November 14, 2004

Localizing Computer Software

The availability of computer interfaces in local languages is, as Mark notes, hardly a major factor in language endangerment, but it arguably does affect people's use of computers. Sure, technical people throughout the world can generally deal with a computer interface in English, French, or another international language. However, in many countries there are large numbers of people who do not know international languages but would benefit from being able to use computers. These people may not have much education or technical skills, but they still want to write, to send email, to keep accounts and other records and to obtain information. Even if most of the information on the web is not in a language they know, computers can greatly facilitate dealing with a poorly known language. My life sure would have been easier when I was learning Japanese if things like this Japanese reading tool had been available.

Even if you can handle English or French, if you use a computer a lot, you may find it annoying to have to deal constantly with a foreign language. If you're trying to figure out how to do something, you may not really want to have to decipher error messages and documentation in another language. In countries that are trying to modernize business practices and build up their technological infrastructure, in which computers are still unfamiliar to many people, having computer interfaces in local languages makes things that much easier.

There's also a subjective factor here. For many people, being able to do their work in their own language is a matter of pride, especially when the alternative is a language that they associate with colonialism.

For all these reasons, there is a good deal of activity around the world in localizing operating systems and other major pieces of software. One such project is the Simputer, a low-cost computer with Indian language support, which I wrote about some time ago. There is a lot of activity in South Africa right now. In fact, on August 28th (Software Freedom Day), announced localizations of, the FLOSS office suite, for Zulu, Sepedi, and Afrikaans. Here's Duane Bailey's keynote speech. Linux is also being localized for Swahili by the Kilinux project. On October 18th, they announced the first build of a partially localized version of OpenOffice. There's also a project afoot to create a localization of Linux for Dzongka, the main language of Bhutan. Microsoft, which is driven primarily by profit rather than local pride or geek interest, has often been criticized for not localizing their software when they didn't see enough profit in it. For instance, it is reported that Microsoft only produced Welsh versions of its software after Welsh versions of Linux and other FLOSS software appeared. They must think that there is a market for localization in some less-than-international languages. They have announced plans to provide versions of Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office in Quechua, the language of the Incas.

Posted by Bill Poser at November 14, 2004 01:40 AM