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Local languages, global networks: Mobile design for minority language users

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Minority and indigenous languages have a complex relationship with contemporary communication media. Social media, in particular, provide new venues for language use and revitalization, but also subject minority languages to inhibiting technological and social pressures. The present study contributes to a better understanding of social media and language use dynamics via an analysis of a survey of Irish language users (n=617) and their sociotechnical contexts. We develop a typology of social, linguistic, and technical factors that provide a theoretical and analytical foundation for future work. A complex interplay of social and technical factors impact minority language use in social media, and we suggest potential interaction design strategies for language activists and technologists to promote more effective engagement.
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Local languages, global networks:
Mobile design for minority language users
Derek Lackaff
Elon University
School of Communications
Campus Box 2850
+1 336 278 6492
dlackaff@elon.edu
William J. Moner
Elon University
School of Communications
Campus Box 2850
+1 336 278 5716
wmoner@elon.edu
ABSTRACT
Minority and indigenous languages have a complex relationship
with contemporary communication media. Social media, in
particular, provide new venues for language use and revitalization,
but also subject minority languages to inhibiting technological and
social pressures. The present study contributes to a better
understanding of social media and language use dynamics via an
analysis of a survey of Irish language users (n=617) and their
sociotechnical contexts. We develop a typology of social,
linguistic, and technical factors that provide a theoretical and
analytical foundation for future work. A complex interplay of
social and technical factors impact minority language use in social
media, and we suggest potential interaction design strategies for
language activists and technologists to promote more effective
engagement.
CCS Concepts
Human-centered computing Ubiquitous and mobile
computing Human-centered computing Interaction
design.
Keywords
Minority languages, Irish language, mobile design, mobile input
1. INTRODUCTION
In celebration of International Mother Language Day on February
21, 2016, the 19th edition of Ethnologue was released. This
reference work attempts to provide a comprehensive catalog of
the world’s 7,097 known living languages. The distribution of
language speakers is highly skewed: 40% of the world’s
population speaks just one of eight languages, and another 40%
speaks one of 84 additional languages [1]. Most of these
thousands of languages have few speakers. Of the 169 indigenous
languages still spoken in the present United States, for example,
only seven were estimated to have more than 10,000 speakers in
2010 [2], and more recent research suggests that even these low
estimates might be grossly inflated [3]. While the world is
currently rich in linguistic diversity, the vast majority of human
languages are at risk of vanishing from community use within a
generation or two. In ecological terms, most languages are
threatened or endangered.
Language facilitates the transmission of culture between
generations and provides a framework for understanding a
community’s unique identity and worldview. In recent decades,
activists and researchers have advanced several arguments for the
intentional preservation of linguistic diversity as both a
community and universal good. A close connection exists
between indigenous languages and the physical ecosystems in
which they developed [4]. For example, given the deep local
knowledge of flora and fauna embedded in the languages of the
world’s rainforests, language preservation can be viewed as a
critical component of preventing environmental destruction.
Useful knowledge is encoded within traditional languages in
multiple ways, and this knowledge is eroded as speakers adopt
majority languages [5]. For members of indigenous communities,
who often face discrimination and political oppression as a result
of colonialism, the traditional community language can provide a
touchstone for identity, empowerment and resistance.
Most languages are minority languages; that is, their speakers
operate in a bilingual or multilingual social and political context
with a majority language (often a global or colonial language such
as English, Mandarin, or Spanish). Several related and often
overlapping terms other than “minority” might be used to describe
these languages: Cormack [6] considers terms including
“regional,” “indigenous,” “lesser-used,” “non-state,” and even
“subordinated” or “non-hegemonic,” while Reershemius [7] uses
“autochthonous heritage languages.” While the term “minority
languagemay have some conceptual limitations, we use this term
in a fairly broad sense that suggests a language is co-existing in a
community with global or majority language, and is likely to be
less materially and politically resourced. As our primary intent is
to explore the design of human-computer interaction, user
interfaces, and user experiences of minority language users, we
choose to sidestep some of the important political and cultural
discussion around minority languages. Our focus is the bilingual
socio-cultural context that is critical to understanding user
attitudes and behaviors regarding interactive media and language
use.
We begin by providing a brief review of minority language and
digital technologies, tracing both the threats and opportunities
presented by interactive media. We then focus our review more
specifically on the minority languages and mobile computing
platforms (e.g. mobile phones and tablet computers) that are
increasingly central in contemporary life. Next we provide an
overview of a survey research initiative (N=617) of Irish people,
most of whom speak the Irish language (Gaeilge) to some extent.
The data collected provide a snapshot of social media and mobile
media use, proficiencies in Irish, and attitudes about the use of the
Irish language online. We conclude by suggesting a sociotechnical
linguistic framework that might better inform the design and
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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2987592.2987612
development of social and mobile media for Irish and other
minority languages.
2. MINORITY LANGUAGES IN THE AGE
OF SNAPCHAT
Communication technologies, and social media more specifically,
present both opportunities and challenges for minority language
preservation and revitalization efforts. Penttonen [8] notes three
principal benefits of information and communication technologies
(ICTs) for endangered languages: communication affordances for
geographically-distributed language communities; the ability to
widely distribute cultural and news media, as well as learning
materials; and the opportunity to improve the prestige of the
language “encourag[ing] the young generations to keep the
language, [and attracting others] to learn the language” [p. 96].
