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Archive for December, 2011

Detect locale – manna from heaven or hellspawn?

15/12/2011 6 comments

It seems like a good idea, doesn’t it? Web 2.0 and all that, increasingly intelligent software taking the task of selecting your language when you visit a page.

Based on? Aye right, there’s a catch. Based on one of two things – the language of your browser or the preferred languages you can set in most browsers. Those of you who are normal end users have probably already spotted the problem. That’s all those of you (the majority) who went “I can do that?”. Yes, you can, but for the vast majority of people, what I shall call the “Install and Hope” group, that’s both news and several steps too technical. And before you tut at that degree of inability to tweak software, that probably includes your mum and dad, your aunts, uncles, grannies and gramfers. They’re not stupid people on the whole.

While actually the more intelligent choice because you can select from a relatively wide range of languages, this still limits you immensely. There are some 6,000 languages on the planet and even multilingual Firefox only offers maybe 200 or so in the language dropdown. And many of those are languages like Chilean Spanish, European Spanish, Argentine Spanish – what the codemasters call locales. So what are you supposed to do if you’re a speaker of one of those 5,800 NOT on the list?

But here’s the thing that drives me and many other speakers outside the club of the 25 biggest languages insane. Most sites these days take the lazy approach and just base it on the language of your browser (most websites), or worse, your operating system (Linux and most mobile phones). In the words of Julia Roberts “mistake, big mistake”. Why? Because there are far fewer browser localizations than languages. And even if there is a browser localization in your language, that doesn’t mean everyone is using it.

Let’s take your average family on the planet which is – believe it or not – bi- or multilingual. That usually means that between the parents and kids at least two languages are used. Sometimes even more. But not everyone usually speaks both languages but, and this is where it gets tricky, they will often share a computer. Say we have a bilingual English-Kurdish family with a Kurdish-speaking father and a wife and kids who only speak English. The default language on the computer will most likely be English because in most cases, you can’t install the same browser more than once and few offer you an easy way of switching the language. So the browser is in English. But for the sake of argument, say the father wants to blog in Kurdish using the Kurdish version of WordPress. He goes to the main page and looks for a list of localizations. Tough luck, there isn’t one, because WordPress.org relies on your browser language settings. So he downloads the English version even though there IS a Kurdish version, it’s just not obvious because you have to go to http://ku.wordpress.org/

It could be worse – they could be using Ubuntu. True, it’s become more user friendly but who designed that insane bit of forcing the locale? Let’s say Azo, the father, wants to install some other software only he will use in Kurdish. What are you supposed to do in Ubuntu? Right, you go to the Software Centre. Only problem is, someone again figured that tying the language of any software you download to the OS language is a bright idea. Not for those of us who aren’t monolingual. And no, suggesting that Azo goes to the address bar, types about:config, types matchOS and toggles to false and then selects ku in general.useragent.locale is NOT a solution.

This dance gets even more insane. Let’s say Azo would like to use the Kurdish version of a mobile browser on his phone at least, since he can’t get Kurdish WordPress. Unfortunately, he uses an Android phone. Meaning? Well, while there IS a localization in Kurdish, the language of his Android phone is English, so the phone assumes this person could only ever wish to use stuff in English and forces every installation to English. End of.

Proprietary or OpenSource, same difference, Linux or Android, Windows or Mac, language selection is getting more and more difficult these days in spite of a legion of volunteers who strive to localize stuff into their languages. For free, usually.

So the question is, why, if there are localizations available for stuff, do you guys make it SO hard to get them? Isn’t that like baking a beautiful cake and then hiding it in the basement, assuming that everyone knows that’s where you hide the cakes?

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