Learning the Languages

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Just because you speak English doesn't mean your public access computers have to, especially if your patrons don't. While buying books in multiple languages can be taxing on the budget, using technology in different languages can be a simple and practically free way to interact with patrons who speak limited or no English. In this month's Tech Tips, I'm going to look at a few things librarians can do to assure that their patrons can interact with the library and its technology in the language of their choice.

Languages in Hardware and Software

One of the great boons for new immigrants is the fact that they can interact with technology--send email, read websites, word process--in their native language ... assuming the public access PCs are set up properly. While libraries may not be able to have keyboards printed with all alphabets, all versions of Windows from Windows 2000 on are supposed to be "language-neutral." This means that they can be configured to have keyboard input and the user interface in any major language.

Thirty-three languages are fully supported in Microsoft's Multilingual User Interface (MUI). For what Microsoft calls "emerging or minority language markets" (Catalan, Lithuanian, and Thai are its examples), the user interface is approximately 80% "skinnable" using a Language Interface Pack (LIP).

Different Windows systems may have different language packs installed, but additional packs can be obtained via Microsoft's website. If you have a large community of non-English speakers, you can configure your public access PCs to have multiple logins with different languages as the defaults. You can access language settings in the control panel in Windows XP under Regional and Language Options.

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Other operating systems are also easily available in other languages. These systems include Ubuntu, the most popular Linux distribution, which comes in 55 languages; and Mac OS X, which is available in more than 20 languages.

Additionally, language packs are available for other Microsoft products such as Windows Media Player, Microsoft Office, and Windows Internet Explorer. Open source products are traditionally wellknown for language support, and tools such as the Adium chat client have translation plug-ins available for them. Imagine being able to instant message a patron who didn't speak English in a decent version of his or her own language!

Languages on the Internet

Thinking about the internet and languages involves two separate parts: first, the language the browser uses; second, the languages that can be displayed on websites. Both Internet Explorer and Firefox are available in more than 35 languages and can be downloaded--perhaps to a language-specific profile?--and used independently of English-language versions.

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Most websites have information in them that tells a browser the language in which they should be displayed. By default, Internet Explorer and Safari will download the fonts they need in order to display webpages in other languages, unless this feature has been specifically disabled. Note that some accessibility programs that have font overrides built into them may cause problems when displaying non-Western alphabets, so make that part of your troubleshooting process. Firefox 3 contains built-in tools for font selection and claims to "successfully render text where other browsers fail," though I have not noticed this particularly. Suffice it to say that current versions of all browsers have mechanisms for correctly displaying fonts in all languages.

When in doubt, you can go to the Unicode Consortium's website, which can explain more about language support and has a useful FAQ for common problems with font display and usage.

Languages in Your Library

Technology can also assist us in making our libraries more usable for nonEnglish language speakers or readers. …