This last point becomes increasingly salient as global youth
cultures move towards ubiquitous, “always-connected”
communication paradigms exemplified by increasingly dominant
mobile messaging platforms like Snapchat, Facebook Messenger,
and WhatsApp.
Digital communication platforms potentially enable members of
language communities to remain in contact with one another
whether they are local or distant. However, as the personal
computer loses primacy to mobile communication devices,
interaction and input rely more on advanced processes like speech
recognition and gesture typing than on traditional keyboard
typing. Pretorius and Bosch [9] argue that people “are empowered
to become part of the information society more readily if they are
able to use their own languages[, and] languages for which no
adequate computer processing is being developed run the risk of
being marginalized” [p. 57]. As the poet and musician Sjón noted
of his native Icelandic language (330,000 speakers) in a recent
interview:
The broader and more serious implications are for the
language as it is used in daily life. Technology is
moving towards AI and speech-controlled applications,
and the companies developing it do not see preserving
languages spoken by few as their responsibility. When
the day comes that we have to speak to our refrigerators
in English (which I believe is not far in the future),
Icelandic will retreat very fast. (in [10])
While accepting basic textual input from a keyboard is a trivial
computational exercise for most languages with an alphabet,
providing more advanced capabilities such as speech processing is
far more expensive in terms of time and effort. If one can verbally
query Apple’s Siri, Google Now, or Microsoft’s Cortana in
English in a fraction of the time it takes to type the same in
Icelandic (or Irish, or any unsupported language), then the global
language is decisively privileged.
2.1 Minority Language Computerization
In a relatively early report, Berment [11] highlighted some of the
accomplishments of the computing community relative to the
issue of digital minority language use such as the development of
Unicode (which enables text processing of many writing systems),
while noting that that most human languages lack useful
dictionaries or text corpora necessary for machine learning.
Pretorius and Bosch [9] note that many languages (such as the 400
languages of the Bantu family) have complex morphological
structures that make them particularly difficult to process
computationally. Given the expense of creating such tools using
traditional methods and the limited resources of many minority
language communities, new approaches and methods are critical.
We identify three broad functional areas of research that can
inform our exploration of this topic: language documentation,
pedagogy and learning, and software localization.
2.1.1 Language Documentation
Digital platforms have greatly facilitated the documentation of
endangered languages, allowing researchers and activists to
preserve a record of languages with dwindling speaker bases.
While the quality and quantity of linguistic data that researchers
can collect are greatly increased through the use of digital
documentation tools, such technologies can increasethe division
between a digitally literate linguist and people with whom they
work” [12, n.p.]. In other cases, minority language community
members are provided access to technologies that allow them to
document their language themselves. Aikuma, for example, is a
mobile app designed to allow speakers to record and translate
their language on their own schedule and terms, while providing
usefully-structured linguistic data for future research and
development [13]. Taking another approach, Penttonen [8],
describes how existing but anachronistic and inaccessible texts
can be digitized and repurposed in service of documentation
initiatives. Of course, documenting a language is never sufficient
for ensuring its survival. As Perley [14] notes poignantly,
documentation alone does not save a language from decline or
extinction such “mortuary linguistics” [p. 140] is only an
intermediary step that should result in teaching, transmission, and
“youthful creativity in heritage language use” [p. 141].
2.1.2 Pedagogy and Learning
Communication technologies are thus also facilitating the creative
development of language-learning tools and curricula. Although
Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL) technologies can
potentially provide several benefits to learners, CALL
development for minority languages has generally lagged behind
that of world languages. For example, Ward [15] suggests that the
development of CALL tools for Irish has been hindered by a lack
of technological expertise among teachers. Pedagogical resources
are often very scarce for minority languages, but the rapidly
falling barriers to producing and distributing interactive content
have enabled the development of resources for language learners
and teachers. Reduced distribution costs and increased audience
access can make online minority language news media viable
where traditional print and broadcast media were not. Existing
video content can be dubbed into minority languages as the
Lakota Language Consortium did with the children’s cartoon The
Berenstain Bears [16], and new video content can be recorded and
uploaded to video-sharing sites such as YouTube for distribution
and sharing. The Iñupiaq-language platformer video game Never
Alone was produced in collaboration with Alaska Native
storytellers, and debuted commercially on PC, Playstation 4 and
XBox One [17].
2.1.3 Software Localization
Similarly, advances in internationalization and localization
paradigms and platforms have made translation of software more
straightforward, particularly for commercial social media
platforms and open-source software. The rise of open-source
software and other models of distributed technical development
(e.g. “crowdsourcing”), provide opportunities for far greater
coverage of the world’s languages. Scannell and Ó Ciardhuáin
[18] note that localization (translation) of proprietary software
(such as operating systems or word processors) is typically
restricted to a small fraction of commercially-viable languages,
but open-source software has the potential to provide far more
language options due in part to diminished concerns for
marketplace profitability. Major social media platforms have
localized interfaces for many languages, most developed by
volunteers: as of this writing, Twitter offers 47 interface language
options, while Facebook provides nearly 100. Snapchat, a relative
newcomer to the social media space, primarily uses a pictographic
interface for its core functionality while providing secondary app
features in a set of limited languages. Users of Snapchat can add
text to an image in a language of their choosing based on the
capabilities of the phone. Software and interface localization helps
emphasize the salience and utility of a minority language in digital
contexts, and can increase accessibility of digital resources to
members of minority language communities. However, minority
language speakers may often be unaware that they may change
settings on their device to use a preferred language, and the
vocabulary of digital life may require some acclimation [19].
