scríbhinní ⁊ deocháin do chuallucht na Gaelainne

"Isn't that a bit obsessive?": lesser-used languages and localised computer interfaces

Author: Mícheál Mac Lochlainn.

Published 11th July 2014.


Irish, Gaelic, Scottish, Manx, Welsh, Cornish, Breton, Celtic, localisation, globalisation, translation, internationalisation, language, Microsoft, Windows, Internet Explorer, Office, language awareness.

Localisation - but what do you do with it?

Several of the technical articles on this website discuss methods to centrally and efficiently localise computer user interfaces, including Microsoft Windows machines. They're not the only ways of course, and for single-machine and home users the one-at-a-time approach is perfectly acceptable. It is not really the methods that matter though. These localisations have great potential to help strengthen the presence and relevence of lesser-used languages like Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Welsh in modern corporate and institutional workplaces but they're no good at all unless people use them.

Microsoft prouducts are everywhere

Microsoft products are a deeply-embedded, widley-used, vitally-important part of the modern world. They're in the workplace. They're in the home. They're in the hole in the wall. They're in games consoles. They're in mobile phones. They're everywhere. They all communicate with their users in a human language and they generally do it using displayed/printed text for output and written/typed text for input. Reading and writing are a big part of modern human society (yes, even among the young, who wouldn't get very far on Facebook and Twitter without them). Lesser-used languages supported by one or more Microsoft product localisations have an oppertunity to benefit from this global ubiquity or to ignore it and take a small but real step into the Cretaceous Period.

Microsoft has resources invested in its localisation programme. It makes localisations available for free but it is a commercial concern and so to some extent everything it does is governed by a bottom line. If they want it to be a part of this new world, people whose lesser-used language has been provided with one or more of these localisations need to do their bit too.

The spirit is willing

Monoglot speakers of dominant languages like English, French and Spanish might be scratching their heads now wondering how hard that can be. The answer is 'not as easy as they might think'. As a result of generations of de facto immersion therapy (by the print media, popular literature, official documentation and signage etc; with some populations effectively having become literate through the medium of an encroaching foreign language), minority language speech communities can easily have been conditioned to favour the dominant language when dealing with the written, as opposed to the spoken word. Certainly, my own experience of working with computers and their users, in a number of different contexts around Ireland, would make me think twice before assuming that Microsoft's download servers are collapsing under the strain as the Gaelic hordes — or even just the dubiously-labelled 'language enthusiasts' amongst them — rush to add to the native richness of their homes and offices. It takes an effort to tune yourself into reading and writing in a language you're not used to reading and writing in. And that includes your orally/aurally native language. I've come across a lot of people who are after making that effort but I've also come across an awful lot of willing spirits who can't or won't manage it.

And yet over the past ten years or so I have rolled out, with enforcement, Irish language UI localisations to workstations in three academic centres, located in strongly Irish-speaking areas and belonging to Acadamh na hOllscolaíochta Gaeilge, the Irish-medium education unit of National University of Ireland Galway. This was done in agreement with centre management but without consulting the proficient Irish-speaking user-base. These centres run a number of diploma courses and so a large part of the user-base is on a yearly turnover; which means a good share of people in total. Many of these users, perhaps most, would have no previous experience of using an Irish UI. In ten years, not one of them has come to me and said they were unable to cope with using the localised machines. There is sometimes a small amount of quiet ochón at the start of the academic year but it never lasts long.

On the other hand, I occasionally have to set up a home- or work computer for a proficient Irish-speaking user who lives and/or works in an Irish-speaking environment and to localise it without enforcement. I'll pop my head around the door after an hour or so to see how they're getting on with their new machine. As often as not, I find it switched over to English. The spirit is willing... and yet weren't they well able to manage the Irish interface long enough to find the language settings and turn it off?

And yes, there's a school of thought that would say that maybe they don't want to have their computer in Irish, and that that's their choice. It is of course, and they're entitled to it (provided circumstances don't put them under some moral, ethical or contractual obligation that overrides it). But that's beside the point. The question is, why do they make that choice? How would it be if literate, proficient English, French and Spanish speakers, located in England, France and Spain, resisted having their computers set up to display the UI in their languages? In any case, I'm talking about language preservation among people who want to see their languages preserved. There can be good reasons why it happens but, frankly, there's a conflict between wanting your lesser-used language to survive and then choosing not to use it, even if only while you're on the computer.

How hard was it to get used to the computer in English?

The fact is that, as long as you have your sight of course, when you use a computer you don't really look at the user interface and read words like 'documents', 'spreadsheet', 'file', 'save', 'exit' and so on. You just get used to where the icons and buttons are, and to what they look like. Then you just move the mouse to the right place and click without consciously thinking about it. I think the fashionable term for this is 'muscle memory' — and the fact that there is a fashionable term kind of proves the point.

This 'getting used to' is almost nothing to do with language. Look at all the consternation over Windows 8 and it's unfamiliar UI design.) The vocabularies seep in though; even the most un-technical iPad or Android fiend knows about 'downloads', 'apps', 'backups' 'bandwidth' and 'broadband'. And so the language moves with the times.

Localisation - but what do you do with it?

In the end there's a simple truth: Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Welsh speakers who use Microsoft products have an oppertunity to take these localisations and to make them as much a part of their daily lives as Windows, Internet Explorer and Office themselves, with the long-term benefits to their languages being reclaimed ground for the written word in a modern context and increased relevance in the twenty-first century on the national and international linguistic stage. And this is ground worth reclaiming, especially in white-collar workplace environments where the received wisdom of the superior utility of the English tongue as the medium of all modern communication has traditionally helped make that language the preferred default and a frequent fallback despite the brain-dead, question-begging 'logic' behind it.

No one's saying they have to to take this oppertunity of course; it is a free world. No one's saying that if they do it will save their languages from extinction; there's a lot more to life than user interfaces. But if they don't take it no one else will. You could nearly bet money that localisation package deployment and usage are among the items that Microsoft routinely gathers statistics for. Corporate priorities can and do change. Who knows?

No more than language itself, use it or lose it.