How does language affect use of technology, learning and relationships?
Thread poster: Henry Hinds

Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 09:57
English to Spanish
+ ...
Jan 15, 2006

This is a question that has long intrigued me. Like so many others, I am confined within the Latin alphabet. Those complicated characters, squiggly lines and strange symbols of languages written in other ways are totally unfathomable to me.

Thus, it is directed to those outside my normal community (English and Spanish).

I see nothing but a QWERTY keyboard, nothing but the ABC's I learned when small. I cannot conceive of being able to operate with any other system of writing, yet speakers of languages using other than the Latin alphabet also have a life.

The news that the Chinese are trying to promote study of their language by others has also motivated me to ask this question.

How does language affect use of technology, learning and relationships? In the first place, how can you even use a keyboard (and thus a computer) in these languages?

How do you do a Google search in Thai? Hindi? Farsi? Japanese? (etc.)

How do you communicate with people in other nations? When I send you a letter I cannot write the address in Japanese or Arabic, I only know Latin characters. Our letter carriers cannot read Japanese or Arabic writing, then do all of yours read the Latin alphabet? Even in the remote regions of Mongolia? And then translate that back to the address?

What about drawings, instructions, math, etc. that incorporate Latin characters (Greek also, some of those even we have learned more or less)?

What about communication in general? There must be many good translators and interpreters in countries with obscure, difficult languages that practically no one else knows, or even those that are widespread that few foreigners study (much less really know) such as Chinese.

And how does all this affect you when trying to acquire the knowledge of the world that is locked into other languages? Has it all been translated into difficult languages spoken by a relatively small number of people? I don't think so.

And if you are forced to deal with that knowledge in a foreign language, then how does that affect your ability to handle it and use it?

Another very important question would be, do you think your language (as a country or language group) is holding you back and preventing you from realizing your full potential?

In your country is it just "learn English or learn to sweep floors"?

Those are not all the areas, just a few examples I've thought of. I'd be interested in hearing your comments in any area involving language and its effect on technology, learning and relationships.

I'm sure a lot of our "alphabetocentric" (pardon the word) colleagues would enjoy your comments as well.


keshab  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:27
Member (2006)
English to Hindi
+ ...
One should take the help of English in one's own way. Jan 15, 2006

Hello Henry,

I belong to a country just opposite to your's in the globe.When we wake up,you just go to sleep and vice-versa.There are 14 national languages in India. It is almost clear that nobody can learn all the languages in proper time.So we have two official languages: Hindi and English.They are the connecting languages in our country.So you will find no difficulty if you write the address in English and send it to India.
It is not so complex as you think.We have choice to learn. the part of the people who need not to go outside,are satisfied with their mother tongue.Who needs to travel other parts of the country,learn Hindi language.Who needs to contact people in other parts of the world,learn English.
Now come to the question of computer.Of course, the devnagri script has many complexities in camparison with roman script and the computer has only Roman alphabetical keyboard.There are no problem who works with English language.But who works with Hindi and other Indian languages facing a problem with this english key board.However, to overcome the situation, phonetic key map system is evolved.It writes according to pronunciation of that very language in that very language script.
I can give you an example writing my name in devnagri script. To see the leters you have to go View-Encoding-UTF8.

केशव बसुमल्लिक

Can you see these letters? If yes,then you should understand that we are all going in life with friendship,not with enemity.




Balasubramaniam L.  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:27
English to Hindi
+ ...
Not to a great extent, in my opinion Jan 15, 2006

You have certainly raised a very pertinent issue. I can speak for Hindi and some other Indian languages I know.

All languages more or less have the same potential for expressing human ideas and knowledge, and different languages have enjoyed dominant positions in different periods of time. In the case of India, it was Sanskrit at one time, then Persian, then English, and now Hindi and the regional languages are asserting themselves.

More than the inherent capacity of any language, it is politics and history that make one language more dominant than the other. If instead of England, Japan or Arabia had expanded into the world and made colonies in Europe, America and Asia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, most of us would be speaking Japanese or Arabic, instead of English.

Languages again aren’t permanent entities, they take birth, prosper and then fade out. Latin and Sanskrit are examples. People move on from one language to another, though this transition spans a few generations. One can argue that a lot of accumulated wisdom is lost with the language, but then there is no limit to human creativity. These will be rediscovered and adapted to the changing environment.

