As of February, 2024, English is the most popular language for web content. The world is not only people who speak English, though. If we do not make the content and products in other languages, how can people even know that it exists and benefit from it?
In this episode of Quality Bits, Lina talks to Chen Hui Jing, a front-end developer passionate about internationalization. Tune in to learn how internationalization differs from localization, why it matters, what fairly low effort things we can do to build more inclusive and diverse products and web, and more.
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If you liked this episode, you may as well enjoy this past episode of Quality Bits:
Generic Design for Diverse Environments with Joe Cooper
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Lina Zubyte (00:06):
Hi everyone. Welcome to Quality Bits, a podcast about building high quality products and teams. I'm your host, Lina Zubyte. In this episode, I'm talking to Chen Hui Jing. First fun fact, Chen is a surname, Hui Jing is the first name because that's how Chinese names work. Second fun fact is that the way I discovered Hui Jing was via Chat GPT. May sound crazy, but I'm so glad that Chat GPT suggested me such a wonderful guest. In this episode, we're talking about internationalization, its importance, the issues we often see and what each of us can do to create a better web. I truly enjoyed this conversation. I hope you do too. So let's get started.
Hello. Welcome to Quality Bits. It's so nice to have you as a guest. Could you shortly introduce yourself?
Chen Hui Jing (01:22):
Yeah, I'm so happy to be on the podcast. So my name is Hui Jing. I am a front-end developer who's based in Singapore, and I'm currently working with the Interledger Foundation, which is a global nonprofit grant making foundation and sort of stewards of the open payment standards and the Interledger protocol. So basically our goal is to try to raise the awareness of the benefits of what an open interoperable payment solutions would be. The key here is about open standards. That's my day job and yeah, I guess that's me.
Lina Zubyte (01:58):
What are you apart from your work?
Chen Hui Jing (02:01):
Well, I'm not the most interesting person in the world. I do like to go climbing, rock climbing, because Singapore is a tiny little country. It's a tiny little island, so there's not much outdoor climbing. So if I do have the opportunity to go overseas, I would like to do that, but if I'm back home in Singapore, it's mostly indoor, but it's really fun. That's the main hobby.
Lina Zubyte (02:23):
Nice. So when you said Singapore, you said home. So do you consider Singapore as home?
Chen Hui Jing (02:30):
Well, I do reside there. So I am a resident, but I'm not actually from Singapore. I'm from Malaysia, just the next door neighbor of Singapore.
Lina Zubyte (02:39):
How many languages do you speak?
Chen Hui Jing (02:41):
Confidently, fluently I'd say two, but I also have a couple others, like conversational level languages. So English and Chinese: those are my two main languages. And then with family, I speak a dialect of Chinese Hokkien. The main language in Malaysia is Malay, but I didn't actually study in Malaysia. So again, it's only conversational level. I can order food and I can talk to people in the street, but don't ask me to write any letters or anything. And I also try to learn Korean also again, enough to order food and ask where the toilets are kind of level. So yeah, that's it for language ability.
Lina Zubyte (03:20):
I'm asking because we're thinking to talk about internationalization. So I think language has really changed our perception on the world and how cultures are. So how would you describe internationalization and how is it different from localization?
Chen Hui Jing (03:37):
Okay. Let's go with the W3C definition because I mean it is the web and of course everyone does have a version of definitions. But the way the W3C views internationalization... Let's talk about localization first. So localization from the W3C perspective is kind of like the adaptation to meet language, cultural and other local requirements for a specific locale. So it's not just translation, but things like that you don't normally think about, but when you change to a different locale, you realize there's a difference. So it's numerals and time and date formats. That's quite a common difference like currency symbols or certain keyboard symbols that are not on a keyboard in that particular locale. Symbols sometimes mean different things in different locales or even colors to a certain extent. So that's the idea of localization, right? It's very specific to a particular locale so to speak, but for internationalization, it's more of a higher level view of things where it's you design and develop the product or your document or whatever for easier localization. It's a very subtle difference, I think, but you can think of it as internationalization is kind of like the concept, a high level idea of how you want to design something, whereas localization is the actual doing of it, like the actual making it local. I think that's what I understand that definition is.
Lina Zubyte (05:13):
So why do you think it matters? Why companies should care about internationalization and localization?