2.1.4 Opportunities and Challenges of Social Media
Finally, interactive social media have proven to be an important
platform for those interested in usage and revitalization. Social
media present a double-edged sword to minority language
communities. From one perspective, significant opportunity now
exists for language communities to interact with themselves
regardless of geographic dispersion of their members. Further, if
minority languages are to be perceived by their new generations
as useful and contemporary, rather than historical and traditional,
their digital presence is likely imperative [7]. However, digital
media also make majority and global languages far more
accessible, which potentially encroaches on the cultural
prevalence of a minority language in certain contexts. For
example, the Irish language originally persisted through centuries
of English colonialism in today’s rural Gaeltacht regions precisely
because of their economic and communicative isolation from the
rest of the nation.
3. MOBILE MEDIA AND MINORITY
LANGUAGES
Digital media access is increasingly provided not by general-
purpose desktop and laptop computers, but by powerful,
ubiquitous mobile devices. Mobile devices shape language usage
differently than personal computers do. Input interfaces on these
devices can complicate the facility of language use for even the
most savvy majority language speaker; minority language users
face additional challenges when utilizing these interfaces.
3.1 SMS and Predictive Text
The first generation of mobile text platforms was primarily
composed of mobile phones with small screens and numeric input
pads. The short messaging service (SMS) protocol, introduced
commercially in the early 1990s, enabled users to send brief (160
character) messages using their existing mobile phones. Because
the standard numeric keypad only had 12 buttons, most characters
were entered using multiple button presses to cycle through
available options. For example, a user would press the button
labeled “2” six times to produce the Á character, first cycling
through the characters A, B, C, 2, and Ä [20]. Such technical
limitations prompted significant linguistic innovation, as users
abbreviated words and developed new codes (e.g. “SMS
language” or “txtese”) to communicate with fewer presses and
characters (cf. [21]). Predictive text is an input technology
designed to ameliorate some of these problems, allowing the
software to “predict” which word a user intended to produce
based on a reduced number of button taps. Predictive text
increases text input speed by as much as 30% [21]. This feature
was broadly implemented for global languages, but support for
minority languages with smaller commercial markets languished.
3.2 Touchscreens and Spelling Correction
Touchscreen devices such as the Apple iPhone and iPad
characterize the second generation of mobile platforms. Such
devices typically employ a “soft keyboard” that appears onscreen
when data entry is necessary. As of this writing, the most recent
version of the default QuickType Keyboard on iOS devices
(iPhones, iPads, etc.) supports 67 keyboards for different
languages and dialects. This includes keyboards optimized for
multiple dialects of global languages (e.g. six English dialects,
three French dialects) but also keyboards for Cherokee, Icelandic,
and pictographic emoji. Likewise, Google Keyboard, the default
keyboard for Android devices, supports a very similar list of 70
language and dialect layouts. Neither of these keyboards has an
Irish layout. For a minority language with a script closely related
to a majority language, basic input of text is likely not a problem.
Modern Irish, for example, uses the majority of letters from the
Latin alphabet with five accented vowel characters (síneadh fada)
that can be accessed from an English keyboard with just an extra
key tap.
Typing characters one at a time, however, is becoming a lesser-
utilized interaction pattern for many touchscreen device users. For
users of global languages, touchscreen device keyboards provide
advanced features such as gesture typing, spellchecking, and
automatic corrections. Gesture typing allows a user to swipe her
finger across the characters in a word without tapping and
algorithmically produces the desired word based on a pattern
analysis. Automatic corrections are attempts by the input system
to correct typos and other mistakes, such as automatically
changing “dont” to “don’t.” These types of interface technologies
can greatly increase the convenience, accuracy, and speed of text
input on mobile devices. iOS provides predictive gesture typing
input for 12 languages (plus several dialects) while Android
supports 23 languages. Third-party keyboards (such as SwiftKey
and Swype) may provide more advanced functionality for some
minority languages, but these require a separate download.
3.3 Multilingual Users and Majority
Language Bias
Mobile computing technology has thus often privileged certain
orthographic features: e.g. alphabetic over non-alphabetic writing
systems, unaccented over accented characters, shorter words over
longer words. Some early SMS research postulated that bilinguals,
having access to a diverse vocabulary, would make use of code-
switching for brevity and efficiency [23]. In contrast, Carrier and
Benitez [24] found no evidence that bilinguals made particular use
of code-switching for textual brevity among their Spanish-English
sample. Much of the previous literature suggests that language use
in digital contexts is determined far more by socio-cultural factors
such as prestige or conversational context rather than
technological factors [24, 25, 26].
