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The lack of multilingual affordances in modern software
By Thom Holwerda on 2017-08-06 20:52:19

Before I link you to the story this item is actually about, I want to tell you about one of my biggest frustrations with computer hardware and software. It's something that I have to work around every single day, and its consequences bother me almost every few minutes.

Hardware and software have no idea how to handle people who lead multilingual lives.

Like hundreds of millions of people, I speak and understand several languages, but on top of that, I use two languages every single day: Dutch and English. I switch between these two all the time, often even multiple times a minute when juggling multiple friends, clients, work-related material, entertainment, and so on. I might be writing an e-mail to a client in English, work on a translation in Dutch, WhatsApp with a friend in English, and write a Facebook post in Dutch - switching between all of these.

Software has no idea what to do with this. The most operating systems like Windows and OS X can do is offer a small icon somewhere tucked away to manually switch input languages, which is incredibly cumbersome and just wholly impractical to perform every time you have to switch languages. It gets even worse on mobile operating systems, which are heavy on the autocorrect (I cannot type on a touchscreen), so if my input method is still set to English while I'm typing something in Dutch, it gets autocorrected into meaningless garbage (it's only recently that both Android and iOS at least offer some form of true multilingual input).

It's even worse when it comes to these voice assistants the entire technology industry is trying to ram down our throats, like Google Assistant or Apple's Siri. Do you know what you need to do to switch voice assistant input language on an Apple Watch or Android Wear device? Are you ready for it?

You need to perform a full wipe and set up the device as new.

Since my use of Dutch and English is split about 50/50 - or maybe 60/40 - the end result is that for about 50% of the time, I cannot use any of these devices to reply to an e-mail or write a text message. While Android Wear 2.0 has a keyboard and handwriting recognition, I have no idea how to change the input language for those input methods. Even if I could by tapping around - the point of these things is that you can use them without having to look away from whatever you're doing (e.g. cycling).

And just in case you think this kind of multilingual use is rare or an edge case: just in the United States alone, dozens of millions of people speak both Spanish and English every single day. This is not an edge case. This is not a peculiarity. This is daily reality for possibly hundreds of millions of people all over the world.

There's countless other daily irritations that arise from this inability of software to deal with multilingual use (Win32 vs. Metro vs. Chrome vs. Office vs. etc., which all have their own input language switching mechanisms I manually have to keep track of), but the point I want to make is the following.

Because software has no idea how to deal with multilingual use, I know for a fact that very few of the engineers working on Windows or Office or iOS or WatchOS or Android or whatever lead multilingual lives, because any person who uses multiple languages every single day would be able to spot these problems within 15 minutes of use. If the manager responsible for WatchOS led a multilingual life, or had a bunch of people on his team that led multilingual lives, WatchOS would've never been released without the ability to easily switch Siri input language.

Despite what some low-level Googler claims in his rambling manifesto of idiocy, diversity matters. Or, as ex-Googler Yonatan Zunger puts it way more eloquently:

Engineering is not the art of building devices; it's the art of fixing problems. Devices are a means, not an end. Fixing problems means first of all understanding them - and since the whole purpose of the things we do is to fix problems in the outside world, problems involving people, that means that understanding people, and the ways in which they will interact with your system, is fundamental to every step of building a system.

If, at this point in time, you still don't understand the importance of diversity when developing products, you are beyond help, and have no place on any product development team.

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Yes
By Poseidon on 2017-08-06 21:18:42
That's... probably not going to change anytime soon with either Apple or Google's software, since the changes might require some deep overhauling of the operating systems as well as the dictation software.

Microsoft, believe it or not, might be the ones who have the best shot at this since they have a multilingual CEO at the moment, and the more recent Windows/Office updates have been increasingly better at handling multiple languages in written form.

Now I don't usually change the interface at all (I keep it in English), but the speech/text switching should be standard fare.
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BB10
By unsolicitedadvice on 2017-08-06 21:46:01
OK, so had to register just to post on this topic.