Chen Hui Jing (05:21):
That's a very interesting question that I personally have a rather strong viewpoint about. I do speak English, but it is not the main language of my region. So there's so many different languages that I grew up hearing. But when I started going onto the internet, I realized that a lot of content is only in English, but as I learned more about the internet, the origins of the internet and the web, I'm like, oh, okay. It does make sense because the internet and the web infrastructure started off in countries that spoke English, and that was the context in which it all started. And so it's natural that there's more English stuff because the technology developed there. But if you walk out of the world of the web or the internet... Native English speakers, there aren't actually that many native English speakers in the world. A lot of the world speaks Chinese, Spanish, all sorts of other languages.
Truly native English speakers is a significant less percentage if you compare with the number of people in the world. And then this comparison of percentage of content that is English on the internet, it's kind of disproportionate. It's like there's way more English content, and I'm not saying this is a bad thing, but I'm saying that it's a situation that can be improved because we are so connected now today in the modern world and a lot of people's lives are moving more and more online. But because language is such an integral part of culture, I think being connected is a good thing, but I don't think it's worth losing our own local flavors and the ability to present non-English languages on the web has improved after the fact. So the web is if we count it from 89 to now, it's 30 years coming around that time.
It used to be that you couldn't display non-Latin characters very well, but we can do it relatively well now. So we have the means to do it now, but now all we need is for people to actually publish content in their local languages because there's always this momentum problem. If you spoke some other language, let's just say Chinese, right? Back when I was a kid, in order to input Chinese, you have to install extra software and things like that. And sometimes the font also weren't great. So the text was like, oh, it's not that nice. And then you start to get used to, oh, maybe we put our English content instead. But now as the technology has improved, you kind of need the people who have already started getting used to English content to like, Hey, can you start doing content in your original language? Again, you do need to get over a momentum hump. But I think overall it will definitely benefit because there are certain ideas that are very difficult to translate completely. And so if you don't have that content, you're missing a big swath of new different ideas, different perspectives that could shape all of us slightly differently. And I think it is an opportunity we can do it now, and all we need is for more people to start sharing ideas in their own languages.
Lina Zubyte (08:44):
I really like this idea that it adds a new flavor and that we are not losing our authenticity because sometimes on the internet or in general in the world where the default is a white hetero straight man English speaking one, then in the world like that, it's sometimes hard to see different realities and then we compare ourselves and we change the way we are. So that's quite damaging I think.
Chen Hui Jing (09:16):
Yes, I definitely agree. And I also think it's about visibility because there's so many different people in the world, not just on the web. So I think what I see these recent years is that a lot of us do live our lives very much a lot more online than we do in reality in terms of percentage. And I think to have the online world reflect the real world a bit more is definitely a positive because then since the online world is such an integral part of our lives anyway, I feel like having it too skewed towards a certain demographic, you lose a lot of the unique perspectives and cultures that you have simply from being in a different locale. You have different lived experiences and sometimes those lived experiences don't come across very accurately when you try to translate it to English. So I think having that original flavor of experience present on the internet, I think that has value.
Lina Zubyte (10:20):
Absolutely. What would you say are some of the misconceptions that you see that companies have about internationalization? Do they understand it in a bit of a, I dunno, skewed way? Because sometimes I think when we see it, we see it only a translation. I translate and I do the same kind of experience, but it doesn't work in all the contexts.
Chen Hui Jing (10:42):
And I think I can understand why companies would think that way because from a purely economical standpoint, especially if you're just starting out, you're like, oh yeah, no, I can't afford to support a lot of different regions and like, oh, I'm just starting out and that's fine, that's pretty normal. But I feel like at some point in your organization or your company's development and growth, it is worth considering that perhaps the service you're offering or the product you're doing could benefit a different audience in a different way. But these people are not able to access the value you're providing because they don't understand what's happening. And again, from a strategic point of view, it's like a whole different conversation. If you really want to like, oh, I want to enter this market properly, there's a lot of strategy involved that you have to work with local people that's very far down the line and it probably needs a lot of investment in everything.
I'm not even talking about that. I'm saying that the good thing about web standards is that there's a lot of things the browser comes built in with. If we at a developer level, we do things the right way, there's a lot of features that already come with you don't really have to do extra. So my proposal is kind of like for companies not necessarily having to really spend a whole lot of upfront investment in trying to translate to another locale, but rather do whatever you started with, whatever language or locale you started with, do it properly. Because the way the web standards have developed is that if you write your markup, you put on the correct attributes that you put on the correct lang attributes, you write your CSS structure mostly markup, right? The markup structure correctly. The way a lot of the translation services, the most popular one being Google these days is they use these attributes, too, because the browser needs to know what language your content is in to start doing all of this magical things.