Other research suggests users face multiple sociotechnical
challenges to communication using minority languages within
majority-language oriented digital platforms. In a study of a
Welsh-English online community, Cunliffe and Harries [27]
found that bilingual communities may gravitate naturally toward
the majority language[p. 176] due to myriad social and technical
factors. Within the studied community, these factors included an
asymmetry of translation (always from Welsh to English for
monolingual English speakers) and the framing of Welsh content
within an English user interface. Cunliffe and Harries concluded
that providing equal opportunities for using minority and
majority languages is unlikely to be sufficient to encourage
minority-language use [p. 176], and that more proactive
measures may be necessary.
Lynn, Scannell, & Maguire [28] analyzed a large corpus of
Twitter posts (“tweets”) in Irish, and found morphological
irregularities that hint at the impediments presented by majority-
language user interfaces in both interface and language use. These
include a range of spelling irregularities such as the elimination of
diacritics, suggesting user challenges including “shortening the
time required to tweet […], a lack of knowledge on how to find
diacritics on a device’s keyboard, carelessness, or uncertainty
about the correct spelling” [28, p. 2]. Further, 21.2% of tweets in
their sample demonstrated within-tweet English code-switching
[28]. Likewise, an analysis of 6,000 Frisian tweets (Frisian being
a minority language in the Dutch-speaking Netherlands) noted
frequent phonetic writing as well as the frequent incorporation of
“Dutchisms” [29]. In their study of bilingual English-isiXhosa
SMS , Deumert & Masinyana [26] found that users disabled the
(English) predictive text on their phones to better accommodate
complex code-switching norms.
Taken together, these findings suggest that many minority
language speakers may not face outright barriers to using their
languages online. Global languages may exert a more subtle
pressure through contemporary mobile technologies, biasing
multilingual users towards global languages by providing a more
pleasant and efficient user experience.
4. THE IRISH LANGUAGE
Irish (Gaeilge) is the national and first official language of the
Republic of Ireland, a recognized minority language in Northern
Ireland, and an official language of the European Union. The
language remains a vernacular in a few regions where it has
traditionally been spoken and that receive some state economic
support (Gaeltachtaí, singular Gaeltacht), and is emerging as a
presence in some urban areas such as Dublin. Instruction in the
language is mandated in all primary and secondary schools, and
there are an increasing number of Irish immersion school options
available across the country. Irish has also attracted a broader
community of interest outside of its indigenous borders. Mass
emigrations of the Irish in the 19th and 20th centuries to places
like the United States, Canada, and Australia resulted in a broad
diaspora and interest in Irish culture and language. As an
illustration of this popularity, Duolingoan online language-
learning site launched an Irish course in 2014 and reported that
64% of the 143,000 Duolingo Irish language learners that year
were from the US [30], and as of April 2016 the course boasts
1.65 million global learners of the language.
Scannell [31] notes that Irish is an “atypical” minority language
for many reasons, including its substantial support from a
transnational language body (Foras na Gaeilge), its long written
tradition, the existence of excellent bilingual dictionaries, its
status as an official language of the European Union, and the
presence of many skilled professional translators. Despite this
interest and support, the overall number of fluent speakers is small
and the long-term outlook for the language is uncertain. Only a
fraction of the Irish population (some 70,000 out of a population
of 4.6 million in the Republic) regularly use the language outside
of educational settings [32], and recent reports suggest that the
language could die out as a vernacular within a decade within the
Gaeltachtaí [33]. UNESCO classifies Irish as “definitely
endangered” [34].
As a Celtic language, Irish is highly dissimilar to English, a
Germanic language that has long been the majority language of
the island. Irish has endured through centuries of endangerment
thanks to popular support for the language, more recent state
support, and its continuing presence in the education system [35].
However, for most Irish people, Irish is a second language learned
in school rather than a mother tongue spoken in the home. This
distinguishes Irish from many other minority languages that may
be spoken in the home but have less support or usage in the
broader society.
Irish is widely present online. Global social media platforms such
as Google, Facebook, and Twitter offer localized interfaces for the
language, and local internet platforms focus more specifically on
regional communications. Communities of language users and
learners are visible on Twitter and Facebook among other
platforms. Challenges for the computerization of Irish include the
lack of a standard spoken form (the language has three major
dialects), a dearth of prior resources such as phonetically
annotated corpora, the lack of economic markets for Irish
technologies, and a dearth of researchers with both Irish language
and computational skills [34].
5. METHOD
The present study contributes to this emerging research domain
via analysis of a survey of Irish speakers, focused on secondary
and tertiary students. Intergenerational transmission of a language
is vital to its survival, so this population is of particular interest. In
addition, we considered that younger users might also be more
likely to be engaged with mobile social media. The research of
Jongbloed-Faber and her colleagues [29, 36], focusing on social
media use among Frisian teenagers, served as a useful springboard
for the current project. Jongbloed-Faber et al. developed a detailed
survey instrument and completed a census survey of all students
in Frisian secondary schools.
Given our interest in exploring the mobile design implications of
minority language use, we reduced and adapted Jongbloed-
Faber’s questionnaire from 56 to 36 closed- and open-ended items
focusing on mobile media use patterns and language attitudes and
proficiencies. The survey was conducted in English with the aim
of developing a sample of Irish speakers, learners, and non-
speakers.
