Technology is Helping Languages Evolve

Many languages have yet to encounter a need for “internet-language,” and terms such as “cached page” and even “crash” do not have equivalents in some languages.

The spread of technology is helping these languages evolve, and perhaps even saving some from extinction.

There are nearly 7,000 different languages in the world and the distribution of speakers of these languages is heavily skewed. In the wake of a booming smartphone market and rapid globalization, technology developers want to offer their clients the option to operate phones in their native tongue, but there are many problems involved in translating technical terms.

Smartphone Providers are Trying to Support Minority Languages

A recent Economist piece highlights Mozilla’s initiative to recruit volunteer “localisers” to help translate their operating system into languages which are not widely spoken. Mozilla, the nonprofit organization behind Firefox, wishes to offer customers the option to use budget smartphones in their own language.

The article focuses on the story of a man named Ousmane in Bamako, Mali, who sells Chinese devices running Firefox OS. Ousmane, says the Economist, will soon be able to supply handsets that are fully translated into the most widely-spoken local language: Bambara.

What Mozilla hopes to achieve is a sort of Rosetta Stone. However, this is a complicated business because, in many cases, the translators are forced to use existing words or phrases in order to convey the intended meaning of tech-specific terms, and some of these languages have been shaped primarily by agricultural industries (for example: languages like Songhai and Fulah, recently made available in Firefox, are spoken mainly by poor, illiterate herders and farmers).

Problems with Translating Languages with a Lack of Form

Translating technical terms into minority languages presents a variety of problems. Certain minority languages either don’t have a written form, or, if they do, their communities disagree on a single official form.

In some cases, tribal politics rejects the consideration of language technologies, making it hard to digitize them. Minority languages are also lacking in people who will assist with the creation of technological language terms.

Mozilla recognizes these problems, and that is why they are trying to spearhead a program to translate the words which have more than one meaning. Malawi’s Chichewa language serves as an example of the confusing terminology this process could potentially result in.

For “Cached pages,” the translator used the Chichewa phrase “mfutso wa tsamba”, which means “bits of leftover food.” “Crash” in Fulah (spoken widely in West and Central Africa) became “hookii” (“a cow falling over but not dying”); and “timeout” became “a honaama” (“your fish has got away”). The term “Aspect ratio” turned into “jeendondiral,” (a scolding from an elder when a fishnet is woven poorly).

Apple, Google and Mozilla’s Operating Systems

Out of the box, Apple’s iOS operating system offers 34 languages. Android offers 150, including dialects, while Firefox caters to the speakers of 90 different languages. There are still many languages that remain neglected, some spoken by a large number of people, including Tibetan with three to four million speakers, and Bambara with 10 million (including those for whom it is a second tongue).

Language barriers prevent us from communicating effectively, but technology may be quickly closing the gaps. However, not all companies want to focus on language technologies because they do not necessarily serve a meaningful purpose to them (poor people in farming communities are not likely to add much value for many companies).

Fortunately, Firefox is a non-profit, and by using their large volunteer network they can focus on developing technological translations of minority languages using local experts, at low to zero cost, and a huge benefit to the world.

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