Open Source Speaks Your Language

(title needs tweaking)

English is the language of education, business and government in the Philippines, but many people are not as fluent in English as they are in Tagalog and other dialects. As a result, they find it difficult to use English-only software, learning how to use programs through rote memorization and relying on icons and positions to find commands. This discourages them from exploring the computer or improving their skills on their own, and increases resistance to change.

With the rapid progress of volunteer efforts like the Debian Tagalog project, it would not be surprising if a full open source desktop in Tagalog and other dialects would be available in a few years' time. Because these programs are free to download and use, computer shops, cybercafes, schools, and offices would include them in standard installations. People would be free to explore computers and learn how to use them, not hampered by the dual barriers of language and technology.

The Philippine software market is too small for multinational companies like Microsoft to consider localization as economically viable. Piracy reduces the attractiveness of the market even further. Unlike other Asian countries, we do not require special alphabets or fonts in order to produce documents required by government and industry. Localization does not offer a competitive advantage that can be exploited by closed-source software.

On the other hand, open source is uniquely suited for localization efforts. Communities do not have to wait for companies to decide to produce localized versions. They can make the changes themselves. More importantly, they can use and distribute the modified software so that other people can benefit from their work, narrowing the digital divide and making technology available even for people who are not comfortable with English.

In this scenario, a number of issues present themselves. Would employers discriminate against experience in localized open source software on the grounds that those skills may not translate to English closed source software? Would the popularity of translated software result in the deterioration of functional English skills, making us less globally competitive? Would dialects further fragment our IT industry along regional boundaries while making it difficult for people to take advantage of worldwide resources?

Skill transference is an important consideration. Job advertisements specify "Microsoft Office experience." Employers may be hesitant to hire someone who doesn't have all the buzzwords listed. Schools train people in popular software so that new graduates can work right away. Business-minded students and professionals worry that their experience in open source alternatives like will not be recognized by employers. As open source software grows in features and compatibility, not only will transitioning to equivalent closed source software become easier, but using open source alternatives side-by-side with or even in lieu of closed source software will become more feasible.

What about the English language? Wouldn't promoting localized computing negatively affect English language skills and reduce one of our competitive advantages over other Asian nations? We promote the use of English in classrooms and offices. Wouldn't localization be a step back? Wouldn't people find it difficult to use non-localized software? On the contrary, localized software can help strengthen people's communication skills. With confidence based on their experience with native-language applications, people can then explore English applications with the benefit of having solid mental constructs to which they can then assign English terms.

With the wealth of regional dialects in the Philippines, wouldn't localization further divide our fledgling IT industry along regional boundaries? On the contrary, developing regional centers of excellence in computing will help the industry grow, and bring the benefits of IT to people previously excluded by their unfamiliarity with technical English. If the applications people use were available not only in English but also in regional dialects, then more people would be encouraged to explore how they can be more productive with computers. Knowledge is not trapped within a single community, but shared with other regions and the world through community members who are comfortable with English or multiple dialects.

Localization is one of the most powerful advantages offered by open source software. Open source is about freedom and choice, and translation efforts springing up around the country are a shining example of how the ability to modify software allows people to add value to it for their community. Volunteers working on translation and localization of open source software are not doing it for themselves, but rather to make it easier for their family, friends and townmates to learn more about computing and use computers to improve their lives. Through open source, Filipinos open doors.

Other interesting resources:

Debian Tagalog Translation Team

Filipino Linux Documentation Project

Ramil Sagum, aspell-tl

Jan Alonzo, packaging aspell-tl for Debian

Open source's local heroes

Web browser speaks Xhosa