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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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Why is this even a problem?
By synclee on 2017-08-07 09:18:02
I understand that using Siri for two languages can be a problem, but a keyboard?

Why not just install an auto-switcher that detects when you change language by language-specific letter patterns and corrects last word you have typed?

I use Punto Switcher for Windows аnd MacOS, but there are EveryLang, Keyboard Ninja, Key Switcher, and XNeur for Linux.
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Comment by feamatar
By feamatar on 2017-08-07 09:19:45
To manually switch language on windows you push alt left shift or alt right shift. It is even directional so if you have 3 languages, 1 shift is enough to get to the correct language. To switch between latin and hiragana you push shift capslock, to switch to katakana you push alt capslock.

On mobile , at least with swype you can setup multiple languages to be used for autocorrection, though I prefer to switch between languages by pushing space.

On both PC and mobile I can switch languages in literally 1 second.

Now proofing is a different problem. Afaik Word has auto language detection, but I never used it, and I never checked the hotkeys to change the language of the text.

Edited 2017-08-07 09:20 UTC
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RE[3]: Yes
By feamatar on 2017-08-07 09:26:32
You can redefine the keybindings, also you can assign hotkeys to languages.
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RE: It is worse in a multilingual country
By avgalen on 2017-08-07 09:27:31
It was launched in The Netherlands anyway and you had to use a horrible remote to enter text one letter at a time. One of the worst product experience you could possibly have!

We have gone pretty far on the multilingual ladder. You can change the User Interface of most OS, Office and other programs.
You can change the input language with the touch of a button or keyboard combination.
Webbrowsers and Office programs are trying to guess which language you are using on a per-page/per-paragraph basis from a list of configurable languages.
But voice assistants are too new for this. Having a voice assistant available in your own language is becoming more common, but they still don't scale well. Siri exists in Dutch but is really bad and Cortana and Google Assistant are still not there yet. If you think Dutch is a fringe case, look at the recent Bixby (non)-introduction in English
Even if "assistants" are available in your language, they will probably not understand your local culture and services so they are far less useful
And if you really want to have a laugh, try Bing.com outside the US, or see how few features Amazon has to offer.
Male/Female diversity, Racial diversity, High-Low income diversity are all very important. But those US-Countries also should realize they cannot just sell "made for US" products outside the US
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RE: Comment by feamatar
By feamatar on 2017-08-07 09:27:48
It is also possible to redefine hotkeys and assign hotkeys on Windows as one comment above reminded me to that.
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RE[3]: Google manifesto guy makes some reasonable points
By grandmasterphp on 2017-08-07 09:42:48
Most social-scientists in the UK think it is more to do the with the nature side. Somewhere an 80-20 split. However I am still reading Steven Pinker's "The Blank Slate" so we see what he says about the subject.

Edited 2017-08-07 09:45 UTC
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RE: Umm ... what?
By patrix on 2017-08-07 09:57:37
and yet Google Now can recognize at least 3 languages interchangeably without changing any setting, beyond the initial setup of choosing 3 languages. At least in my experience of choosing French, English and Japanese. Of course it doesn't mix-and-match within a single query, but it DOES work, at least it did when I tried it earlier this year.
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Comment by CATs
By CATs on 2017-08-07 11:20:22
> 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.
Oh wow, so you've never heard of keyboard shortcuts such as Left Alt + Shift (Windows) or Control + Spacebar (OS X)? You really surprised me here, Thom... I mean, from the things you write I did not really expect you to be technical/power user, but still... Wow.
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Comment by anevilyak
By anevilyak on 2017-08-07 12:26:20
At least on Android, the built-in keyboard has offered a simultaneous language mode for quite a while now, i.e. I have mine set up to allow English, German and French input, and it tries to match inputs to those languages in order of priority. In my experience this tends to work fairly well, no manual language switching by the user needed.
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Comment by ahferroin7
By ahferroin7 on 2017-08-07 12:33:03
I definitely feel you. I'm not technically multilingual myself (that usually implies fluency, and I'm only fluent in English), but I have friends around the world, and among all of us we speak about 30 different languages. When chatting online, we mostly use English (because everyone involved is fluent enough in English that we can communicate efficiently), but end up using words and phrases from almost all of those 30 different languages just because there often isn't an easy way to say exactly what we mean in English.

Because of autocorrect and otherwise poor software design, we've ended up having to work out our own typographical annotation to communicate in textual chat, usually by putting whatever accent mark after the letter it's supposed to go with (so you see a lot of stuff like e` or o/ in our chat), but that itself imposes complications for anyone new in the group (beyond what would already be the case, but it's not hard to ask what a word or phrase means).

The fact of the matter though is that people who are just as comfortable using a computer in any language they know (like you appear to be), or who need to switch languages on-the-fly are in general a minority. Most people have one preferred language, and they will use that unless the situation calls specifically for something else.

That said, Android (or at least, upstream Android) has gotten a bit better in recent years, the IME switching is really quick and easy with the Google keyboard (although you have to specify input methods ahead of time), and the English handwriting recognition has learned to a certain degree to handle accented characters correctly (it kind of has to because of some of our loanwords).
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