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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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W.I.P.
By shinkou on 2017-08-07 14:21:15
As someone who speaks English, Cantonese, and Japanese on a regular basis, I share your frustration. However, things just don't happen/change overnight. I remember my Apple II+ only had English input and output no matter how hard you try. I could make my 386SX to take some Chinese typings, display and even print docs in Chinese characters. Now, my Android phone can do all these, and on top of that, all different languages on the screen at the same time, although I have to do the switch manually if I want to input in different languages.

Things are getting better, but not without our efforts. We can put as much resource as we have on developing the interface just to solve its multilingual disability, but should we? There are a lot more problems waiting to be solved. How important is this multilingual disability compared to the others? By the end of the day, it's just a question of priority, no?
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RE: W.I.P.
By CATs on 2017-08-07 14:36:18
> As someone who speaks English, Cantonese, and Japanese on a regular basis, I share your frustration. However, things just don't happen/change overnight. I remember my Apple II+ only had English input and output no matter how hard you try. I could make my 386SX to take some Chinese typings, display and even print docs in Chinese characters. Now, my Android phone can do all these, and on top of that, all different languages on the screen at the same time, although I have to do the switch manually if I want to input in different languages.

Things are getting better, but not without our efforts. We can put as much resource as we have on developing the interface just to solve its multilingual disability, but should we? There are a lot more problems waiting to be solved. How important is this multilingual disability compared to the others? By the end of the day, it's just a question of priority, no?

Well, Chinese/Japanese/Ancien Egyptese apart, this is neither a "disability" nor a problem, really. For most of latin-based input methods/keyboard layouts it's a non-issue. Quickly hitting two-key shortcut on your keyboard to switch language is as easy as it gets. It does not need any more automation than this. Even cyrillic script has a "phonetic layout" which is very simple to use for casual users. For full-time cyrillic typing you want native cyrillic layout, of course...
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Making a mountain - out of a mountain range
By JLF65 on 2017-08-07 14:59:32
Yes, switching languages is a mountain to be climbed on most OSes. Why? Because language is perhaps the most difficult problem in computing. We barely only have language syntax error detection, forget about meaningful grammar error detection. And auto-correction is usually presenting the user with a list of suggestions to choose from, or using the most commonly used word that is similar.

Users complain, but don't understand how difficult the problem is. They grew up with the languages and then spent years in school, but expect a computer to shift as easily and readily as they do in life. This is an issue that won't be solved until home computers reach the level of IBM's Watson. Don't expect it to be easy or cheap - the easy and cheap solutions are already part of your computer - hotkeys to switch between hardcoded languages. Give it another couple decades - when input is nothing but speech recognition that works in any language and people think of keyboards as relics from Grandpa's day, then maybe computers will shift languages as simply and easily as you do.
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RE[2]: Yes
By Alfman on 2017-08-07 15:08:24
dpJudas,

> 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).


Like most people, he "gave shits" about some things but not about others. For example safari really became regressive on his watch, holding back web standards much like IE had done before. He actively impeded open video codecs, the iphone was the black sheep that made webm non-viable as a multi-platform solution - he didn't give a shit and the web suffered for it. Jobs could have single-handedly set the trend for mobile devices to be open, but instead he pivoted hard towards taking away owner freedoms in general. If you care alot about open technology, then steve jobs was really on the dark side of the software patent wars.


Obviously steve jobs did good things too, but if your going to use him as an example, then we need to take the bad with the good.

Edited 2017-08-07 15:19 UTC
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RE: Making a mountain - out of a mountain range
By darknexus on 2017-08-07 15:39:58
> when input is nothing but speech recognition
I sure hope not. Can you possibly imagine that in an office environment? There goes confidentiality!
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RE[5]: You wrote this bitchfest in English.
By grandmasterphp on 2017-08-07 15:40:17
What are you on about? I've been writing .NET applications with localisation for like over 10 years.

https://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/...).aspx

That is at least 14 years ago.

Edited 2017-08-07 15:41 UTC
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This is why we are at the stage of needing more Humanit
By orfanum on 2017-08-07 16:13:16
...ies students, not fewer (there has been global slashing of Humanities departments' funding, particularly in the last 4-5 years).

Unfortunately, there is still an emphasis on STEM, from industry, to HE, to governments, to Citizen Science. The Humanities are viewed as irrelevant.

There is only so much you can do with a hard engineering perspective.

Orf.

(Edited for limited title space)

Edited 2017-08-07 16:22 UTC
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RE[2]: Making a mountain - out of a mountain range
By JLF65 on 2017-08-07 16:18:45
Sound-proofed cubicles! ;) Or maybe implants in your head so you just THINK it rather than say it.
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RE[2]: Comment by CATs
By grandmasterphp on 2017-08-07 17:23:27
> but that's antithetical to what a computer is supposed to be.

What is that supposed to even mean? A computer can run any program you wish, just because you have some ideal in your head of how you would you would like it to run doesn't make it the raison d'être of a computer.
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RE[3]: Making a mountain - out of a mountain range
By Alfman on 2017-08-07 18:04:47
JLF65,

> Sound-proofed cubicles! ;) Or maybe implants in your head so you just THINK it rather than say it.

Hell no! Haha. It's bad enough that we can't even use voice recognition locally and have to be tethered to corporate datacenters. Just think about when we start sending out brain scans to corporate servers, because in reality you know it will be engineered this way so that companies can mine the data for their own purposes :(

It could actually be cool technology, but the potential for abuse is huge if users aren't in control, which we won't be if today's corporate leaders have their way. They will optimize it for advertisers. Users aren't the customers, we're the product. And then there are the government surveillance powers...
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