We had limited access to our potential subject pool and elected to
use an anonymous online survey method. Following IRB protocol
review, participants were recruited from three communities on the
collaborative news site Reddit (reddit.com) with a presumed
interest in the Irish language. After requesting permission from
each “subreddit” (or subforum) moderator, we posted survey links
to the subreddits r/Ireland, r/Gaeilge, and r/Gaeltacht. Further,
the director of an Irish-language summer school forwarded the
survey link to several secondary teachers at English-medium
schools across Ireland, where it was distributed to students. All
items on the survey were “optional,” and participants could freely
choose which items to complete. While this decision likely results
in less complete data, it respects the autonomy of the participants
and allows for at least partial data collection from each
participant. Upon completing the survey, participants were
encouraged to share a participation link with their contacts on
social media. The survey was open to participation throughout the
winter of 2015-2016. While the survey sample is nonrandom, it
provides useful data for exploratory analysis of the relationship
between ICTs and a minority language.
6. RESULTS
A total of 617 subjects visited the survey web page, consented to
participation, and completed one or more survey items. 528
participants completed items through the end of the survey,
providing a relatively high participation rate for an anonymous
online survey, and 519 completed the demographics section. The
age of participants ranged from 11 to 70, with a mean age of 22
(SD=10.57). 271 participants (44.1%) identified as female, 243
(39.5%) identified as male, and 5 (0.8%) provided a different
gender identification. Those 197 participants coming from Reddit
tended to be older (M=27.9, SD=9.28) and male (76.4%), while
the 335 participants coming from the link distributed to schools
tended to be younger (M=20.7, SD=11.18) and female (63.9%).
Finally, those 85 participants who participated at the urging of a
previous participant were the youngest (M=19.70, SD=5.47) and
predominantly identified as female (60.8%). Participants came
from across Ireland, with 30 counties represented (Counties
Dublin, Meath, and Galway being most prominent, and no
participants from Fermanagh or Tyrone) and with 6.4% indicating
they resided elsewhere.
Figure 1. Summary of mobile app usage frequency.
Participants reported frequent engagement with social media, and
utilized mobile platforms to a high degree. 82.7% of participants
indicated they used social media daily, while 87.8% of
participants accessed social media via a mobile phone. Laptop
(56.9%), tablet (31.4%) and desktop computers (26.0%) were less
used to access social media. Correspondingly, mobile apps were
used far more often than the web browser to access social media.
82.3% of participants indicated that they spend at least an hour per
day using social media apps, and 14.7% indicated they are
connected to apps whenever they are awake. Figure 1 summarizes
the ten social media mobile apps that are used most frequently at
least once per week. The list is dominated by social messaging
apps and apps with messaging features.
6.1 Irish language
Participants generally noted that they had high levels of
proficiency in the Irish language. 73.6% of participants rate
themselves as “proficient” or “very proficient” in understanding
Irish, 70.1% rate themselves similarly for speaking Irish, and
59.1% rate themselves such for writing Irish. With regards to
social media, 19.7% “often” use the language, and 42.6% use Irish
“sometimes.” Broad differences in usage contexts are apparent,
however.
In Figure 2, nearly half of respondents indicate that they never use
Irish in public posts on social media. Around one in five
respondents occasionally use Irish for all message types. The data
show a spike in the number of private messages sent frequently
via social media in Irish, contrasting the downward trend of Irish
use in public and group messages as frequency increases. The
results suggest that an interplay of social and technical challenges
impact online engagement in the language, as we will discuss in
the following section.
Figure 2. Summary of Irish posting behavior.
6.2 Social and Technical Dimensions
The initial analysis of the survey results reveals a wide variety of
considerations for social media and mobile technology usage in a
minority language context through technological mechanisms. We
provide an overview of survey results delineated into two
dimensions: social and technological. The social dimensions of
the language include audience for the language, exclusion and
exclusivity, and degree of experience or confidence in using the
language.
First, Irish speakers indicate that the language does not have a
sustained audience online. In several open-ended responses, users
of private messages shared that not everyone understands the Irish
language, and when even one non-Irish speaker is present in the
conversation the language choice of the group defaults back to
English. One respondent wrote, “Those who speak Irish tend to
use English in order to reach a wider audience. A single English-
only speaker in a large group of Irish speakers forces a situation
where English gets used.” Despite 61% of respondents agreeing or
strongly agreeing that they have lots of friends who understand
Irish, respondents indicate hesitance to use it socially. 46% of
respondents agree or strongly agree that their friends would be
annoyed if they used Irish on social media. In addition, only 4%
of respondents use Irish exclusively in their homes. Among the
participants, using Irish in social media is perceived to be
“unusual” or “an abnormal thing for others to see.” Interestingly,
no participants reported that they make use of “audience
management” features (e.g. Facebook “lists” or Google+
“circles”) to limit Irish language posts to audiences that will
understand them.
