Open Source Speaks Your Language

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(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

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

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