Thom, you clearly hit the nail on the head on this one. Exactly as you describe, an ordinary day for millions of people involve constantly switching between languages for responses.

It just seems so outdated that software isn't capable of grasping which language you're responding in, and switch auto-correct etc accordingly.

The only exception to the rule that I am familiar with is/was BB10. Blackberry BB10 on my various devices did an excellent job working out which language I was responding in (ref https://crackberry.com/how-enable... )

I can't get why this should be so hard for other OS's to figure out.
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Google manifesto guy makes some reasonable points
By Dave_K on 2017-08-06 22:00:03
I'm not sure what the content of that Google employee's post has to do with improving the handling of multiple languages, but I'll bite anyway...

Despite being smeared as racist, misogynistic, and anti-diversity, he starts off his "manifesto" by commenting on the importance of inclusion:

"I value diversity and inclusion, am not denying that sexism exists, and don’t endorse using stereotypes. When addressing the gap in representation in the population, we need to look at population level differences in distributions. If we can’t have an honest discussion about this, then we can never truly solve the problem."

Some of the claims he makes about the average differences between men and women are poorly evidenced, but it's downright delusional to deny that differences exist. Aside from fringe feminists who consider sex a "social construct", e.g. loonies demanding the "desegregation" of sport, I think most people accept that, even if they disagree on specifics.

The idea that unequal representation within a field is proof of sexist discrimination is dubious at best. If some of the difference is down to biology (or simple choice), I think it's reasonable to question attempts to force equality of outcome, especially using hiring quotas and positive discrimination.

I find it interesting that those opinions are considered absolutely beyond the pale in many tech circles. They're simply dismissed as bigotry or idiocy and aren't even open for discussion.

The people calling for him to be fired for expressing his views are certainly making his point about the intolerance of diverse opinion...
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RE: Yes
By dpJudas on 2017-08-06 22:07:08
> Microsoft, believe it or not, might be the ones who have the best shot at this since they have a multilingual CEO at the moment, and the more recent Windows/Office updates have been increasingly better at handling multiple languages in written form.
Or, it just nicely illustrates that the "lack of diversity" is a too simple way of explaining those issues.

Let me illustrate it with the following point: I own a 24" 4K monitor that requires a 200% scale factor (192 DPI, "retina"). It has tons of usability issues, even on Windows 10. It doesn't work properly on Linux at all. It works flawlessly on macOS, of course.

Is Apple really the only company with the monitor diversity to notice and fix those problems? No, of course not. What is really going on is that there are people in key positions that either don't have a proper solution, plainly don't give a shit, or both.

Apple users were so fortunate to have Steve Jobs as the CEO at the time (someone that gave a shit), and a technical team that could upgrade Cocoa to deal with it (an easy technical solution).

It is exactly the same when it comes to language support. Especially when there isn't a well-known industry wide solution to a complex problem. They don't support English+Dutch in their fancy chatbots because their sad crap software can't handle that. Heck, it can barely handle English alone as it is.
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You wrote this bitchfest in English.
By tidux on 2017-08-06 22:24:15
You wrote this bitchfest in English, and people are reading it all over the world. That's the real reason why this is never going to get "fixed" to your satisfaction - English is the standard language of computing, always has been, and always will be. The only language that even comes CLOSE to the number of fluent speakers is Mandarin, and Mandarin is so laughably unsuited for computer usage that Chinese keyboards are just US-ASCII with software translation layers that basically convert pinyin to hanzi. There's simply no way that the level of multilingual integration you're screeching about is ever going to justify the enormous cost. If Microsoft were still as dominant as they were in the 90s I can see them trying, but they're not. We're less than five years from Windows 10 going free-of-cost and ad-supported, so there's no way they're going to shell out a billion dollars of dev time to cater to people who their advertisers aren't even trying to reach in the first place.

