So I develop plugins as a hobby for just over two years now (nothing professional). I've posted one plugin online on a forum for everyone to use. Note that this forum has a rule stating you should write in English. While it's not that big of a deal if you don't, it has basically become a standard that everyone follows. The forum is getting bigger and therefore my plugin is getting more downloads as well. With this also comes more people that require help in using the plugin, are requesting specific features or are reporting any bugs. This is great, I like to hear their suggestions, answer their questions and to help them.

However, sometimes people don't speak English fluently. Most of the time I'm able to make out what they're saying, but sometimes I don't understand anything they're writing. I know how hard it is to learn a second language (English isn't my native language either) so I can completely understand the problems they're having.

How would I reply to these sort of questions? I could ask them to rephrase their question, but I feel like that's very frustrating for the person asking (they are trying to post in a language that's clearly very hard for them and I feel like it's disrespectful to basically tell them their message was unreadable). And even if I ask them to, I doubt the conversation will make any progress, because the next post is probably hard to understand as well.

I could just ignore the message altogether, but I think that's really rude as well, as it might make them feel as if I'm not interested in their message.

I currently have no idea what to do. I only speak two languages (only one of them fluently) and the chance that their native language isn't any of these languages is very high, so asking them to write a post in their native language usually won't result in anything good.

I could learn more languages so that I might understand these messages better in the future, but I think that, because of how long it takes to learn a language, that isn't really going to help that much either.

I always try to write in simple English and keep my sentences short and to the point. I also try to use symbols instead of words whenever I can (e.g. '1' instead of 'one') because they're usually more universal. And while these things make it easier for the other person to read my posts (at least I hope so) it still doesn't make it easier for me to read theirs.

I really want to help these people as well, but at this point it's far better in terms of efficiency and productivity to ignore these messages.

  • 1
    Excellent that you want to help your users, even when their English is hard to understand. Maybe you can suggest that they use Google Translate for their questions. No, it's not perfect, by any standard, yet it probably will make their question something you can understand enough to help them with a solution.
    – User 27
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 1:29
  • 7
    I wonder if they are already using google translate. My company had a client that did not speak any English really. He understood it a little, but it was clear a lot was lost. In trying to figure out how well google translate was translating our interactions I entered one sentence & translated it, then translated it back. One piece was absolutely hilarious. I was referencing a coworker "Pat" and it clearly didn't grasp that as a name, so I recall a part of the sentence said "I think I give myself a slap." I laughed for ages. What I actually typed was that "I know that Pat and I..."
    – threetimes
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 3:40
  • Do you know which countries these people are from? Depending on the countries/languages, it might be better to just let them post in their native languages, and you use a translator app to understand it.
    – Blaszard
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 8:31
  • Sadly I don't always know which country they're from. A user can specify this, but you could also write something that isn't a country and some people have made their profiles private.
    – user3491
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 15:44

5 Answers 5


Let me start this by stating that I'm Dutch, fairly straight-forward and very disagreeable, in the sense of the Big 5 personality test.

I think it is respectful to reply to them with a request for clarification, perhaps adding one or two rough/uncertain interpretations. I would say something like this:

Ok, I'm not sure I understand your message right, do you mean X or is it something else?

I understand this could be frustrating to people in some "mindsets" but I don't think there is a more respectful/tactful response than echoing a best-effort interpretation and asking for clarification. By doing this you show that you trust your conversation partner to express themselves well; perhaps not now, but eventually.

I believe this combination of a show of trust ("I trust your (eventual) competence"), limits of your own understanding ("I'm not sure I understand you right") and intent to understand ("I've tried to interpret what you said, did I get it right?") makes it most comfortable to whomever you're talking to explain what they mean and get into the details.

You may think something like "the details this person omitted are so obvious and relevant, and the omittance showed such an incompetence, I'm so mortified so I'm just avoiding this situation", but then you're projecting your own shame onto that person, and missing the point that it's so much worse to figure out you've not been understood because your conversation partner thinks your grasp of the language is unbearably shameful.

In short: I think treating it casually (showing you think it's OK and normal for communication difficulties to occur) and doing a straightforward, good-faith effort to understand your conversation partner is the best you can do.


You have already found the basic answer you need. Write sentences so simple that they can be understood by someone who 'translate' with an auto-translator that just translate each word. That is tough. Languages depend heavily on context to give the individual words meaning, and writing 'proper English' will make you incomprehensible. Easy to learn the basics, but getting on from there is all about plowing enough furrows in your brain, learning all the exceptions. It takes years.

Notice that writing simply does not mean using simple words. The word 'incomprehensible' above is just fine, it has only one meaning and every dictionary will 'understand' it well enough to translate it. The trouble comes with words like 'That'. It can be understood in a lot of ways (and so can 'It'). But dictionaries will usually translate it to another little word that is not really applicable in the context. So: be lucky, keep trying, be patient(forgiving), admit when you do not understand, and keep trying. We all need to learn.

  • avoid double meanings, cultural references and colloquialisms and most engines should make enough sense of it. There is also the chance that another forum user that understands them better will assist where needed Commented Feb 1, 2018 at 8:58

I'd really wouldn't take it as an insult if a developer genuinely interested in helping me using the tool he made told me :

Excuse me, but I did not understand. Can you write in differently, or use Google Translate?

It is not rude, it simply means you're willing to help but have troubles figuring out their problem. Google Translate also has a huge English corpus, so it usually translates well enough for you to understand the general meaning of its translation, which will help in extreme cases.

EDIT: didn't see someone already talked about Google. Credits to him/her.


Being a developer myself and not a native English speaker I find this situation rather familiar.

Well, in this case, is a matter of "customer service" and since you are the "supplier" you can have certain requirements to provide this service (English only, include screenshots or even require a paid subscription) if you state the requirements from the beginning then the demand for support should lighten.

These requirements are nothing new and we see them all the time in communities such as Envato (code canyon) where many developers offer certain support but reserve the "premium" service for paying customers.

So don't ignore them, just state your requirements and in the process, you will look more professional.


Perhaps you could explain how to use the App in pictures. This is pretty common practice in software development, i.e., using screenshots with just a few words of explanation to show people how to use the product. I think it would work for an App as well, providing it has an interface. Then when you receive a question from somebody that you can't understand, you could send them the instructions with the pictures instead of having a frustrating conversation via email.

Or make a recording of yourself explaining how to use it because many people who can understand spoken English have trouble reading it. I'm not sure if I need to explain this further but I'm suggesting it as another way that might help you avoid some of those frustrating email conversations.

Neither of these suggestions will help you understand the non-English speakers but they should help you communicate with those people. I expect some people here might say that this is not the correct way to answer your question but they feel like pretty sensible alternatives to me.

Another idea that might help when you receive questions that you can't understand is to ask the person to send the question to you in their native language so that you can run it through an automatic translation service. This would be more work for you but probably less painful in the long run.

  • 2
    @Jak Generally speaking we ask users to provide explanation of why their solution works. That's the additional detail that baldPrussian is asking for. If you have any experience (yours or others that you've seen) using this method, then adding it to your answer would make it a much stronger answer.
    – Rainbacon
    Commented Apr 17, 2018 at 16:33

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