But if you don't structure your application code properly, you're missing out on all of this inbuilt features. So I've heard the argument is like, oh, we are only doing in English, so we don't, why do we need to add all this extra stuff if we're not even looking at internationalization? I'm saying you shouldn't discount the fact that eventually you might, and even if you're only doing one language, having this extra attributes on it, it just makes your application more semantic. If I had to make economical argument for a business, it's good for SEO, okay, it's good for SEO. So that's not a bad thing because I think Firefox even introduced the feature lately. But if you've used Chrome for a long time and Chrome has Google translate, as Google has translate as its service, if you go to some websites, let's say you are as a native English speaker, you go to a Spanish website, Google, sometimes the browser will pop up, do you want us to translate this for you?
Then that website has put in the correct attributes because that's how the browser works. It passes and then it realizes, oh wait, this content is in Spanish. You, the user on the browser, you normally read everything in English. Maybe you are a native English speaker, maybe you don't understand Spanish. I have a translation service. I will translate this for you. And so again, this is low effort from you as someone who's running a website, doing a product, as long as you've set up your markup correctly, you don't really need that extra effort, but it allows someone whom you didn't think was in your target audience to begin with, to find out more about you. And from there, I feel like then from a business perspective, you can make an informed decision and it seems like a lot of people from this region, which we didn't bother to market, seem to be interested. Do we want to take that next step? That's how I want to propose why we should code our websites in a manner that is, like I explained in the introduction, make it easy to localize. I don't think it's that much effort to simply add the correct lang attributes, for example, or use CSS logical properties, for example. So small changes build a good foundation. Whether or not you want to build on top of that foundation, it's fine, but I think having a good foundation as a base doesn't hurt.
Lina Zubyte (15:25):
I have mixed feelings about these translate services in the browser because on one hand, when I am working on certain product and then some user reports, oh, I used Google Translate and then I clicked a button and nothing happened. I'm like, but you can switch the language and the product. You don't have to because if the product supports that, but then you're right that sometimes maybe we're not in building somehow quality there or the standards because it still should work even though you're using this translate. Because as an expat, when I lived in Germany, I had this phone provider and then I would log into their website and I think they had some kind of iframe or something, and the Google translate never worked there, and I was so lost. And then I would be like, what do I have to do? Do I have to, I dunno, put my phone on it and then try to translate where I am? I would keep getting lost and there was an option to translate, but it would translate just like the header of the website and that's it.
Chen Hui Jing (16:23):
Yeah, I think one of the issues that I feel like this is a developer content decision almost whereby if you decide to put text in images, it's gone. You completely lost the ability to translate. Or if somehow you have an iframe whereby the browser is not able to pass through it, it treats that block as external goes through it again, then that's another lost opportunity. Maybe for the iframe, they can't get around it. It's a service that they need. But I think the most basic thing is no text in images, it's not just a translation issue. It's also a accessibility issue. If you can't see it, that's also a problem. To me, that part, no text and images is classified under the basics of building a good website. That's actually the pitch for anyone who says, oh, it's a lot of effort. We don't have time, we don't have money, we don't have developers. We're like, oh, no, but it's not that this is an internationalization specific task. It is a build your application or website well. Categorize it under that category and then you won't feel that it's extra effort. I don't know if this argument will work, but I'm like, if I had to try to convince someone, no, actually, it's not that much of an effort. Just do these little things and they all add up.
Lina Zubyte (17:41):
Yeah, I think that sometimes it's very fluffy and difficult to understand what it means, build quality in or start good from the start when don't know it. Because from one hand, you could see a design of a website which does have text and images, and you will say, oh, this is amazing. This is beautiful because you don't know, because you don't think about the Google Translate, for example, or screen readers, things like that, right? Screen readers, I guess you could still add some alt attribute, but then you may not realize that this text is not a good design practice, I guess even.
Chen Hui Jing (18:16):
Yeah. So again, I think for me, this argument is always easier to make when I'm talking to someone who speaks more than one language. So in a way, it's also kind of a lived experience issue. So maybe this is tying into a broader, I don't want to say problem, but a broader circumstance of the tech industry is that if the demographic of people working in this area where we are actually having a big impact on the world, like I said, a lot of our lives are all moving online across the world regardless. But if the people who are building for the web are only of a certain demographic and not accurately reflecting the people who are using the web, I think then that is a disservice to the people who are using it, using the web. And I'm not saying that if you only speak one language, you cannot do internationalization.