Just give up on this, Thom. Let it die.
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RE: You wrote this bitchfest in English.
By ameasures on 2017-08-06 23:06:30
The reality around most of the world is that people have a local (social) language or two and then an international (bureaucratic/ administrative) language. In daily life sentences will often have a smattering of both.

People like the British, the Americans and the French sometimes fail to notice because one language often appears to cover both bases.

Taking account of this in software is another mountain to climb, when they get around to it.
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RE: Google manifesto guy makes some reasonable points
By Nick_the_Greek on 2017-08-06 23:48:53
Brilliant. Thank you for that reply, just what I was thinking. I share Thom’s problem with multiple languages (for me it’s three languages at about 50%, 40% 10% usage).
But like you I was lured into that discussion and the “manifesto” (which I didn’t hear about before).
Your last paragraph “The people calling for him to be fired for expressing his views are certainly making his point about the intolerance of diverse opinion...” reminded me a lot about what happened to Richard Dawkins a couple of times now, having invitations to him withdrawn at UC Berkeley and KPFA Radio (see also here for an older comment of his on the matter https://youtu.be/LvvQJ_zsL1U or here for a reaction to the KPFA incident https://richarddawkins.net/2017/0...).
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Comment by grandmasterphp
By grandmasterphp on 2017-08-07 01:27:43
As someone that worked in an office where both English, Spanish and Llanino was spoken. All official comms were done in English.

The anti-diversity manifesto you managed to completely miss the overall complaint because you disagreed with it.

The author was saying Diversity of Race / Sex is more more important that diversity of thought in Google which affects policy. It is true that is larger corps certain political opinions (I am not talking about anything far right) are frowned upon. It is no accident the term "Diversity Hire" exists. All the author wants is for people to be hired based on their competency rather than arbitrary quotas on how many of X should be in the department.

As for men and women moving into particular industries. There is some truth to this. There is quite a good documentary that looks into this issue:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p...

Also I think it might be worth you reading either of these:

"the blank slate" - https://www.amazon.co.uk/Blank-Sl...

and The righteous mind:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Righteou...

Now do I think the tech industry should have more women in it? Yes it probably should! The reason why the tech industry is a sausage fest is most of the guys that are in the tech industry now were kids back in the 80s and early 90s and were mucking around with Amigas and DOS and happened to turn a hobby into a career. Also there are plenty of women in the tech industry they just aren't developers, they are normally artists, project managers, BI, Testers, QA etc.

Does it need a more ethnically diverse, I don't know ... In the UK most people I work with are Indian men and women who have emigrated and most are quite good. I don't know about the situation in the US or anywhere else. The area I live in now is mostly white, so most of the people I am going to be working with will be white.

Edited 2017-08-07 01:45 UTC
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Umm ... what?
By kristoph on 2017-08-07 02:40:02
1) I have an English IME and Japanese one. I can switch between them by tapping one key on the IPhone keyboard. In the English IME I get English suggestions and in the Japanese one I get Japanese suggestions. English, as it happens, is the 5th language I learned to speak and one of a number I use regularly. I don't have any of the problems you describe.

2) I can change the language Siri speaks through Settings > Siri > Language. The reason why it can't speak two languages isn't some conspiracy against diversity, it's just that is way WAY harder to teach a neural network to recognize two distinct languages accurately ( one day, I have no doubt, Siri and Alexa and Hello Google, will be effortlessly polylingual ). In the mean time I don't see how Siri is any different then the billions of people who only speak one language.

K
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SwiftKey
By warhoon on 2017-08-07 05:28:18
I also used to have a BB10 device and can testify to its language switching capabilities. As I have the same problem, I'm also in the translation business part-time and need to switch between English and Swedish all the time. But at least on my iPhone and iPad it's not such a big deal as I use SwiftKey as my software keyboard. It's possible to set two active languages at a time and switch between them, even in the same sentence.

There are other software keyboards out there as well capable of the same. So there are solutions out there.
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