Software in Your Language

In Johannesburg I met with Dwayne Bailey of, a non-profit organization that creates and distributes versions of Firefox, Thunderbird, and in the 11 official languages of South Africa. They’re also involved in the development of WordForge projects like the Pootle open source web framework for managing translation workflow and data (similar to Ubuntu’s Rosetta), and Translate Toolkit to convert between the various different formats used to store translation data. They collaborate with a number of related projects such as’s localization teams, Mozilla’s localization project, the Cambodian KhmerOS, and the Tanzanian Kilinux, sharing translation efforts and tools.

In the 1990s, I worked for an NGO in Kenya developing early literacy materials in Sudanese minority languages. Extensive studies and academic journals show the benefits of teaching new subjects in the students’ first language (“mother tongue” or “L1”). It has always struck me as odd that in the open source world English often passes for “good enough”. Language is a significant barrier to adoption. When you combine learning a new language, with learning a new software tool, and with (in many cases) learning the fundamental metaphors of a GUI, the resulting mountain can be too steep to climb.

Beyond easing the learning curve and encouraging open source adoption, the translated software has a social and cultural impact as well. Imagine what it would be like to spend your life believing that your language was fine for social communication, but had to be abandoned for anything technical. Then twist the dial 180° to realize that all languages deserve equal respect and an equal opportunity to adapt, as vibrant living languages, to new situations. From the Khmer Software Initiative site:

We believe that in order to enter a digital world without forfeiting its culture, a country must do it by using software in its own language. Software in a foreign language exacerbates the digital divide, makes basic computer training difficult and expensive, closes computer-using jobs to people with little economic resources, impoverishes local culture, and blocks computer-based government processes, as the local language script cannot be used in databases.

One of the things I was looking for in my trip around the world was a change in perspective. I’ve spent too much time in the Silicon Valley watching yet another highly acclaimed (often open source) startup launch yet another fizzy-water website. It’s refreshing to see open source projects changing the world.