Connecting through Fiction

Now we all live in some kind of a social and cultural circle. We all do. We’re born into a certain family, nation, class. But if we have no connection whatsoever with the worlds beyond the one we take for granted, then we too run the risk of drying up inside. Our imagination might shrink; our hearts might dwindle, and our humanness might wither if we stay for too long inside our cultural cocoons.

There are so many wonderful pieces to Elif Shafak’s TED talk: experiencing new cultures, expressing oneself in a foreign language, grappling with identity politics. She challenges the idea that authors — especially non-Western authors — have to write about their own identity and culture. Instead, she encourages us to see fiction as a place for imagination, a place for feelings, a place for us to escape our limited social circles and connect across identities and cultures.

English only? I hope not!

It’s no secret that English dominates the tech sector. From communicating with coworkers to launching software, English usually comes first. Even the most well-meaning companies can struggle to reach non-English-speaking users and provide a localized experience in their native language. And no surprise there, either — it’s really tough to do well.

As a small part of my job, I do what I can to help make better for users around the world. (And I’m certainly not alone. There are a lot of rockstar translators contributing to, along with a well-established group of polyglots working on the open-source WordPress project.)

I’m not a developer, so much of what I do is connecting people with resources. I help volunteer translators get oriented so they can help translate into their own language. I teach our internationalization team about the tools and methods used by professional translators. I find or report bugs that cause translation issues so the code can be improved. And I help educate all of my colleagues about how translation works. For a lot of people, just thinking about using in another language is … well, entirely foreign to them.

But every time someone stops to think about how a product works in another language, it makes a difference for users around the world. That’s why I was so impressed when I saw that Mark Zuckerberg held a Q&A session entirely in Chinese:

Sure, it wasn’t flawless Chinese, and I wouldn’t bet on Facebook’s developers switching from English to Chinese any time soon — but this Q&A session is a gesture. It’s recognition of a user base outside of the English-speaking world, a clear message from the CEO of a major tech company that he cares about speakers of other languages.

As a linguaphile I find it incredibly heartening to see what Zuckerberg did in this session, although I don’t expect every CEO to start speaking other languages. It takes a lot of time and dedication to learn a new language, and Zuckerberg has personal motivation — his wife’s family speaks Chinese. (I understand that motivation!)

What matters are the resources, attention, and energy that are invested in making the web a better place — for everyone.

Can you identify foreign languages?

If I see a language written down, I’m pretty good at figuring out what it is. The writing system, the roots of the words, the syntax … there are lots of little clues if you know where to look.

Hearing a language is different. Sure, I can pick out familiar languages with no problem. French, for all that its pronunciation eludes me, is incredibly easy to identify. Arabic and Chinese are impossible for me to understand at this point but I know exactly what they sound like. But there are so many languages I haven’t really heard before, or at least not very often.

For example, I know that Latvian and Armenian are quite unrelated and could tell them apart on paper, but I find it very hard to identify one or the other in speech. And a clip of Hausa could just as easily be Tibetan to my ear. I feel a bit sheepish about how much trouble I have with those languages.

Think you can do better? Test yourself with the Great Language Game.

Learning Farsi

I just want to give a shout-out to Hassan Faramarz, the creator of Easy Persian. I have been learning bits and pieces of Farsi for years, but in the past few weeks I have made huge strides thanks to the free lessons on his website. Even though my vocabulary is still fairly limited, I feel like I’m making progress again!

!خیلی ممنون. کریسمس و یلدا مبارک