Second, exclusion of individuals in a social setting is amplified
when considering the broadcast dimension of social media
messages across linguistic borders. One respondent said, “A lot of
my social media contacts aren’t from Ireland, and it feels
excluding to post in a language they don’t understand.” This
exclusionary dimension contrasts the responses of others who
view the language as part of a shared identity, whether linguistic
or national. This dimension also provides a clear explanation for
the language usage differences observed in Figure 2: the more
private or controlled the audience, the more opportunity to use the
minority language without causing any social awkwardness. The
data show that 83% think it is important for children living in
Ireland to learn Irish at school and 81.15% opine that the language
belongs to them. “As someone who lives abroad, it gives me a
sense of identity,” according to one respondent. Still, English
retains dominance in social settings despite 68% of respondents
agreeing that Irish remains relevant.
Third, with regard to proficiency in writing the language, 81.35%
of respondents indicate some proficiency in written Irish. Those
who indicate a low level of fluency in the language express that it
takes a long time to compose messages, they have limited
knowledge of the language, the síneadh fada vowels (accented
vowels) are difficult to type, and the quality of writing by
inexperienced users is relatively poor. Given that most of our
participants are not native speakers and have learned Irish as a
second language, this self-consciousness is not surprising. Several
participants suggested that they feared criticism of their Irish from
others in their network (“Grammar [snobs] that knock the
confidence of learners when they do use the language publicly”
and “the snobbishness of more fluent speakers”), or, alternately,
criticism for using the language at all (“the stigma about using
Irish.”)
Further, over half of respondents indicate that they write Irish the
way they pronounce it, and over half think it is too much work to
type in Irish. This last point leads to the technical factors limiting
use of the Irish language on mobile platforms. These factors
include frustration with autocorrect and predictive text on mobile
devices, and difficulty or annoyance in using accented characters.
A large number of participants noted concerns stemming from
their attempts to write Irish using an English keyboard. Of the 388
respondents who responded to open-ended questions about
language technology, 11.6% indicated that (English) autocorrect
provided some level of frustration when attempting to type in
Irish. An additional 11.08% shared that spell check and the
mechanics of spelling limit engagement with Irish, and 4.38%
note that grammar is an issue. The accented fada vowels in Irish
are effortful for some users to type on an English keyboard, with
users noting that English is easier because the language does not
require “special” keyboard characters like Irish does.
One respondent noted that the proprietary Swiftkey keyboard
interface provides “predictive text for Android in Irish, and you
don’t have to switch between Irish and English. It does both
simultaneously.” Adoption of this style of keyboard is not
prevalent in our data; another respondent shared this anecdote
about her Irish typing user experience:
I find it very hard and time consuming and annoying typing
as Gaeilge because my phone keeps autocorrecting back to
English, as it has no Irish keyboard. This also makes it an
enormous hassle trying to find fadas and the like. I can be up
to 2 minutes trying to get "" not to switch to "me"! Which
means even though I was raised as a native Irish speaker and
would naturally talk to my family and close childhood friends
as Gaeilge, if I'm texting them it is much easier to fire off a
quick text through English.
Other users have built Irish into their custom dictionaries on their
keyboard. One respondent notes, “My iPhone recognises most
Irish words as I use Irish all the time.”
Mobile platforms are built to help remedy some of the difficulties
of typing on a touchscreen, yet the difficulties with keyboard
interaction persist. 73.62% of respondents agree or strongly agree
that they do not wish to make mistakes when writing. While our
data do not reflect a causality between this point and
sociotechnical factors, the desire to be accurate with the language
informs the ways in which respondents characterize their technical
frustrations while attempting to use Irish on mobile. Since 70.14%
of respondents report that they would like to use the Irish
language more in social media settings, the technical factors
inherent to smartphone utilization and input clearly should not be
overlooked.
Social media apps are socially and technically tuned for mass
appeal, with every feature tested and designed to encourage user
engagement. This typically results in a slick and polished user
experience optimized for global languages; thus, minority
language localizations can present a less refined user experience.
One participant noted that geotagging posts and photos with Irish
placenames was difficult on Instagram and Facebook. Another
complained that her name in Irish is “too long to be used as a
username or even display correctly on many sites.” Several
participants suggested that the Irish localizations of mainstream
social media sites are suboptimal: “on Facebook, there isn’t a full
translation of the site” and “[the localization] is not always fully
correct.The aesthetics of user experience clearly plays a role in
language use, as well, with some users criticizing previous Irish
social media projects as “cheap and tacky.”
7. A SOCIOTECHNICAL LINGUISTIC
FRAMEWORK FOR INTERACTION
DESIGN INQUIRY
Given these insights, we propose that interactive media designers
carefully consider three categorical factors when developing
interactive interfaces for text processing in minority language or
multilingual contexts: technology and interaction factors,
sociocultural dynamics, and linguistic characteristics. A summary
of these factors is provided in Table 1. We generally see these
factors as relative to the majority language that presumably sets a
higher standard of user experience. The survey results lead to a
forward-looking model as a way to design for minority language
interfaces for mobile and to prompt deeper consideration of user
interaction in the minority language context.
