Alan Dix > HCI Education

daffodils for Dewi Sant, lingua franca?

SIGCHI Bulletin HCI Education column July 2001
I missed my March 1st deadline and now writing to see whether this can sneak onto the editor's desk late or may have to wait until the July issue. Why so late this time? Something to do with the time of year - every PhD examination, European project review and other meeting I've agreed to do at various times all suddenly came together and so, over the last two months I've been in four countries and driven the length and breadth of England.

I've chosen words carefully. Next week I'll be in Scotland and I've not been to Wales since Christmas, nor to Ireland for years.

This care with words is particularly important as March 1st, when I should have written this, was Saint David's Day. Saint David is the patron saint of Wales and I am, as you may now have guessed, Welsh. For those who don't know (particularly those in the US), Great Britain consists of four countries England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales (with various independent island states such as the Isle of Mann) and the one thing worse than assuming everyone from Britain lives in London, is to say we are English!

Saint David was a Celtic monk and bishop. One story, sometimes told about David and sometimes about later heroes, tells how the national emblems of Wales came to be the leek (a vegetable related to onions) and the daffodil (the bright yellow spring flower, that inspired Wordsworth's 'I wandered lonely as a cloud'). There was a battle between the Welsh and the English Now at this stage the Welsh were Celts, the native British, and the 'English' were the invading Germanic tribes: Angles and Saxons. The leaders were worried lest the Welsh soldiers kill one another in the confusion of battle and so, in the manner of armies in all times, took as an emblem the wild leek (or in some stories the daffodil) that was growing close at hand. The battle was won (as are all battles in good stories) but after a further 1000 years of fighting, with the defeat of Owain Glyn Dwr, the last Prince of Wales, the war eventually lost.

Now as well as fuelling my nascent nationalism the story also tells us something about the Welsh and English, and indeed fighting armies throughout history. Without an emblem, a uniform, a standard, or in the case of the Gulf War, plastic sheeting tied to a tank, it is hard to tell who is who. We are not so different really and of course it is often the fiercest battles fought between the closest neighbours.

We have all heard the maxim 'we are all the same under the skin', but the real differences between nations tend not to be about physiology but about language, culture and temperament. As with cognitive differences that I wrote about in the January issue, this affects both our teaching if we have multi-cultural mix of students and also what we teach if we wish our students to design for global audiences.

Language is perhaps simplest - all we do is use resource identifiers in our interface and add the right resource file with the appropriate translated words for each locale.

Even at a superficial level menus and labels simply take up more space in Finnish, so it is not that simple, and, of course, the problems lie deeper than that.

I am not a native Welsh speaker and I recall my first lessons in Welsh - ysgol=school, plant=children, mae='there is' - it took me years to understand that translation is not transliteration. A colleague works on computational linguistics in Arabic. You can import some grammatical techniques from English, but at some point the tension is felt. In Arabic adjectives are in the same broad class as nouns, rather like 'integrity' is a noun of quality in English. If things like size, colour are qualities rather than attributes does this change the way we should look at an interface? Language means we think differently - in Welsh you can say 'yes she is' or 'yes I am' but not simply 'yes' - not just a matter of grammar.

That these differences are important is clear. Even in the early 20th century the British Parliament made various laws and policies to attempt to eradicate the Welsh. Scots and Irish languages. Languages are about identity and identity is threatening. We see the same today across the world where language is used to select and discriminate in many areas, not least education. The earliest universities in England were established by royal patronage, in Wales by public subscription. Across the world education has been a route to break free of the bounds of class, race, gender and ethnicity, but can also be used to enforce them.

Language death has become an important issue, with hundreds of languages expected to disappear over the coming century. But it is globalisation not ethnic cleansing which is the major threat. To date the major influences have been paper and broadcast media, but in coming years the web and global information systems will dominate. We and our students have a great responsibility.