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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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RE: Comment by CATs
By Thom_Holwerda on 2017-08-07 12:54:28
> 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.

Keyboard shortcuts are dumb. This is a computer. It can render virtual environments to crazy detail, yet it can't automatically decide what language I'm currently using. That shows you just where priorities lie.

And keyboard shortcuts are never a solution; they are a stopgap until we figure out how to do things automatically. I know a lot of people here have this crazy idea that the more they have to do manually in some arcane fashion the better, but that's antithetical to what a computer is supposed to be.

Mundane shit like fucking text input should be effortless and automatic by now. It's fucking 2017.
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Comment by vault
By vault on 2017-08-07 12:54:37
OS X automatically detects spelling languages for me (English and Polish). I never had any problems with it and I always remove the flag icon, as it's not needed in my case. I assume it's much more complicated for two languages with different keyboard layouts and accented letters.

Apparently iOS can do this too, but it's implemented in a weird way where there are separate dictionaries for multilingual... and my language is not included. Not surprising - for Apple, Poland might as well be Antarctica.

Windows is total chaos, of course. Win32 has no system wide spell check. UWP has no auto switching, and is still inconsistent with itself. For example, UWP Mail app has a text field unlike any other.

Personally I absolutely hate manual switching, I'd rather disable spell checking/autocorrection altogether.
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RE[3]: Google manifesto guy makes some reasonable points
By Dave_K on 2017-08-07 12:56:17
I personally don't think that women are less fit to work in IT jobs, but I do think that fewer women are actually interested enough in the field to choose it over their other options.

There's often some truth to stereotypes, and I don't think it's entirely a social construct that geekiness is associated with men. There's a gender imbalance right across geeky hobbies, from trainspotting and stamp collecting to tabletop wargaming and tinkering with old computers. I'm not convinced that this is entirely down to the way men and women are socialised by society, or that "basement dwelling misogynerds" are making those spaces unwelcoming to women.

One brain difference that there does seem to be some evidence for is a greater prevalence of autism/Asperger's among men. In my experience there are certainly fewer women/girls with obsessively narrow interests. Obviously not all programmers fit that stereotype, but quite a few of the keen open source and hobbyist developers I know certainly do, and they all happen to be men.

I support programs to encourage women to enter IT and make it a more welcoming environment. I'm just not convinced that any such efforts will lead to equal representation, or that their failure to do so will prove that there's a sexism problem.
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RE[2]: Comment by CATs
By grandmasterphp on 2017-08-07 13:02:45
You really have no clue do you. Just regarding English there are at least 3 variants and then all the accents, localised spellings.

Then you might have things like slang to deal with and that is one language and the fact that sometimes you use foreign phrases.

This is not an easy problem and manually doing it is probably better than doing badly for now.

Even on web pages you have to give the language weighting in the headers https://developer.mozilla.org/en-...

Also {{Current Year}} isn't an argument for anything. The onion are mocking it http://www.theonion.com/article/...

Edited 2017-08-07 13:08 UTC
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RE[2]: Comment by CATs
By CATs on 2017-08-07 13:09:54
> Keyboard shortcuts are dumb.
Keyboard shortcuts are awesome. From my experience, "techies" almost universally agree on this. Absolutely every IT specialist I know and most people with slightly advanced computer skills love keyboard shortcuts and use them extensively.

> This is a computer. It can render virtual environments to crazy detail, yet it can't automatically decide what language I'm currently using. That shows you just where priorities lie.

And keyboard shortcuts are never a solution; they are a stopgap until we figure out how to do things automatically. I know a lot of people here have this crazy idea that the more they have to do manually in some arcane fashion the better, but that's antithetical to what a computer is supposed to be.

Windows (and other OS'es) try to do that already. They remember keyboard layout for particular windows/apps, they decide what keyboard layout to choose based on the spell checker language you selected (and vice versa). And I hate it. Stop switching my keyboard layout for me!
Automatic decisions about what user wants to do is one of the biggest and most painful annoyances in the world of computing. Computer should never, I repeat, NEVER try to "guess" what I want. Because in best case such decisions might be correct 90% of the time for 70% of users, but they are absolutely wrong 90% of the time for 20% of users. And those 20% of users are annoyed as hell, to the point of being incapacitated in their work. One should not suffer just because he's not in the majority.

> Mundane shit like fucking text input should be effortless and automatic by now. It's fucking 2017.
It absolutely is. I honestly never had any issues with this. It's as effortless as it can be. And I am NOT a native English speaker, I use at least 2 languages all the time, every day. I cannot imagine how do you manage to stumble so much here. It's really not a problem. If it was, someone would have found a solution already. In shor: it's all in your head.
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RE[3]: Comment by CATs
By CATs on 2017-08-07 13:14:51
> You really have no clue do you. Just regarding English there are at least 3 variants and then all the accents, localised spellings.

Then you might have things like slang to deal with and that is one language and the fact that sometimes you use foreign phrases.

This is not an easy problem and manually doing it is probably better than doing badly for now.

Even on web pages you have to give the language weighting in the headers https://developer.mozilla.org/en-...

Also {{Current Year}} isn't an argument for anything. The onion are mocking it http://www.theonion.com/article/...

Exactly! I cannot imagine how can Thom be so clueless about things as obvious as these.
Another major annoyance caused by auto-prediction crap: I often connect via some kind of foreign proxy (since I'm working for a foreign employer) and every day I stumble upon a web page that decides to present itself to me in foreign language that I don't understand a word of! Just because I came from this IP does not mean I speak this language! Same shit when traveling...
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RE[4]: Comment by CATs
By grandmasterphp on 2017-08-07 13:16:09
Spotify when I lived in Gibraltar gave me the Spanish page even though Gibraltar officially speaks English.
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RE[5]: Comment by CATs
By CATs on 2017-08-07 13:29:11
> Spotify when I lived in Gibraltar gave me the Spanish page even though Gibraltar officially speaks English.
Yeah, Spotify even announces it's audio ads in Danish when I listen from work :-D That's just such an absurd situation, makes me laugh every time I hear it: their precious, revenue-generating advertisements, they want me to hear them so much, yet they announce them in a language I don't understand.
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Tagalog, English, Spanish
By fretinator on 2017-08-07 14:02:29
I've had good success with adding these 3 languages to the default Android Keyboard. It seems to do a good job of autocompleting between the multiple languages. However, it could just be because these 3 languages merge well - there's a lot of overlap among them.
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RE[4]: You wrote this bitchfest in English.
By dylansmrjones on 2017-08-07 14:09:56
It is safe to assume that scandinavians use their native tongue for devices, whenever possible. The biggest victory for the F/LOSS community is the localisation of software, quite rare among proprietary software (for windows) until recently.

Smartphones, tablets, computers, set-top boxes etc. - everything is in Danish, Norwegian or Swedish. Nothing is more offputting in regard to IT than untranslated software.
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