Table 1. Designing mobile interfaces for minority languages
Technological
factors
Sociocultural
dynamics
Linguistic
characteristics
Autocorrect
functionality
Audience reach &
understanding
Orthography (fadas
and structure)
Predictive text
Exclusion/inclusion
Dialects
Accuracy of
dictionaries
Government policy
Individual perceived
experience with
language
Tech acumen
Cultural heritage
While this model is supported by research insights from our data,
the use of the model should be guided by the discipline of human
centered design that seeks first to understand the problem within
its context. Each of the categories is elaborated below.
7.1 Technology and Interaction Factors
From a technological standpoint, the respondents call out three
main concerns with regard to interaction with their devices. The
first is the lack of the appropriate auto-correct option, which
frustrates users who battle keyboards that automatically replace
Irish words with English ones, limits the ability to access Irish
typographical characters, and handcuffs users who are accustomed
to rapid-fire communication. The second consideration is the lack
of reliable predictive texting on many mobile platforms. The third
is the awkward interaction caused by inaccurate dictionaries that
can be exacerbated by dialects and inaccurate word usage.
In stark contrast to Deumert and Masinyana’s [26] participants
who disabled English predictive text on their mobiles to enable a
less encumbered use of two languages, our Irish participants
found the lack of autocorrect and gesture typing in Irish to be a
significant deterrent from using the language.
Further, our data suggest that interface and interaction designs of
popular social media platformssuch as encouraging a user focus
on “likes” and other popularity metrics may introduce subtle
bias against minority language use within bilingual networks. In
many cases, the use of the majority language will reach a larger
audience and thus generate higher popularity metrics.
Our respondents shared a desire to propagate the use of the
language and supported the idea of using Irish if an audience were
to be available to them. They want to use Irish in contexts where
other people already socialize online. The interface itself should
aid in interaction where written language use is expected and
supported, rather than inventing what one respondent classifies as
“cheap and tacky” sites that promote the use of the Irish language
while neglecting consideration of how audiences flow through
social media systems.
Most respondents to the survey suggested that current mobile
interfaces inhibit use of Irish. The human-computer interface,
particularly on mobile, is the site of language usage, correction,
and transmission on social media platforms and messaging apps.
Minority language interaction supported by a robust and flexible
language framework would increase engagement for the user who
is otherwise frustrated from conflicts with majority language
interfaces.
7.2 Sociocultural Dynamics of Mobile Irish
Beyond technological factors, the sociocultural dynamics include
the interplay between audiences for a language and characteristics
of the audiences, a notion of inclusivity versus exclusivity in
language use, the political aspects of language, and issues related
to culture and heritage.
Many respondents suggest that the primary reason they do not use
Irish in social media was due to a lack of contacts who also
understood the language. This is perhaps surprising, as one might
assume that most of the adolescents and young adults in the
sample would have many peers in their network with a similar
linguistic background and context. The Irish cultural context
reflects the heavy use of English in daily social interactions
coupled with some Irish usage in private settings. As more social
media platforms incorporate language features, this distinction
between public and private may inform discussions of how to
include the minority language in interface design. The presence of
a large community of Irish speakers does not imply consistent
usage online. Those who want to use the language should be
presented with opportunities to exercise their linguistic
preferences on par with majority speakers.
In open-ended responses, participants suggested that the use of
Irish in social media could be exclusionary, especially to those
who lack confidence in writing or speaking the language. In the
Irish context, all members of a peer social network are able to
understand English, but only a certain subset of “friends” or
“followers” on social media would understand Irish. Irish
speakers indicated that they will use Irish for idioms that more
succinctly or properly communicate the message or feeling they
wish to share, but consciously limit themselves especially when
they believe other participants in a conversation do not have well-
developed skill in the language.
They also indicate that the language appears unacceptable within
certain social circles and carries a negative connotation for some.
Users indicate that the language has a limited audience, which
points to the desire to be understood in a global social media
setting. Those with some Irish will practice code-switching by
using commonly-known Irish phrases or idioms that convey
meaning and cultural alignment within the group.
From a cultural perspective, respondents shared a wistful and
nostalgic affection for the language, citing that the language is
part of a heritage that roots the identity of the Irish culture. Those
who learned the language in school or at home find comfort in it.
Respondents characterize the language as soft, beautiful, poetic,
and rustic. Yet despite these romantic notions, respondents
indicate hesitance in using the language for fear that they are
insufficiently fluent. Many feel as though social pressures from
online grammar prescriptivists place them at risk of
embarrassment for not using the language properly. Others are
simply unwilling to try, or find that English is just easier to use.
This hesitance may be better understood through a broader sense
of the language’s sociocultural dynamics.
As previously noted, Irish has a complex political history, and to
some extent this was represented in our data. The language is used
for identity and heritage alignment, to invoke a sense of history
and tradition, and to create a shared sense of identity in both local
and diasporic communities. However, some respondents offered
cynical takes on the language. First, some respondents view the
language as “pointless” when English is universally understood
and easier to use, and others expressed frustration that the
government mandates the teaching of the language. For some, the
language is associated with unwelcome strains of Irish
nationalism. Such perspectives may complicate the sustained use
of Irish by younger generations, and user experience deficiencies
further exacerbate frustrations in digital contexts. Despite these
observations, youth engagement with technology may provide an
opportunity for those interested in language preservation to push
for alignment between national language goals and interface
design goals in digital services, student curriculum, and other
areas where Irish holds greater meaning.
