We have a new user who has recently both asked and answered questions in French.

I think we should discuss the appropriateness of this practice.

Pete, it seems silly to post an answer that essentially repeats your point of view. Could you leave an answer so that people can vote on it? Otherwise we are voting on the question and on the first answer at the same time. – Alex B. Feb 8 '11 at 13:04
A messy part of this issue is the question of what constitutes English. Besides the existence of various versions of English (American, British, Australian, etc), there is the fact that many words have been taken into English while retaining their foreign spelling and pronunciation. (If you were to say that the stack exchange websites are part of the Zeitgeist ushered in by the internet, I would say “Touché!”) So, in an “English-only” environment would you be (implicitly/unintentionally) forbidden to use those words? - and even if not, would some self-censorship be taking place anyway? – Mike Jones Aug 30 '11 at 3:31
I have asked something related here. – JMCF125 Mar 22 '14 at 15:46

10 Answers 10

Upon request, here is a summary of my opinions on the matter.

For questions: I say go ahead and ask a question in any language you want, and take what you get as a response. Also be prepared for someone to edit an English translation into the question. (I think this should be regarded as a public service, and that one need not solicit the OP's permission in order to do so.)

For answers: unless the question specifically invites a non English language, I think answering in another language should be avoided. In particular, I worry about the following possibility: someone posts an answer in a foreign language (like French) that a large percentage of professional mathematicians can read but for which a much smaller percentage of anglophone students can read. Posting such an answer could actually make it less likely that the OP will receive an answer s/he can read and understand.

this might be OK so long as the question is translated into English. I guess it also depends on the community's willingness to do this work on behalf of the askers, and how many there are. Opening the door to this is a bit dangerous in my opinion, as it could engender a "translate this and do my work for me" mentality on the part of question askers. – Jeff Atwood Feb 9 '11 at 4:21
@Jeff: Dear Jeff, I wouldn't expect posters to use a foreign language unless they were much more comfortable with it, as it would be much less likely to be read and answered. So I think there is a built-in disincentive to doing so from this being a primarily English-speaking website. – Akhil Mathew Feb 9 '11 at 6:14
Translating really well is hard; but translating well enough to be useful is not too much work for anyone who knows both languages. In particular, translating a question is (in my experience) much less work than even thinking seriously about how to answer it. Especially if “peer-reviewed edits” come to math.se, widening the pool of translators, I don’t think the danger of a good non-English answer blocking an English answer is very serious. – Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine Feb 9 '11 at 18:45
It is also worth adding that for good translations, it is much more important to be very comfortable with the language one is translating into than the one one is translating from. So it would probably greatly improve the quality of English that we see on this site if posters who are not completely comfortable with English posted in their native language or some other widely known language that they speak. I bet that questions in German, Russian or French will almost never remain untranslated for longer than an hour or two. – Alex B. Aug 29 '11 at 4:35
I would add for questions that it really helps to include a sentence in English (even halting ungrammatical English) where you say that you will be able to understand answers in English. Otherwise the whole thing can feel a bit pointless. – Henning Makholm Apr 16 at 18:57

I would significantly prefer

  • A question by a fluent speaker of a language that I don't know, translated into perfect English by someone who knows both languages, so that I can understand the translation immediately

compared to

  • A question in broken English, which I cannot understand, by someone who is only a fluent speaker of another language.

I agree with all other responses here that it's fine to add a translation of the question into English, even without asking the OP, and that the OP has to be willing to take answers back in English. Anyone who posts answers in other languages has to expect that most members here can't read the answer to vote it up.

I totally agree. Even if I do understand the question, I would prefer to translate it myself instead of having to read mangled English. In fact, questions posted in polished French, say, with an added error-free English translation would make the site look much prettier than grammatically incorrect English ("Does it true that their are people who do there own translation" anyone?). – Alex B. Aug 29 '11 at 4:44

If I may make a small request: I would appreciate it if, when a question or answer is posted in a language other than English, someone with the requisite multilingual ability could add a translation in English to the content of the post, because:

  1. There would probably be many people here who do not know the other language, but would be very interested in the content of the question or answer if only they could read it.