What keeps languages alive and thriving are a viable number of speakers, political freedom, freedom of expression and reasonable affluence. Give that, any language can recreate the knowledge available in other languages, not all of it, but the relevant parts, in no time. The basics are already there, the core grammar and vocabulary, and new words can be easily coined for new ideas or borrowed from other languages.

It is those languages that don’t have sufficient numbers of speakers or lack political freedom that die out.

In the last 50 years or so Hindi has grown from a much vilified language said to be deficient in scientific terminology and incapable of use for higher education, to a dominant world language that is used at the highest levels of education, governance, literature and commerce. And so have the other major languages of India – Tamil, Bengali, Marathi, Malayalam, and so on.

Technology instead of inhibiting linguistic development has actually facilitated it, which speaks for the inventiveness of the human mind. I use the same qwerty keyboard you use to type Hindi. Only there is an invisible software overlay which converts the qweerty keystrokes into Hindi symbols! Neat isn’t it?

I can google in Hindi in the same way as you can in English. In fact I can set my computer to read only Hindi web pages. Google has completely localized for Hindi and I can have all the messages that you see in a google page in English in Hindi. Of course a google search in Hindi won’t yield as rich a haul as a similar search in English, and that is because there aren’t as many pages in Hindi out there in the web.

The coming of new standards like UNICODE have bridged the gap between languages to a great extent. Now technology is no longer a limiting factor for languages.

You do have a point in that there is an information gap and haves and havenots syndrome viza-viz languages exists. There are rich languages and the poor ones, but that is not a major handicap in my opinion.

Most Indians speak several languages and use different languages at different occasions, that is another way of tiding over this information gap.

So it is not as you say, sweep the floor if you don’t know English!


JaneTranslates  Identity Verified
Puerto Rico
Local time: 11:57
Member (2005)
Spanish to English
+ ...
Forgive me, Henry Jan 15, 2006

This isn't the reply you want; I'm not the person who can answer your questions. I've wondered about the same things, but you expressed it very well and I'll be watching this topic.

My one contribution: I think it would make a big difference whether the language's writing system is phonetic or not. I know just enough (biblical) Hebrew and Greek to know that they are written phonetically and are standard-sized keyboard friendly. I believe the same is true of Korean and Russian (??). But languages written in ideographs? I can't imagine.

Thanks for your thoughtful posting. I hope you get useful replies.


Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 09:57
English to Spanish
+ ...
Thanks, not forgiveness. Jan 15, 2006

You've provided a bit more clarification. Yes, of course I am referring languages written in different scripts, and even more so to those that are not phonetic. I know that the Cyrilic (Russian, etc.) and Greek alphabets do not pose too many problems; Arabic and Hebrew perhaps more, even though they may be phonetic.

A very interesting point also would be the difficulty encountered by native speakers in acquiring literacy in their own language. Is this a problem? Is it holding the country back?

For example, Spanish-speakers have a language written phonetically in the Latin alphabet so learning to reading it is easy. English is harder because it is not perfectly phonetic.

And Chinese? How many characters must you master to just get by? How many to get a good education? And how many people actually learn them?


Marcus Malabad  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:57
Member (2002)
German to English
+ ...
typing Jan 15, 2006

To type ideographic languages like Chinese and Japanese using Windows, you first have to install the appropriate language option into your keyboard layout.

In Word, for example, just type the phonetic transliteration of the Chinese (pinyin) or Japanese (romaji) word and then press Enter. You will then get several character options (Trad/Simplified for Chinese; Kanji/Hiragana/Katakana for Japanese) on the screen. Choose the appropriate character set by typing the number corresponding to the characters or scrolling down and pressing Enter.

The same applies to Indian languages, Korean and most - I assume - pictographic and ideographic languages.

To type right-to-left or bidirectional languages like Arabic, Farsi, Aramaic, Hebrew, you simply have to download the keyboard layout and fonts. Most XP machines already come with the needed package. Your keyboard, of course, must also have the appropriate letters embossed on the keys:

Typing Thai (and I assume Lao as well) is trickier as the alphabet is much larger. Each English key has two Thai characters: press a key to enter one character, hold down the Shift and press the key to access the other. Again, you must have the appropriate keyboard and fonts.

