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Computing in Foreign Languages Is Getting Easier

For all the talk about globalization and the “world wide” reach of the Web, computers traditionally have had trouble dealing with languages other than English. Even something as simple as an accent mark can cause problems for software designed for English only, and things get even trickier with languages that don’t use the Latin alphabet, like Japanese. To make matters worse, some languages, like Arabic, are written from right to left, not left to right, and many applications are completely unable to handle this. The good news is that it’s all starting to change. If your business already works in other languages, you’ve probably had to figure out some of this for yourself. But if reaching out to customers who speak other languages is in your plans, here are the basics of what you need to know to provide computing support for employees who read and write those languages. Traditionally, support for anything other than English has been limited to languages such as Spanish, French and German. Like English, these languages use the Latin alphabet, although they require certain special characters, such as letters with accent marks, umlauts or circumflexes. Support for these characters is built into both Windows and the Mac OS. To view the key combinations needed to type these characters, use the Character Map system tool in Windows, or Key Caps under Mac OS. You don’t need a new keyboard. On the actual keyboards used in other countries, “special” characters like accented letters usually have their own keys for faster and more convenient typing. If you or one of your employees is used to one of these language-specific keyboards, however, this doesn’t mean you can’t use a standard U.S. keyboard. You can usually get by with a software keyboard layout that rearranges the characters for you. For example, if you switch your computer to run the standard French keyboard layout, you can type an accented “e” by simply hitting the top-row key for the number 2, which is where it would be on a real French keyboard. The Mac OS has built-in support for more than 20 different keyboard layouts covering all the major Western European languages. Windows 98 includes support for more than 70 different keyboard layouts, including keyboards for the languages of Western Europe, as well as those that use the Cyrillic alphabet, like Russian. To use these keyboard layouts, however, you have to install them from the Windows 98 CD. Things are a little more complicated if you want to do something like spell-check a document created in another language, especially if you need to use more than one language in the same document. But operating systems and common applications are becoming more adept at handling multiple languages. Microsoft Office 2000, for example, has a wide array of multilingual features, including automatic language detection for spelling and grammar checking, support for complex writing systems like Japanese or Arabic, and language-sorting options. For more information, do a search within the Office 2000 Help system for the word “language,” which brings up detailed explanations of dozens of features. For languages that don’t use the Latin alphabet, you’ll generally need to buy and add support yourself, but it’s getting easier. This has been a traditional strength for Apple, which has made it possible to add support for languages that don’t use the Latin alphabet, thanks to a family of kits that cover most of the world’s languages, such as the Chinese Language Kit. Microsoft is beefing up its multilingual support in Windows 2000, but Microsoft has generally recommended using a customized version of Windows for work in languages that don’t use the Latin alphabet. For example, if you need to do work in Korean, you’d have to buy a Korean copy of Windows. Third-party language support for Windows is available, however, and one good place to shop for language kits and language-specific versions of various applications is World Language Resources (www.worldlanguage.com). Multilingual browsers and e-mail applications are also becoming more capable. Creating and viewing multilingual e-mail and Web pages used to be difficult. The problem was that there are different encodings for different languages, as well as the way those encodings are handled by different computing platforms. Now things are much easier. Both Netscape Communicator and Microsoft Internet Explorer are adept at reading pages and messages that have been written in other languages. Browsers can automatically display pages created in another language, provided that the necessary fonts are installed on your computer. The same is true of Netscape Communicator’s e-mail client and Microsoft’s Outlook Express e-mail client. Other popular e-mail clients such as Eudora are increasingly capable of handling other languages as well. One of the best overall applications for multilingual browsing and e-mail is the Tango browser from Alis Technologies (www.alis.com). Unlike Netscape Communicator and Internet Explorer, both of which are free, you have to pay about $60 for Tango, but the application was designed from the ground up for multilingual use and even allows you to switch the language of its menus. For creating multilingual pages, Netscape Composer (part of the Netscape Communicator suite) and Alis’ Tango Creator are two of the best choices. Automatic-translation software can be good for on-the-fly translations of documents you find on the Web, such as an article that’s available only in French. But computers are and maybe always will be limited in their ability to correctly translate human language because there may be no way for programmers to account for all language’s nuances and the idiosyncratic ways in which people use it. The upshot of this is that you can’t expect to write important letters in your own language, run them through an automatic translator and then send them off to colleagues or potential clients abroad. For that, you’ll still need a qualified human translator. Christopher Ott is a freelance technology writer and author of “Global Solutions for Multilingual Applications” (Wiley, 1999). He can be reached at chrisott@earthlink.net.

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