  2. If a similar or related question gets posted in English, it would not help to direct the asker to a previous question that he or she cannot even read. In particular, closing as exact duplicate would be unfortunate.

Certainly one can always resort to Google Translate, but a translation by machine is not necessarily accurate, and is often taxing to read.

(Right now, someone has helpfully provided a translation of the question into English in the comments, but it would be nice if it were added to the question itself, as comments do not show up in search.)

@Rahul: done. I hope my translation is roughly correct. (I did it blind and compared to anon's afterwards to prevent silly mistakes. It looks like our translations agree.) – Willie Wong Feb 8 '11 at 20:47
@Rahul: by the way, being a professional mathematician does not confer reading knowledge of French as a magical power. It is certainly not the case that all math PhDs can read math in French. It depends a lot on (i) their age, (ii) their subject area [e.g. algebraic geometry is highly correlated with reading French, graph theory not so much] and (iii) their enthusiasm about learning a foreign language (as well as (iv) the language requirements of their PhD program, but these are increasingly vestigial). – Pete L. Clark Feb 8 '11 at 21:16
@Pete: Oh, I certainly did not think so! But it seemed to me from reading the discussions here and elsewhere that some knowledge of languages like French, German and Russian is helpful when working in mathematics, at least much more so as compared to certain other fields like computer science. – Rahul Feb 8 '11 at 21:53
@Rahul: to that I say: I would love to know German and/or Russian. It would be a lot of fun and useful for a lot of things, including reading certain math papers. But what am I supposed to do -- take a sequence of courses in more than one foreign language? That's un-American! :) – Pete L. Clark Feb 8 '11 at 22:39
Here is one data point: I speak both Russian and German fluently and I think I took advantage of that ability twice or maybe thrice in my (admittedly short) mathematical career. In comparison to that, I have read hundreds of fictional works and watched dozens of films in each of the languages. In short, there are better reasons to learn these languages than mathematics, so in a rational world, there should be hardly any correlation between mathematical skills and German/Russian knowledge. – Alex B. Feb 9 '11 at 1:53
I guess I was under a false impression. I've edited. – Rahul Feb 9 '11 at 2:40

I, for one, would prefer if we did stick to English...

The recent appearance of French consisted in the best written French I've read online in quite a while. But I can but note that just as other users managed to get the point of what was being asked by using, say, google translation service, the OP could have proceeded similarly...

