Monday, June 25, 2007

Language rant

One of the professional side benefits of visiting so many countries in the last 2 years has been seeing language and software at work in "real world" conditions. The sort of insights garnered in such travel are very slow to penetrate the consciousness of major software vendors.

Above is an example that would be trivial to fix, but has not been attended to by Microsoft since I reported it maybe as long ago as mid-2006, when Windows Vista and Internet Explorer v7 were in beta. When you first run IE7, this "Run Once" page is the first page you see, which enables you to turn on a few security settings. The bad thing is that while it recognises one's default language (in this case English(United Kingdom)) it still defaults to selecting English(United States) - and so everyone but the eagle-eyed will click OK, switching their browser language to the US dialect in the process.

This switch materialises in the options setting shown in the advanced-level options dialog shown above. This issue is known to many in the English-speaking world outside the United States, as evidenced by the discussion in this language blog - and yes, I am the Mike referenced.

Is this language-blindness just a Microsoft problem? No.
  • When you install the British English version of Mozilla Firefox browser, it helpfully asks if you want to install the British English spell-checker. Unhelpfully, the link it provides is to the US English spellchecker.
  • Google switches the user-interface of its search and blogging pages based on the IP address range of the country you happen to be in when browsing. So if you're in another country and using your laptop, then you will get all the Google pages in another language. While it is possible to switch back to your native language, this means you have to negotiate an options page (once you work out what "Options" might be in the other language) and change the language in two places. Your language name is also written the way that the other language describes it: English might be Anglais, or Ingelski, or something less intuitive. There were a few times where I accidentally chose the Elmer Fudd option, because it looked more like "English" than the real option. Could Google be language-sensitive more usefully? Yes: (1) Base the language on that of the browser interface (ie that used in the menus, dialogs and help topics), or of the preferred language shown in the dialog box above. (2) List the languages in their native form: Deutsche, English, Espagnol, Francais, Italiano etc. Readers of additional languages typically know the native name of that language.

I've watched people wrestle with these sorts of problems in many countries now: both in their homes, and in internet cafes. In another spin on the Google issue above, I was searching in the Microsoft Knowledgebase for information that would help a friend in Norway. Unfortunately, Microsoft's web server thought it knew better, and would only show me articles written in Norwegian, even though i was using my totally English-language laptop. There are cases where Microsoft's web server will discriminate between US English and [Other] English, serving up different pages for what is ostensibly the same URL.

These are all issues that would show up as high priority fixes if any of the relevant software designers, coders and testers did any travel outside their US English coccoon.

Yesterday, someone asked if Bondi was an Alaskan Molecule.

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