This is a book about computers and a book about languages. At first sight you might think that these two things do not have enough in common to write a book about. The opposite is true, though. Although computers were originally developed to perform mathematical calculations, today we use them mainly as tools for communication: sending e-mails, surfing websites, writing documents. This communication always happens in some human language: in Irish, in German, in Mandarin or in any other of the approximately 6,000 languages on the planet. And it is not always just person-to-person communication, either: we communicate with the computer itself too. The computer communicates with us by writing things on screen and we communicate back by clicking on buttons and links. All of this, or almost all of this, happens through the means of a human language. So languages are actually quite important in information technology!

What is in the book?

There are said to be about 6,000 languages in the world. No two are alike and each has its unique set of requirements: we use different characters to write them, we follow different conventions for formatting text and numbers in them, for capitalizing names, for punctuating sentences, for sorting things alphabetically and so on. Many of these things are discussed in Chapters 1–6. These chapters will give the reader an overview of the different writing systems used throughout the world (with a focus on Europe) and how computers deal with them. This should give you enough information to solve practical day-to-day problems, such as when the accented characters of Irish are not being displayed correctly or when your word processor keeps auto-correcting the Irish preposition ‘i’ to the English personal pronoun ‘I’.

There exist many software tools that can help people write text in a given language and to translate text into another language: spellcheckers, grammar checkers, machine translation, electronic dictionaries. These things will be discussed in Chapters 7–10. These chapters will show you the tools that exist but, more importantly, they will give you an appreciation for how they work internally and, through that, equip you to think about them critically. Tools like spellcheckers and machine translation have their strength and weaknesses. It is important that users understand when they can trust them and when not. In particular, Chapters 7 and 8 are about translation technology and these will be relevant to readers who are involved in translation, be they translators themselves or people who work with translators as managers, customers or trainers.

In Chapters 11 and 12 we will switch focus from communication with people to communication with computers. These chapters will deal with software localization. Localized software is software which has been translated into another language, but localization involves more than just translation. We will look at some of the challenges that software translation poses in comparison to document translation. Irish speakers in Ireland are accustomed to using computers through English but many software packages are available in Irish too and these chapters will direct the reader to them.

Finally, Chapters 13 and 14 are about bilingual and multilingual websites. We will look at best practices to produce a website that serves users in their choice of language. We will concentrate on questions such as: What is the best way to enable the user to switch from one language to another? In what language do we give the website to newly arrived users who have not made an explicit choice yet? Are we sure that we will always be able to offer everything on our website in all our languages at the same time? What do we do if we cannot get a translation quickly enough?

Who is the book for?

This is not a book for computer specialists. It is a book for people who are computer users in the ordinary sense. It is expected that you know your way around a computer, you know how to use a word processor, how to write and send e-mails, how to browse the web. Apart from that, no knowledge is needed except a willingness to take your computer skills to the next level.

Computer skills are not the only thing this book is about. It is equally a book on intercultural awareness: the knowledge you need to function well in a multicultural, multilingual environment. The kinds of people who are likely to benefit most from this book are public sector administrators in multilingual countries and marketing staff in multinational companies. But, in a sense, this book for everybody who lives in the world, or at least in the industrialized ‘western’ part of it. Now that globalization has reached a very advanced stage, we often encounter different languages even in contexts which used to be monolingual. People now often find they have to handle text in languages they do not understand, such as people’s names or foreign addresses. Organizations often publish content multilingually, both online and on paper, even in languages none of their in-house staff understand. So, even though this book will not teach you any particular language, it will help you develop an appreciation for the linguistic diversity of the world (with a focus on Europe) and for the implications it has for your own work. The goal of the book is to give readers skills and knowledge needed to handle content in different languages and to do it in ways that give each language what is right for it and for its speakers.

What languages?

Even though this book is in Irish and even though it refers to Irish and Ireland often, it is not a book about Irish or about Ireland. The themes developed here are common to all languages and all countries. The information in this book is equally relevant to people who have no dealings with Irish at all but who do have dealings with other languages. Indeed, the book makes generous of examples from languages other than Irish too.

The theme of the book is multilingualism but the focus is unashamedly on Europe and on European languages. We do refer to languages further afield here and there, to Arabic and Mandarin and so on, but mostly, this book has been written from a European perspective and for a European audience.

What software?

The book is meant as a practical guide and, for that reason, it makes use of examples from specific software products to illustrate things. You will see many references to Microsoft Windows, Linux, Microsoft Office, LibreOffice, Mozilla Firefox, Android and so on. Do not expect, though, to always find an example for the software you personally use or for the latest version. For every software genre that exists, be it word processors or web browsers or e-mail software, many concrete software packages exist and new versions come out all the time. That variety cannot be covered in a single book, and doing so would be pointless anyway. The general concepts that all software shares are more important, and those are the focus of the book.

We make no distinction between desktop and laptop computers on the one hand, and tablets and mobile phones on the other. They are all computers. Even mobile phones, which do not even look like computers because they do not have large screens or keyboards, are actually computers inside and the apps you install on them are software. So this book takes in everything from the biggest desktop box to the smallest mobile device.

What is the book not about?

This is not a book on computational linguistics or natural language processing as academic or engineering disciplines. Its purpose is not to teach the reader concepts from these disciplines, concepts like parsing and lemmatization and machine learning, except in the few rare cases where understanding such things is directly relevant to the end-user’s experience.

The focus of the book is written communication rather than spoken communication. We do not mention speech recognition or speech synthesis. These are interesting domains in their own right but unfortunately they are outside the author’s area of expertise.

Companion website

This book comes with a website: You will see references to the website throughout the book because that is where you can find additional content we could not accommodate in print. The reader would be well advised to visit the website often while reading the book. In a way, this is not just a book but a book-and-website package. The website will continue to be updated after the book is published.

How the book came about

Portions of the book are based on a module on multilingual computing I taught for several years at Fiontar, Dublin City University, as part of a postgraduate course in bilingual practice. The book is a mixture of content from that module and from other pieces of writing I had published in various places, as well as a big chunk of completely new content. All parts of the book that were seen in public before have been rewritten and reorganized so that the book can stand on its own feet as a single coherent whole.

How to read the book

Many chapters logically follow from the chapter before, so unless the reader has a reason to do otherwise, I recommend to read them from beginning to end in the order they are in. That being said, every chapter deals with a separate topic and can be read and understood independently.

Whichever way you decide to go for it, I wish you an enjoyable journey.

Book cover
An Ríomhaire Ilteangach
Michal Boleslav Měchura
145 pages
Cois Life 2017
ISBN 978-1-907494-70-3
Note. Although this website is bilingual in Irish and English, the book itself is in Irish only.