Hey Big Tech, Support Regional Languages!

A few months ago, I bumped into someone who was using Kannada as their system language on their iPhone. Curious to find out Android’s support for languages that are not English, I switched my system language to Kannada as well and was pleasantly surprised to find nearly everything on stock Android in Kannada. The app ecosystem on the other hand is a different story.

Uber and Ola, India’s leading taxi apps, don’t seem to care about regional language support - While Ola makes no attempt to support use in Kannada, Uber’s attempt at Kannada internationalization seems to be an afterthought, with entirely broken screens.

Uber Android app screenshot with broken Kannada internationalization

Why support regional languages?

  • Barrier to entry - As a person in tech, with friends who work in or take an interest in tech, it’s easy to forget that using technology is hard for a lot of people. Adding a language barrier into the mix makes it worse. English is intimidating to a lot of people, especially in India. Anecdotally, I’ve had relatives tell me that they’d really like to be able to use taxi apps to move around, but they’re afraid of selecting the wrong location or ordering the wrong class of taxi (resulting in memorising the flow of taps 🤦). There’s an argument to be made about better UI/UX, but I think interfaces that are exclusively in English become a barrier to entry.

  • English is not inclusive - The history of English in India is steeped in colonialism (well, duh!), casteism, and elitism. Walk around in any “second-tier” city in India, and you’ll see advertisements for a multitude of companies, schools and websites offering to teach you how to speak “fluent English”. The clamour to learn English is of course driven by its employment potential, but I’d argue that it has to do with caste and elitism as well. Indian society places a high value on English fluency, and apps are silently reinforcing the discrimination that comes with it.

  • Content availability is a problem - There’s a classic chicken-and-egg (could not find an equivalent vegan expression!) issue at play - Platforms don’t have support for regional languages, and there’s not enough regional language content to make it worthwhile for platforms to support them. It looks like Amazon is yet to support Kannada content on Kindles! For now, you have a choice from as many as TWO Kindle eBooks if you search by language. TWO!

  • $$$$ - Okay, fine! I’ll stoop to appealing to capitalism - Companies are leaving money on the table by making their products and services inaccessible to a lot of people! Think about the growth potential, the happy investors, those beautiful graphs in upswing!

  • Because squiggly letters are awesome! ದಯವಿಟ್ಟು ನಿಮ್ಮ ಫೋನ್ ಹಾಗು ಕಂಪ್ಯೂಟರ್-ಗಳಲ್ಲಿ ನಿಮ್ಮ ಭಾಷೆಯನ್ನು ಉಪಯೋಗಿಸಿ

What can you do?

  • Strength in numbers - Don’t be an elitist, prop up regional language numbers by switching your system language on your device(s)
  • Contribute translation strings to open-source projects! I started contributing Kannada translations to Signal Messenger’s Android app, and it’s surprisingly fun and very satisfying to see the number of untranslated strings go down on every submit :)
    • Find open-source projects that could use your help at Weblate
    • Join (or create) a GNOME internationalization team here
    • Contribute to Mozilla’s apps and websites
  • Lobby governments to mandate the availability of regional languages (perhaps in addition to other languages?) on government websites. In 2019, governments paying third parties taxpayer money to build websites that lack regional language support is like building footpaths that are not wheelchair-friendly - egregious and just plain criminally negligent!
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