That's not what I'm saying at all. What I want is that you as someone who speaks one language, you have an experience that is valuable, but if we have people who speak multiple languages or of different cultures who are also building for the web, then that just adds to the whole experience. It doesn't subtract. So it's not a conflict. It's a kind of, we need to enhance, we need to keep enhancing how we develop and build the internet, and that's the mindset that I'm taking. So when people are like, oh, you have to, I mean, tech does look a certain way even today, it's very, very slowly changing, but I think we can do better simply because the number of people who are coming online in recent years are not the primary demographic who have been building the web for the previous decade. So if they're using the web, we need to encourage them to also create for the web and not just create in the way that the web has always been, but create in their own vocal manner because this will enrich the web.
That's the perspective that I have. Everything adds to everything is an enhancement, so it's not a competition. We're trying to increase the number of perspectives, increase the number of shared experiences, because being connected globally is a very amazing thing. I guess if you were born into the internet era, you take it for granted, but I'm much older than that. So I remember when the world wasn't as connected and the fact that you can be connected to someone half a planet away relatively easily, this is an amazing situation. It's amazing situation. We have this infrastructure, so how can we make even better use of this infrastructure? That's what I see a lot of opportunity is what I'm trying to say.
Lina Zubyte (21:12):
I love that. I think it also adds to the point of more diverse and inclusive teams because we should benefit from each other's knowledge and learn from each other and make web a much better place.
Chen Hui Jing (21:27):
Lina Zubyte (21:28):
What are some of the very common bugs that you see when it comes to internationalization?
Chen Hui Jing (21:34):
This is not a framework problem. It is developer who uses the framework problem because the frameworks, almost all the frameworks I know of do take care of it, but you do have to set it up so you can't just like, oh yeah, it's framework's fault. So it's not the framework's fault that you didn't set it up correctly is all I'm saying. So that's very common, and it's such a low level, big addition because if you have the lang attribute, the browser does a lot of things for you. Hyphenation works only if the lang attribute is set. So especially if you are a alphabetic language that has a lot of long words and you are like, oh yeah, it would be nice if when on a narrow screen the words hyphenate correctly because incorrect hyphenation is terrible. If you've seen some websites have chosen to go with like, oh, just break the whole thing, it looks really weird.
I mean, the longest language that I know of German has a lot of long words. I can imagine if you're breaking at a very weird way, it's going to read terribly. But if you have the tributes set correctly, so the browsers, okay, this is a Dutch content. When you turn on hyphenation, the browsers do have the correct language dictionaries to know, oh, this is the correct place to hyphenate a word, and then if you do have to break the word, it doesn't look bad. So something like that, that's just an example. Just by setting the lang attribute, you get a lot of this default behavior out of the box. So that could be considered a bug. And then there could also be situations where people use certain attributes but not in the way they were intended. So for example, there is a attribute HTML attribute called the direction dir, and for that, you should really only use it if it's a right to left language, then you use it.
But if you're just using that for a layout change, it's like, ah, that's not the, there's so many other options for you to do. Flexbox is a great option. The point I'm trying to make is use the right thing for the right reasons. So conversely, if it's a language that you're used to... Be it an English only site and suddenly you have to support Arabic or Hebrew, which are right to left languages, then you would want to do that with the direction attribute, because that's what it's for, rather than setting it with CSS, because CSS could not load. If CSS doesn't load, then your whole site would look very broken. There is a lot that the W3C has developed over the years that are specific for internationalization, and we should use them rather than trying to hack certain solutions ourselves.
Lina Zubyte (25:14):
Yeah, I like that, that it's not just like a specific bug, but a lot of problems come from root causes, which are the standards or the development practices for sure. When it comes to internalization, localization, very difficult words, what are the tools, resources, something where people can learn from, would you recommend?
Chen Hui Jing (25:39):
That's a good question. Well, I don't know how many people know this. Maybe not a lot, because the W3C isn't that..... It's not a very, they don't advertise what they do a lot. So I myself, I'm a member of one of these groups at the W3C. It's called the Chinese Language Requirements Group. So there's a range of expertise on that group. So there are folks who are in actual publishing, so they're very experienced in terms of how Chinese should be laid out. They work in publishing and print and all that. Because what we have now is there is still a gap between how things should be laid out in the physical world. It didn't completely translate correctly over to the web yet. And it's not just for Chinese. So a lot of non-English languages I want to say, because I've also heard even some people who are German or French are like, eh, it's not how we do it in print.
So there's some typographic things that still need be developed, it's not perfect yet. So Chinese has a group, Japanese has a group. Korean is also a different writing system. So a lot of the different writing systems have started their own groups. Hebrew, Arabic, slowly they're building up, I think it started with Japanese. So the document for the Japanese language requirements is the most comprehensive. Chinese is I think the next group after. So we are still working on it. We meet once a month to talk through issues. So if you have a specific language that you have, for example, I don't speak Japanese. If I got a project that needed Japanese typographic things, I would actually just pop into that group because the way the W3C does, this CSS working group also does this is the discussions happen on GitHub. I sometimes wonder it's because I'm familiar with this context that I'm like, I wonder how many people know, because when you talk about standards bodies, you're like, oh yeah, they're very inaccessible as group of people.