it is, in my opinion, a very bad sign when a new user sees "oh, this site is in English, but I shall proceed to ask my question in {other language} anyway." Perhaps the OP was somehow exceptional in this case, but in the typical case.. users should follow basic site norms. – Jeff Atwood Feb 9 '11 at 4:49
@Jeff It might well be a bad sign. This other language being French, which is famous for rather militant proponents, doesn't help in this instance. But so far, we haven't had policies preventing "bad signs". If the poster had opposed the inclusion of an English translation into his question, I would have flagged the question as spam. But whatever this was a bad sign of doesn't seem to have gotten worse at the time of writing this comment. – Alex B. Feb 9 '11 at 6:16
@Jeff: I would be grateful if you could expand what exactly, in your view, it is a very bad sign of, that an OP writes a question in another language (presumably, other than English). A remark about the formulation of your comment: to pretend, even rhetorically, that the OP thought that this site is in English is (1) contrary to something the OP explicitly stated, and (2) preempting this whole debate at its onset. – Did Feb 9 '11 at 6:53
@Didiers, I have trouble understanding how one can can miss the fact that this is, in practice, an English site, assuming one has browsed around in it for at least thirty seconds. I have no problem with foreign languages---I have spent an important part of the last 30 years studying several of them, included English; at the same time, I believe that common courtesy requires some observation of local customs: be it so as not to phrase questions like orders, to take off your shoes when you go into someone's house, or to not write all in caps. – Mariano Suárez-Alvarez Feb 9 '11 at 16:06
@Mariano: Besides being unnecessarily condescending and not answering in the least the question I asked, your comment raises more questions than it provides answers. For instance, I wonder what the local customs you mention (orders, shoes, caps) have to do in this discussion. Likewise, to invoke an undefined notion of common courtesy in this context is odd since, once again, it seems to take for granted the matter of the debate. – Did Feb 9 '11 at 17:04
@Didier: I honestly do not see what could possibly seen as condescending in what I wrote. I made two points: first, that browsing the site immediately shows that, in practice, this is an English site; second, that when entering any social situation, including entering a public online forum, it is up to the person entering to spent enough time trying to figure out, and then at least show willingness to implement, the standard practices local to that forum. You apparently did not understand my references: we systematically tell people not to write all in caps, and to not phrase questions – Mariano Suárez-Alvarez Feb 9 '11 at 17:20
...in the form of orders; we are thereby sustaining the local standard practices. When you visit someone's house where the local standard practice is to take your shoes off, it is basic courtesy to take yours off---I am sorry for having assumed that such a trivial reference to real life courtesy would be immediately understood and taken as a real life example. I do not preempt nor take for granted anything: I am explaining my thoughts on the matter. – Mariano Suárez-Alvarez Feb 9 '11 at 17:25
@Mariano: Re your first point, the debate (as I understand it) is to decide whether this site should refuse on principle every contribution not written in English (or in broken English, for that matter). In this context your (repeated) mentions of the (trivially true) fact that up to now this site functioned in English may be seen as a tactic to evade the debate. Re your second point, you once again postulate the answer to the question. Your last sentence is off the mark (and, as it happens, false). – Did Feb 9 '11 at 17:47
@Mariano: last sentence of your penultimate comment, that is. – Did Feb 9 '11 at 17:50
I am not postulating the answer to any question: as I said already, I am giving my view on the matter, and it would be useful if you took the difference between these two things into consideration. I am talking about what has happened up to now, as you very aptly italicize, because that comment was written, as you surely will have observed, about what happened already. Repeating that I evade some debate does not, I am afraid, make that true. In any case, I don't think anything useful is going to come out of this specific interchange... – Mariano Suárez-Alvarez Feb 9 '11 at 18:30

In the admittedly short time I've been here, I have got the impression that the purpose of Stack Exchange is not only answering people's questions, but also gradually building up a "knowledge base" in the process. In my opinion, permitting questions or answers in other languages runs counter to this idea. The value of such a "knowledge base" obviously decreases with the number of languages. Also, there is no real need to permit questions in other languages. The vocabulary needed for English mathematics is ridiculously small. People who find out about this site and can understand what it is about should be able to get their message through. In this particular case, it is clear that C.R. speaks English well enough, but chooses to write in French as a matter of principle.

A little practical problem about questions in other languages: What if somebody asks a question that has already been asked and answered in French? Will it be closed as a duplicate?

