. Within local schools, boot camps, vocational learning, and e-learning platforms, tutors and trainers can encourage students to write and create content in English. This can range from publications, and articles, to teaching others in English.
Lastly; it takes a village! A strong developers’ or tech community, especially those centred around schools can make it easier for local communities to join in local languages. Another great community contribution is being a translator in open-source platforms, giving learners a chance to stay up-to-date with tools.
I would love to hear your thoughts on just how far and wide the English advantage spreads in the startup ecosystem. I will keep this series running for as long as I can and address things like; how the English advantage plays a role in raising/ the VC ecosystem. If you’d like or know someone who’d like to co-create or contribute to this series, comment below!
Credit goes to 2 people who helped in preparing this article; Jean (software engineer) and Wuraola (Researcher/ data scientist, who teaches data science in Yoruba!).