In some minority language contexts, such as Irish, there may be
value in designing language-exclusive platforms. We find that
Irish mobile users are proficient in juggling multiple social and
communication contexts across multiple social apps. While
technological adoption tends to mirror the dominant sociocultural
paradigm especially in terms of language the technology also
can influence how culture adapts to new conditions. If the
communication opportunities afforded by the Irish language are
valued within its community of seven million Irish citizens and a
global diaspora, the potential user base exists to support
development.
7.3 Linguistic Factors
The increased adoption of the language online may also be marred
by the increasingly frustrating modes of interaction through
technological devices and mechanisms. Like most minority
languages, Irish presents specific linguistic complexities that raise
challenges not present for majority languages. For Irish, these
complexities include characteristics such as orthography.
Although the Irish alphabet has just five more characters than the
standard English alphabet, using these characters correctly in
mobile media was one of the most-cited challenges by our survey
participants. As previously mentioned, our respondents indicate
difficulty in accurately and easily producing the Irish diacritics,
and frustration with the perceived lack of accurate dictionaries for
spellcheck and autocorrect. Minority languages with more
distinctive and dissimilar orthographies likely present users with
even greater frustrations, and even more powerful incentives to
use the majority language.
Irish presents a unique case as a minority language that is
comparatively well-resourced computationally. For example,
several inexpensive or free functional Irish keyboard input
technologies are already available for mobile devices. None of the
participants mentioned using the Adaptxt keyboard
(http://www.nascanna.com/f90/adaptxt-mearchlar-le-tuartheacs/),
a free iOS and Android keyboard that provides high-quality Irish
predictive and autocorrect functionality and easy language
switching. Kevin Scannell [personal communication] suggests
that for Irish, the challenge is not a dearth of technical resources
or support, but actually connecting users with these resources:
effectively marketing Irish-language software and interfaces to
potential users, and convincing operating system developers and
device manufacturers to integrate Irish language technologies into
their products.
Language usage requires practice in spaces where people are
active in mutual exchange of ideas and where conversation may
occur. The Irish language, and others like it, may benefit from
sustained engagement in the contexts where it is most valuable
the home, the school, and the embedded social contexts of the
Irish citizens and diaspora. As communication in these contexts is
increasingly mediated via mobile devices and social media
platforms, the everyday use of endangered languages may warrant
a strong push by minority language activists, designers, and
developers into these spaces.
8. CONCLUSION
Mobile platforms and associated technologies provide a
compelling area of study, revealing multifaceted interactions
between commerce, culture, tradition, and device affordances.
The typology of factors described in this paper suggest that
promoting the accurate, engaged use of the language should be a
primary consideration of software designers and developers,
whose interfaces and algorithms factor into the daily use of a
multitude of languages. Irish is a minority and endangered
language, but global interest and its deep connection to Irish
national identity compel millions of people to want to learn,
practice, and communicate through it.
8.1 Implications and Recommendations
Mobile developers should consider how software-based keyboards
and predictive texting algorithms can support simultaneous
languages, multiple dictionaries, and multiple predictive text
corrections from within the same interface. Further research is
required to determine whether these configurations would not
only ease the use of minority languages, but also promote a
languages use and vitality.
The focus of this exploratory study is to better understand the
interplay among cultural, social, technical, and linguistic factors
in the design of technological interfaces for chat, social
networking sites, and written communication via social media.
This research did not consider or inquire about functional apps
such as GPS navigation and map interfaces, or on productivity
applications such as word processors, note-taking apps, or a litany
of other apps. For instance, maps and navigation systems require
consideration of proper place names, landmarks, and navigational
cues, many of which have two place names in Ireland (one
English, one Irish). Such applications and translations would
require further study to tease out minority language implications
for personalized app experiences.
The implications extend beyond this study to conversational
interfaces emerging through popular mobile platforms and
connected home devices. As speech recognition interfaces such as
Google Now, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Amazon’s
Echo become increasing prevalent in homes and on the go,
interface designers should understand the deeply personal nature
of language choice as an opportunity to reach their global users.
The daily use of Irish or another minority language may
ultimately serve to strengthen user engagement and identification
with such technologies.
Finally, as interface design stretches beyond the mobile screen
into additional contexts such as home appliances, televisions,
vehicles, and workplaces, the linguistic structuring of cultural
flows becomes a design problem to be addressed. This manuscript
highlights some complexities of honoring linguistic tradition and
respecting the user’s desire to use their own language while
balancing the technological and economic concerns of increasing
computerization of everyday life. Our data suggest that audiences
exist for minority language social platforms, and those who tackle
the challenge of designing for these audiences will benefit from a
framework that leads to a better understanding of the minority
language user in the design research process.
9. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
Our sincere thanks to Lysbeth Jongbloed-Faber who graciously
provided research advice and access to her survey instrument,
Kevin Scannell and Teresa Lynn for providing useful feedback on
an earlier draft, Victoria Foxwood for assistance with survey
design, and to Mícheál Ó Foighil for assisting with participant
recruitment and proving valuable feedback.
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