Saturday 16 July 2011

Mobile multilingualism

Being multilingual and in need of using mobile technology is not easy. Especially if you’re literate. Current mobility means access to cyber stuff, which means that you can move around the whole wide world without leaving your couch, but which also means that you must be conversant with printed forms of language. We interface via portable gadgets through the manipulation of keyboards, whose output shows instantly on screens, through which we also monitor the output of keyboards that are manipulated elsewhere.

Being both literate and able to adapt literacy skills to what new technologies may have in store for us is all fine, of course. The trouble is that cyber-technology is monolingual, in ASCII-Language. ASCII is a set of codes devised to represent text in computers, among other communication devices, from which most character-encoding standards have since derived. The acronym stands for ‘American Standard Code for Information Interchange’, so it is easy to guess which (printed) language the said codes and text are based on. I’m not sure how to pronounce “ASCII”, by the way, because this is one of many words that I’ve only seen, and never heard.

Computer keyboards and screens are ASCII-friendly. So is the internet. Its creator, Sir Tim Berners-Lee (can one say Sir “Tim”??), is British, and his invention naturally speaks ASCII too. Now, it is a fact of development that, in technology as elsewhere, we prefer to evolve from origins rather than break off from them in order to serve new needs. This is why motor vehicles still use the unsettling explosion-based engines that their inventors came up with centuries ago, and this is why we have only recently started seeing (literally) signs of tildes, cedillas, å, ø, and ü being granted rights of citizenship in cyberspeak, instead of undergoing transliteration to ?iso-8859-1?, =F6, unknown, , or   . Related illegibility endures, though. Just look to your right (yes, as you’re reading this), at the Recent Comments panel of this blog, where typed so-called “smart” double quotation marks, for example, appear as ", which is really smart.

Or take my daily cyber-routines as an example. I need to switch among three different keyboard layouts, in order to be able to engage usefully with any portable keyboard. Even so, some of the symbols that I need to use refuse to reveal themselves, unless I click open lists of “special characters”, scroll down and click them, or press a number of keys in a specific order which is, of course, different for each keyboard layout, and/or involves, of course, different keys in each. All this is again different, of course, if I use a Mac or a PC. 

Multilinguals mix their languages in print too (of course), as a previous post illustrated, which means that being multilingual when you’re facing a computer screen, fingertips at the ready, can involve quite sophisticated logistics. And don’t get me started on what happens to your texts when you’re typing away fluently and forgot to turn off the AutoCorrect function that reverts automatically to some random language every time you open the word-processing or text-messaging software that you’re using at any given time. I have an additional problem, in fact: I also need to use IPA symbols in much of my writing, not because I’m multilingual, but because I do phonetics. Web browsers and mail servers disapprove of them as much.

One related issue is that many other readers/writers (not just mechanical, either) have become persuaded that cedillas & Co. are not the legitimate representations of spoken language that they indeed are, but symptoms of some ornamental compulsion on the part of the scribe. Let me put the record straight here: in Portuguese, for example, força means ‘strength’ and forca means ‘gallows’; e means ‘and’ and é means ‘is’; têm is the verbal plural of tem; and à is not the same as a. Assuming that they’re all the same is like assuming that a d might as well be printed a because the thingy sticking up from the back of it is just batty flourish. A ñ is not ‘an n with a tilde’, as little as a j is ‘an i with a tail’, or an m is ‘a three-legged n’. A ñ is a ñ.

¿Hablas computadora?
Image: Marco Regueira (Wikimedia Commons)

I shouldn’t complain, really: I’m one of the lucky few, because all of my languages share a single script, the Roman one. And I have blind faith in development: not so long ago, we didn’t even know what “cyberspace” could possibly mean.

Not so long ago either, we wouldn’t have dreamt that multilingualism is something that people can, and perhaps should, brag about. I’ll have a few things to say about this next time.

© MCF 2011

Next post: BLINGualism. Saturday 30th July 2011. 


  1. I have the serendipitous chance of using English, French and German interchangably, and guess what: the Swiss keyboard caters perfectly to mz needs (apart from confusing the positions of y and z) by providing easy access to both German and French diacritics. I was so happy when I found this out!

  2. What can I say, Jen? I am green with envz! ....


  3. I tend to use key combinations for the accented letters when writing French, Welsh or Irish - for example Alt Gr plus a vowel gives you an acute accent (in Windows using the Welsh keyboard layout). Writing Czech is more of a challenge as some of the accents aren't accessible in that way, so I use a character map called BabelMap, which is useful for finding letters and characters in all scripts supported by Unicode.

    When address a knight such as Sir Tim Berners-Lee you would called him "Sir Tim" - see:

    ASCII is pronounced /ˈæski/, by the way, though I would pronounce is /ˈaski/.

  4. Simon: Thank you for your comments – and for letting me know that I’m not alone in this “choreography” around keyboards and character maps!


  5. Great post! I use POlish, German and English every day, also online. When I use Word, I have shortcuts to the German characters or otherwise I just type "ue", "oe", etc. For Polish, I also have a special shortcut, luckily these work everywhere, but the German ones don't. Of course, Enlgish is the easiest language to use online.

  6. Thank you, European Mama!
    I’ve also had to resort to ‘aa, ae, oe’ acrobatics in Swedish, for example when booking flights on sites which refuse to acknowledge the ö in my married surname. I find this very irritating: other names have legitimate ‘aa, ae, oe’, like Kierkegaard or Goethe – whereas poor Händel just had the “dots” removed from his name, on the other hand.

    And for those of you familiar with Swedish, one of the best jokes I know about messed up ‘oe’ spellings is the one about the schoolchild attempting to read “Goethe var en stor poet” (‘Goethe was a big poet’) out loud :-D Maybe it works in other languages, too??



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