18 July 2009

Technology for more than one language, please

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Technological tools are not made for people who speak more than one language, and there are many of us: immigrants, travellers, polyglots, emerging market facilitators, people from smaller language communities … In fact, people who are not Anglo-Saxon frequently use more than one language.

But technology is not made for us.

Although computers have operating systems in many languages, once you have chosen one of them you are completely locked in: support in any other language means going through complicated menus that are usually not immediately reachable and that have way too many options (e.g. every time I change my spell check language I have to select between ALL languages, not just between those that I actually speak); key widgets are available in the main OS language only (try installing an English language Apple dictionary/thesaurus on your Mac, while also installing an Italian and a Dutch one); going through user forums; or relying on the web.

Nokia, which is a company that should know better (as Finnish is only spoken by 6 million people), is not much of an example either. European phones come pre-installed with dictionary support for language regions (no help if you are a Belgian living in Italy), and it is nearly impossible to change that unless you start mucking around with the firmware of the phone. Even changing my T9 language support during messaging from let’s say English to Italian takes me at least 8 clicks (Options > 4 down on the list: Writing language > 3 down on the list: Italiano).

In the end you end up messing around, tinkering, hacking solutions together, struggling and being frustrated.

Has there been any research on this? Any article? Any best practices?

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