"The value of such a "knowledge base" obviously decreases with the number of languages" — this is not obvious to me. It seems it should be "obviously increases" (starts to have value for readers in other languages as well), but actually nothing is obvious without comprehensively considering the externalities. – ShreevatsaR Feb 11 '11 at 18:53
Well, any question in French is good for those who understand French and not English. But it's bad for the much larger group of people who understand English and not French. So any gain in value for readers in another language leads to a much greater loss of value for readers who dont understand that language. Of course, it would be different if we had the same question in different languages, but this would require systematic translating. – Stefan Feb 11 '11 at 19:41
@Stefan Walter: just to let you know where we are now: 100% of the questions which have been asked in a non-English language on this site have been translated by volunteers. If the volume does not increase by more than a couple of orders of magnitude, I think this is likely to continue. – Pete L. Clark Feb 11 '11 at 22:17
From a techincal viewpoint, I would say standardizing the language is a good thing. There are issues like full text search of mixed languages (a Swahili wordbreaker?), dealing with multilingual tagging etc. I really don't see the big deal with saying this an English only site. How many mathematicians are there who can understand enough to post to this site and not really know English? From a software developer (of the SE system) perspective, it is not really worth the effort, IMO. Trying to support multiple languages is just increasing the work for everyone for not much benefit. 2c. – Aryabhata Feb 11 '11 at 23:08
@Pete: So far, I only know of one question link and this one has an answer (probably containing the solution) which has not been translated. – Stefan Feb 11 '11 at 23:20
@Stefan: I still don't understand the "loss of value". We're comparing two cases, one where a question in French does not exist, and the other where it does. Now how does adding a question lead to loss of value? (I'm assuming, of course, that the third alternative of the same poster posting the question in English instead is unlikely — there is a strong built-in disincentive against asking questions in other languages (fewer views), so presumably no one would post in another language if they were sufficiently comfortable with English.) – ShreevatsaR Feb 12 '11 at 15:44
"I'm assuming, of course, that the third alternative of the same poster posting the question in English instead is unlikely" - My point is that people who are sufficiently comfortable in English to find this site and understand its workings should be sufficiently comfortable in English to ask their question in English. The one user we are talking about clearly is comfortable with English, as he answered an English question and even states in the question linked to above that he's reading an English textbook at the moment. – Stefan Feb 12 '11 at 17:18
"The vocabulary needed for English mathematics is ridiculously small." That's hardly the point. Yes, understanding mathematical English is easy (as is, for an anglophone, understanding mathematical [any modern Romance/Germanic language]). But asking a question in English, particularly on subtle matters or about stuff you don't fully master (and if you mastered it, you wouldn't ask, would you?) is really hard! I think anyone who has taken a foreign language course has experienced the frustration of being able to understand relatively elaborated texts but... – PseudoNeo Aug 31 '11 at 17:14
... unable to express any mildly complex ideas... In a case like that, I think that being forced to write in English would deter some people from asking interesting questions. Compared to the little effort asked to translate such questions given the current volume, I think it's not worth it. – PseudoNeo Aug 31 '11 at 17:14

The user C.R. posted a detailed commentary on the main site. Following a request, I've moved it here. The translation is due to Derek Jennings.

Ceci devrait être un commentaire à la dernière réponse, mais je ne peux plus l'ajouter en tant que commentaire. Je m'en excuse.


J'ai précisé cela dans ma question car je ne voulais pas qu'il y ait de malentendu. Mais en réalité je trouve que cela allait de soi que les gens devaient pouvoir répondre dans une autre langue que la mienne. En effet, si j'avais posé la question sur un site où tout le monde ne devait écrire qu'en français, je n'aurais pas pu recevoir de réponse de ceux qui comprennent le français mais s'expriment normalement dans une autre langue, et qui sont très nombreux.

Ce que je trouve souhaitable, c'est que sur un site comme celui-ci, qui est unique sur internet à mon avis, les gens parlant différentes langues puissent interagir, plutôt que ce que chaque communauté reste cloisonnée sur des sites différents. Évidemment, j'ai conscience de faire quelque chose qui n'a pas été fait souvent - ou du tout - jusqu'ici.

Dans le cas présent, je n'avais aucun moyen de savoir à l'avance si celui qui a commencé le fil comprenait ou non le français, et je ne crois pas que cela aurait été commode, ni pour lui ni pour moi, de poser la question au préalable et d'écrire la solution seulement après avoir reçu sa réponse. Alors j'ai tenté ma chance: une réponse qui a 50% de chances d'être comprise vaut mieux qu'aucune réponse.

Ceci dit, et évidemment ce n'était pas le cas ici, le problème pourrait être résolu entièrement à l'avenir en incluant dans le profil une case pour que les gens indiquent en quelles langues ils souhaitent recevoir des réponses.

D'ailleurs, dans d'autres circonstances, il arrive fréquemment que les gens s'expriment dans leur langue - ou une langue seconde qu'ils maîtrisent - sans savoir s'ils seront compris, mais en même temps sans que cela soit une preuve d'arrogance. J'ai déjà rencontré des touristes qui se sont exprimés spontanément en anglais, en espagnol, en allemand, et en italien, sans savoir si je pouvais les comprendre, et sans que cela soit le moindrement arrogant.