Most, if not all, central postal authorities in countries with non-Latin alphabets have people who can read Latin script. This has ceased to be an issue, I think, ever since the dawn of modern times. If you visit a Japanese company's website, for example, the contact address shown in English pages is always written in romaji. Same for Chinese.

Chinese is studied by more foreigners than you might think. I was once at a foreign student dormitory in Beijing where I saw Africans and South Americans babbling away with each other in Mandarin. That was loads of laughs. Chinese is the new Russian.

I suspect some Anglocentric attitude in some of the questions so I will leave them to others to answer.


Heinrich Pesch  Identity Verified
Local time: 18:57
Member (2003)
Finnish to German
+ ...
Perhaps Jan 16, 2006

The Roman letters for the chemical elements seem to be in use throughtout the world.
After studying five years Russian I still found it difficult to read words with p and i, especially when on carbon copy. Probably I'm prejudiced, but I find the Roman alphabet easier to read than the Cyrillic. And Russians just have to know also the Roman alphabet too in addition to their own, otherwise they would not be able to read modern ads in newpapers.
I also believe that Chinese children have to learn years before they can read normal newstexts, whereas phonetical scripts serve the same purpose after a few weeks, when the child is ready.
Spelling contests are unknown in non-english countries. If you can speak Finnish you can also read and write correctly, whereas in English one has to struggle all his life it seems.
I believe that every single language is easy in some features and difficult in others. English idioms are a nightmare to foreigners.

Finnish engineers always told me they think German being an exceptionally logical language, well suited for technical understanding. I as a native German think Finnish to be much more logical, but both German and Finnish are more precise than English.

So there's a punch at you anglocentrics!



JaneTranslates  Identity Verified
Puerto Rico
Local time: 11:57
Member (2005)
Spanish to English
+ ...
Low blow. Jan 16, 2006

Marcus Malabad wrote:

I suspect some Anglocentric attitude in some of the questions so I will leave them to others to answer.

Heinrich Pesch wrote:

So there's a punch at you anglocentrics!

When I read Marcus Malabad's post, I was bothered, but I held my peace. (After all, he's a moderator!) But now that I've seen Heinrich Pesch's, I feel I must speak my piece. (And yes, my choice of "held my peace" in juxtaposition with "speak my piece" was a conscious one; I do, indeed, sympathize with anyone, from anywhere, who is trying to learn English!)

From what I know of Henry Hinds from KudoZ, I don't think
"anglocentric" applies to him. But setting aside personalities (Marcus, at least, used "anglocentric" regarding the *questions,* not his ProZ colleagues), I believe Henry's thoughtful questions should be welcomed, not condemned. What is wrong with a thirst for understanding, for knowledge? How can I learn if those who know the answers disdainfully decline to teach me?

In a sense, of course, we are all something-centric. Everyone starts from somewhere; everyone starts from "the center of the world." Some broaden that center a little, some a lot; some stay there all their lives. Henry's questions say: I know what it's like here, in my two native languages/cultures. Please tell me what it's like elsewhere. I want to know, to understand; help me!

To all with knowledge on the topic: Answer the questions! Don't slap down the asker!

PS: And by the way: It wouldn't hurt to have spelling competitions in certain languages other than English. Many of my Spanish-speaking friends, from an assortment of countries, have atrocious spelling. They freely substitute /y/ for /i/ and vice versa, confuse /y/ and /ll/, use /s/, /c/, and /z/ indiscriminately, drop and add /h/ as freely as, and less consistently than, a Cockney, and if they use accent marks at all it is entirely random. Granted, I know of no other language as difficult to spell (and with as many vowel sounds!) as English. But Spanish, at least, though perfectly phonetic, still provides spelling hazards.


Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 09:57
English to Spanish
+ ...
We're all centric... Jan 16, 2006

We're all "centric" in some ways, "alphabetocentric", "anglocentric" and "hispanocentric" in my own case. That's the whole point. The idea is to become at least somewhat aware of the vast world out there.

I appreciate the comments of our colleagues in India, but I'd like to hear from others, especially in the Far East where language structures are so different from Western patterns.

What replies can you give to some of these questions as opposed to reacting to the opinions of others?


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