Many moons ago, I saw a tweet of someone posting a screenshot from their computer. The words on the application that was in the screenshot was not in English, but appeared to be in some Eastern European language. And then it struck me: there are some folk in this world who never see English. Not in their street signs. Not in their books. Not in their apps. Not in their computers. Nowhere. So I wanted to see how close to this I could get.
Most of the tools for creating the websites and mobile apps you use make it technically easy to have an app that caters to different languages, and swap out the default words for the language the user prefers. This is to allow companies to service different markets without having to create new applications for each market. The process for allowing this to happen is called internationalization, and normally shortened to i18n.
Being the third-culture-kid having grown up in a former English colony, English is my most proficient language by far, but there are other languages swirling around my head – Luganda, the language of my heritage and what my parents spoke at home; isiXhosa, the language of the area I grew up in; and Afrikaans, which I did for my whole schooling. Out of the latter 3 languages, I chose to conduct this experiment in isiXhosa, as it seemed to have the most support.
I use Firefox as my main browser to search the internet. In Firefox, you can change your language preferences, and I changed these to isiXhosa. As soon as you change this, the settings menu then adjusts to isiXhosa, as can be seen from the image below.
Looks like they only translated some of the options. I also discovered that my isiXhosa wasn’t that good as I had no idea what those options meant.
Most of what one does in the browser involves the search bar / address bar, and so the language of the browser rarely matters. Except, one day I needed to go back into my history to find something I had looked at before. Now to figure out which word in the menu means “history”.
In stereotypical isiXhosa fashion, I assumed that “Iibhukhmakhi” was in fact “Bookmarks”. I also confirmed with my wife, a fluent isiXhosa speaker, that Imbali was in fact the word I was looking for. Then clicking on the menu item, one is then confronted with more options:
My proficiency level was good enough to know to choose “Bonisa yonke imbali” to look through all my previous history and search from there.
Many websites can also detect the language of the browser, and adjust accordingly. So, with my browser language set to isiXhosa, when visiting the Office 365 Outlook login page, I’m prompted by the following login:
Similarly, when searching for something on Google, it adjusts to isiXhosa:
One major difference between the Google results in English and the Google results in isiXhosa is that there is no tab for “News”. My assumption why this is the case is that Google hasn’t indexed enough isiXhosa language news sites to draw the news from. Which brings me to my biggest concern:
I couldn’t find any South African sites which had internationalized to incorporate the different languages of the country. All the sites that I found belonged to American organisations: Google, Microsoft, Wikimedia Foundation which runs Wikipedia. None South African. There is the Zulu language newspaper’s site – Isolezwe. There are various Afrikaans sites. But I couldn’t find any local site which adjusts based on user preferences, despite the technical ease of doing so.
One possible explanation of this would be that it isn’t profitable to do so. The organisations that produce these web and mobile applications are looking for some kind of return on their investment, and in a South African context, maybe one can presuppose that the greater one’s proficiency in English (and Afrikaans to a lesser extent) irrespective of race, the more financially valuable they’d be to a business.
Technology is becoming increasingly important for providing increasingly basic services to people. Language is indispensable part of heritage and collective personhood. It would be a disservice to bow at the altar of perceived pragmatism, and relegate local languages to cultural artifacts like AmaPiano songs, while unwittingly relegating those we are meant to serve to second class status.