Saturday, 7 April 2012

Braving monolingual worlds


If you ever had to fill in an official form, online or on paper, you may have just sat there, wondering how to go about satisfying form fields and/or boxes marked with cute little stars. The stars are there to tell you that they demand obligatory information, but they don’t tell you why they demand that information in an obligatory shape that fails to provide accurate information about you, and they don’t let you do anything about this.

Your name, for example, is a favourite obligatory piece of information, which is often required as “Full Name”. The trouble starts there. Some of us won’t be able to comply, faced with space sizes which appear to have been designed to cater for people whose full names are Bo Ek or Ana Sá. If your official full name, like mine, happens to consist of two first names, followed by mother’s surname, father’s surname and husband’s surname, some of which are in addition double and hyphenated, you are truly in a bind. Attempting rational tricks, like abbreviating some of your names by means of initials, may be greeted with human or electronic brightly flashing rejections. Unless, of course, the form contains a specific field for things like (obligatory) “Middle Initial”, which in turn stumps those of us who have no idea what a middle initial might be, because we are identified by name through first or last initials – or we have no initial(s), or no “surname” counterpart to “first name(s)” at all.

Form-filling and other exciting bureaucratic endeavours have ruled and go on ruling OK. So OK, in fact, that their morphing from hardcopy to digital medium does not seem to have affected their basic design. Official forms reflect the belief that there is a “preferred” (universal?) way of identifying individuals, whoever and wherever you are. But bureaucratic standards, like any standards, vary with time and place. They are certainly not local-size-fits-all. Assumedly cross-national forms (or “global” forms, to use a fashionable word), like the ones we find on the internet, are “global” only in being there for anyone who can access them online. Their make-up draws on the local, often country-bound tenets of the people who designed them. Heather McCallum-Bayliss and Carolyn Temple Adger discuss these matters in an article titled Variability in naming: Database challenges in multicultural and multilingual settings, focusing on database management, which, as they observe, “is especially challenging in settings that are culturally diverse. The consistent handling of names requires their appropriate cultural interpretation.”

Assuming that there is a single variant of people’s names, full or partial, matches the assumption that people have a single nationality and a single language. Those of us who have more than one of each of those things go on staring in dismay at form fields which either allow a single entry, or force us to “Choose One” from among a fixed set. Country lists are sometimes available, more or less updated on those countries that gain or lose official recognition as such. But you can’t list all the languages there are – even if we knew how many and which languages there are (or what is a language, for that matter), which we don’t. So why not give us, form-users, the choice? Why do we users have to serve the tools that are supposed to serve us? 

Languages and countries, and cultures and identities are not luxury commodities, of which you should own no more than one. Treating them as such only serves bureaucracy itself, as the comments to a previous post make clear.

Image: © Chrysaora (Flickr)

Official ideology shows even where users’ individuality appears to have been taken into account: in those cases where forms do allow us to choose all of our languages, we’ll have to rank them. The next post has some more to say about wanting multilinguals to pull linguistic rank.


© MCF 2012

Next post: Dominant languages and balanced languages. Wednesday 18th April 2012.

No comments:

Post a Comment

LinkWithin

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...