Here's a translation of the above.

This should be a comment to the last answer, but I cannot add it as a comment. Please accept my apologies.

I made that clear in my question because I did not want there to be any misunderstanding. But in reality, I believe it's inevitable that people should be able to reply in a language other than mine. In effect, if I had posed the question on a site where everybody had to write in French I would not have been able to receive a reply from those who understand French but normally speak another language, and there are a lot of them.

What I would like, is that on a site like this one, which is unique on the internet in my opinion, is that people speaking different languages can interact, rather than each community remaining fenced-in on different sites. Obviously, I'm aware of doing something that has not been done often, if at all, until now.

In the present case, I have no way of knowing in advance if the person who began the thread understands French, and I don't think it would have been practical, neither for him nor for me, to pose that question beforehand and write a solution only after having received his reply. So I decided to risk it: a reply that has a 50% chance of being understood is better than no reply at all.

That said, and evidently it's not the case here, the problem could be resolved entirely in advance by allowing one to specify in their profile in which languages they wish to receive answers.

Besides, under other circumstances, it happens frequently that people express themselves in their language, or in another language they speak, without knowing if they will be understood but, at the same time, not wanting to be arrogant. I have met tourists who have spoken freely in English, Spanish, German and Italian without knowing if I was able to understand them and who did not appear in the least arrogant.


As has been pointed out by Pete Clark, it may be useful to think of the analogy that somebody asks a high school question and you phrase your answer in terms of Galois cohomology. If you don't use the language that the OP speaks, it's just not very helpful. Most people speak less than 5 languages, and there are more than hundred out there. What use is an answer in a random language that the OP doesn't understand? – Alex Bartel 11 hours ago edit

Malheureusement, je ne peux répondre qu'ici, car je perds mes points à chaque fois que je me déconnecte. J'estimais raisonnables les chances que ma réponse soit comprise. – C. R. 11 hours ago
1 up vote

You should register, then you will keep your reputation. – Alex Bartel 11 hours ago

thanks for the translation. – Sean Tilson Feb 9 '11 at 1:31
@Sean: Dear Sean, the translation is not mine (I should have probably mentioned this). – Akhil Mathew Feb 9 '11 at 1:37
thank you for posting it then. – Sean Tilson Feb 9 '11 at 5:27
"Most people speak less than 5 languages," fewer, I think, not less "and there are more than hundred out there." There are more than 800 languages in New Guinea alone. – Gerry Myerson Mar 4 '14 at 9:38

I have no problem with reading a question in Spanish and answering in English, but answering in Spanish would be a considerable challenge for me, and I'd guess that someone posting in Spanish would have no problem reading the answer in English, but might not be able to post the question in English. (The guy who did this yesterday included in his posting an explicit request for translation.)

Facebook and Wikipedia have taken different approaches to this question. Wikipedia is segregated by language: there's English Wikipedia, French Wikipeda, Arabic Wikipedia, etc. etc. On Facebook, if I set my language preference to French instead of English, then I read "X a partagé une photo de Y" instead of "X shared Y's photo", and "J'aime" instead of "Like", and "Aficher les 13 commentaires" instead of "Show all 13 comments", and "Accueil" instead of "Home", etc. etc. You can choose any of quite a large number of languages. But reading and writing posts is done in whichever language it's done in, at the discretion of the user every time; there's no segregation of languages at all. Users in Brazil who post in Portuguese and read their friends' postings in Portuguese are on the same facebook as those in France who post in French and read their friends postings in French, etc.


I think questions can be posed in another language, but they should be properly translated so that the community can understand them. I believe it is fair to allow people to do so, since this site is dedicated to mathematical questions, and if they need any question on mathematics to be answered, so be it.

