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Monday, July 12, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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Breaking down language barriers

By Brier Dudley
Seattle Times technology reporter

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There is less than one computer for every 100 people in East Africa, where the population worries more about getting water and electricity than an Internet connection.

But that's where Microsoft is working on special versions of Windows XP and standard Office applications in Kiswahili, or Swahili, the language spoken by more than 50 million people in Kenya, Tanzania and other countries in the region.

Kiswahili is among 40 languages Microsoft is taking on as part of a new approach to localizing its products for overseas markets. The Local Language Program, which began in March, is expected to broaden the company's reach, build new partnerships with governments in developing countries and confront the challenge of freely shared software.

It's part of a broad company effort to expand its global presence, especially now that Western markets are saturated with technology. Microsoft wants to help developing countries break down language barriers that contribute to the "digital divide" that has left much of the world behind the technology revolution.

"We wanted to bring our desktop to a broader set of people around the world, and the way you do that is by breaking down the barrier," said Lori Brownell, general manager of the Windows International group that produces non-English versions of the software.

In some ways, Microsoft is playing catch-up. Governments, universities, other companies and nonprofit groups have worked for years on an array of projects to make computers more usable in developing countries.

It's complicated work, and Microsoft's contributions should make a big difference, especially if they're combined with computer-training programs, said Martin Benjamin, a professor of Swahili and anthropology at Wesleyan University. Benjamin produced a Kiswahili interface for Google two years ago and edits an online dictionary for the language.

"I think it will be substantial progress for the ability of people in East Africa to use computers — it's about 10 years too late, but better late than never," he said.

The politics of language

One of the challenges is figuring out which terms to use in the programs. This is complicated by the politics of language, including academic debates about whether native words should be used for non-native products such as software.

"There's a lively debate among people about what words should be used," Benjamin said, relating how academics in Kenya even disagree on what to call computers.

Windows on the world

These are among the Windows XP Professional languages now available:

Chinese (simplified)
Chinese (traditional)
Chinese (Hong Kong)

Some Kenyans believe the appropriate translation for "computer" is "tarakilishi," a word with Kiswahili roots that relate to math. But others, including Benjamin, favor the commonly used word "kompyuta," which is borrowed from English. Microsoft hopes to avoid these issues by leaving the translation to local experts.

To develop the language kits, Microsoft is working in partnership with government, universities and language groups. These partners are hired to produce a glossary of 3,000 standard computer terms in their language. Microsoft's software tools use these glossaries to produce a local language "layer" over Windows and Office.

Microsoft also makes the glossaries available online at no charge to software developers around the world. The glossaries are available at

In places such as Nepal, the people working on the glossaries don't have Internet access. A company working on the project there went to a community radio station and broadcast 10 computer terms a day, asking listeners to phone in translations, said Andy Abbar, group program manager for Microsoft's Information Worker International business.

Elsewhere, it's a multinational effort. The Kiswahili version is being developed by professors in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, and coordinated by the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. On the other side of Africa, Microsoft is simultaneously working with Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia on an Amharic version.

"What you don't want is to push a solution, so it's important it comes from within the country, within the community," Abbar said.

Abbar said it's gratifying work, especially after seeing the lengths users go to use software in a language they don't understand.

While in an office in Vietnam, he noticed a receptionist had ringed her computer monitor with yellow sticky notes. He asked a Vietnamese co-worker what the notes said, and it turned out they had translations of desktop commands such as "Start" and file menu names.

Which markets picked

Microsoft began localizing its software in different languages about 15 years ago.

"We started out by saying, 'Well these are big markets, we should localize.' That gets you the top seven, maybe," said Brownell, the general manager.

Now Microsft chooses new languages after analyzing information from its overseas subsidiaries. Criteria include PC sales, growth rates and market potential.

Among the high priorities are languages in countries with fast-growing technology industries such as India, where the company plans to introduce versions in nine regional dialects over the next year. One of them is Telugu, the language spoken in Hyderabad, where Microsoft has had a software-development center since 1998.

The company also has worked on languages that were suggested by users or governments, including the Irish and Welsh versions.

Currently, it has about 40 languages done, and it plans to complete another 40 by the end of June 2005.

Outsourcing linguists

The language program also reflects the company's new way of doing business. In years past, the company hired hundreds of language experts to build "localized" versions of its programs for promising markets.

Now it's focused on software tools that simplify the localization process, and it's outsourcing language work to partners in countries where the languages are spoken. Instead of hundreds of linguists, the Windows international group now has just 75 people doing software-tool development, Brownell said.

The new approach coalesced about a year and a half ago, when the company realized it didn't have to translate 100 percent of the program commands to make Windows and Office usable by non-English speakers.

It developed tools for adding a foreign-language layer over Windows and Office, based on what Brownell calls the "80-20 rule": By translating just 20 percent of the commands — including key terms such as "start" and "click" — the software is 80 percent usable to non-English speakers.

The layers are built using tools the company originally developed to help multinational corporations set up PCs for users in different countries.

This leaner approach helps the company produce more foreign-language versions of its products for less money, Brownell said.

"The team is building more layers now than in the past, when there were more people, because of the tools," she said.

(Currently available layers — from Afrikaans to Zulu — may be downloaded at

Competitors localizing

The new language program was announced in March by Maggie Wilderotter, a senior vice president charged with building relationships with governments and schools around the world. She's also a point person in the company's competition with freely shared software such as the Linux operating system and OpenOffice suite, which also have ambitious localization programs.

OpenOffice is being translated into about 60 languages, said OpenOffice "community manager" Louis Suarez-Potts, who also works as senior community-development manager of CollabNet in Brisbane, Calif.

Suarez-Potts said Microsoft is trying to catch up to OpenOffice, which is being embraced by developing countries. He contends that countries can create software industries by creating local versions of freely shared software such as OpenOffice.

"They've seen what we've been doing and how we've been trying to work with the various national governments and regional governments to create local economies," he said.

Either way, the localized software products are unlikely to find their way into many homes in countries such as Tanzania, where people live on a dollar a day, Wesleyan's Benjamin said.

"They're not going to be buying a computer anytime soon no matter what happens with an interface available in Swahili," he said. "They don't have electricity; they have more pressing concerns."

But if the language barrier were lowered, people would be able to use computers in Internet cafes, and computers could be brought into schools for students to use.

"People I know who don't have access to computers because in large part they read Swahili but not English, they would love to be able to learn computers," Benjamin said. "They know what's available with computers — they'd love to be able to send e-mails, instant message chat, but they can't."

Not for a while, at least.

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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