I can translate any question asked in Spanish, for example, though it will have to wait for me to spot it or be referenced to it. Another option is to form a small team for the most common languages that is able to give a little extra voluntary work to translate such questions with a proper notification system (10k+ users can see the "translate please" flag, but other users won't. (Maybe French, Spanish, German, which I know there are many users which speak it)

Again a shameless promotion of my own proposal, but anyway: You wrote with a proper notification system. Perhaps a reasonable way to create such notification system would be my suggestion from here: Could chatrooms serve as noticeboards?. – Martin Sleziak Jul 1 '12 at 8:39

The official policy is that sites are English only at the moment.


I find the official policy very sad and even somewhat disturbing. – Derek Jennings Feb 8 '11 at 16:31
In particular, the question in French we had yesterday had more work put into it that 30 average English ones! – Mariano Suárez-Alvarez Feb 8 '11 at 17:36
For what it's worth, I have no interest in enforcing this policy. – Qiaochu Yuan Feb 9 '11 at 1:03
I also don't see a reason for such a policy. The poster knows that in asking a question in another language than English, he may be limiting his audience. It is his decision. Nobody is forced to read a question he doesn't understand. In fact, as far as an average participant of this site is concerned, most questions and answers are in a foreign language to him. Many will find it easier to read an elementary question written in French than an English question about Shimura varieties. So I really don't understand the rationale behind this policy. – Alex B. Feb 9 '11 at 4:06
Now, answering in a language different from the OP's, that's a totally different matter... – Alex B. Feb 9 '11 at 4:09
@Alex, so if someone asks in French answers to that question should be in French. As it seems everyone would like translations into English to be added, that doubles the work. – Mariano Suárez-Alvarez Feb 9 '11 at 15:56
@Mariano I would say that contributions in English should always be the norm. I would also say that if a question was asked in another language, an answer in the same language should be fine. As for doubling the work: nobody is forced to provide translations. We all do this thing voluntarily and are putting in work already, because we want to help. I have spent lots of time on trivial questions on this site, e.g. due to the ineptitude of the OP to listen or read carefully. Translating a question is a minor effort compared to that. – Alex B. Feb 10 '11 at 1:02
I'm sure that many people who are keen to contribute but find most questions too hard to answer will be happy to provide a translation instead. – Alex B. Feb 10 '11 at 1:03
@alex you should know that I've personally been told by very high ranking Google engineers that auto-translated content is grounds for banning from Google's index, as it explicitly violates their quality guidelines. So, the translations technically have to be hand translated, otherwise we risk delisting from Google. ref: twitter.com/#!/mattcutts/status/12763191490650112 – Jeff Atwood Feb 10 '11 at 1:43
@Jeff Certainly. I didn't suggest anything else and I don't think I even mentioned Google translate anywhere. – Alex B. Feb 10 '11 at 2:55
I think a policy on this should be left for each site to decide on its own (and possibly evolve with time), and not decided across StackExchange from "above". (I'd agree that for most SE sites, prohibiting non-English questions is a very good idea, but this is something for the respective communities to decide.) – ShreevatsaR Feb 12 '11 at 17:53
@ShreevatsaR: the policy here is for us to decide, that's why we have this meta. – Carl Mummert Aug 29 '11 at 1:52
It seems to me that this policy has been set with other (bigger) communities in mind. While it may be feasible to find a relatively comprehensive forum in a few languages to, say, understand pointers in C, I'm positive that no public francophone forum exists where even a relatively simple question about homotopy groups or Sobolev spaces has a good chance to be answered. As the "Direct programmers to native language resources." policy cannot be applied in our case, I think regarding this whole official policy as moot is a good way to go. – PseudoNeo Aug 31 '11 at 17:23
Nonzero third derivatives support this policy. – Mike Jones Sep 3 '11 at 20:01

There are only three (3) viable options on the language issue:

  1. continue to enforce the English-only policy, in which case you come off as insensitive

  2. allow any language, in which case you look silly, like a polygot boarding house

  3. make the site fully bilingual, Esperanto being the other language

Not Esperanto. Volapük. – GEdgar Jun 26 '12 at 13:34
I too have suggested this, getting down-voted to oblivion. Though now I have a different point of view. – JMCF125 Mar 22 '14 at 15:44
Was it something I said? – Mike Jones Jul 15 '14 at 8:43

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