But actually no, a lot of the discussions happen completely open source on GitHub. So I always wonder, do people know that they can just pop into these GitHub repos and just post questions? Somebody does answer for the group that I'm familiar with is just the Chinese language, the clreq, our repo has a lot of issues because people, random people just only come in and for example, in Hong Kong, this is how it's done, but digital doesn't do it, dah, dah, dah. And then members of our group will go in and we start having discussions, and then you'll see lots of discussions. You'll see lots of screenshots and diagrams. Some people will put up photos of, this is my textbook, this is how it looks like, and then that kind of thing. So it's quite fun, actually. And you don't have to be a developer per se. You could be someone who does content, you could be someone who's just curious about like, Hey, I saw this on a sign when I was on holiday. Does the web do this? Someone's going to give you an answer. I feel like that is a good place to ask if you have any questions. That specific to language rendering is GitHub, W3C is on GitHub, my friends.
Lina Zubyte (29:03):
Nice. And are there any books or blogs that could be also about the foundations of it and to learn a little bit more?
Chen Hui Jing (29:12):
This one's more specific. I'm not aware if there are any internationalization specific resources or books, but for me, I do follow along a lot of Chinese typography stuff. And so, and I know this is very niche because I don't know how much of your audience is Chinese, but there's this one podcast that talks about Chinese typography. It's the only Chinese typography podcast that I know exists. It's called the Type. It does have an English name. The type also has a Chinese name, but it's the type, unfortunately the whole podcast is in Chinese, but if you do understand Chinese and you're interested in Chinese typography, that's probably the podcast that I would suggest. But in terms of books, this is the part that I see the value in being able to understand read multiple languages does help. Because when I read the Chinese books that talk about typography, in my mind I'm like, if you can't read Chinese, you miss out on a lot of this.
So I can imagine that there's so much stuff that I'm not exposed to simply because I don't understand it. And that's the part where I like, oh, if those of us who can speak multiple languages, if we can produce content, vice versa. So if you are Chinese speaking person, and there are also a lot of people who are not as fluent in English, and you are able to create content in Chinese for these Chinese speakers, and vice versa if you're able to present the Chinese perspective, but in English, doesn't that enhance the amount of knowledge that we have on the web? So I feel like multilingual people have such a big role to play in. And again, it's not you have to, it's not forcing anything. I just feel like there is an opportunity for enhancing the web in this way, whereby if we don't just default to English, we can bring a lot of knowledge back and forth between the two locales that we are familiar with. So I think it would really make the internet a lot more vibrant and diverse. I totally went off topic because I couldn't answer any books questions. I just deflected to something else.
Lina Zubyte (31:20):
I really like that though. I think that it's a good tip. Learn a new language, read the language book. That is also an answer because that will expand our knowledge. I kept on thinking right now about Lithuanian my native language and how quirky it is sometimes. We have some idioms which say for example, spoons after lunch, that means that it's too late. You already ate your lunch and you cannot do anything about it. So there's lots of weird stuff which is cultural, and then you think in a different way, and we should share more about it and about our cultures and the ways of thinking. I think even having international friends, sometimes you get lost in translation because they may use the language in a different way and they don't mean certain thing, but then you may read it into it. So for us to build better products, I think to have perspective from different languages, different cultures is extremely valuable. And with that, I guess the question would be what is your vision for internationalization friendly world? What is it?
Chen Hui Jing (32:36):
Well, I really want to see more websites that display non-English languages in the way they were meant to be displayed. For example, the Chinese language group that we're working on, we're trying to write down all the requirements of how Chinese language should be laid out, typographic rules and everything as a guide for people who are building software, people who are building browsers, people who are building epub, publishing. What we're trying to achieve is to really adequately describe this is how our language should be presented. And in my mind, I'm hoping that every language, not just Chinese, there's so many different languages in the world, but we are losing languages as well, especially if they're not visible on the web, because honestly, the internet is kind of taking over modern human life. And so I think it's very important for basically the non-English languages to have a presence on the web because more people can find out about it. And again, it's like if you don't know it exists, you can't even appreciate what you've lost if you didn't know it existed to begin with. I would like for the internet to better reflect the diversity of the real world.
Lina Zubyte (33:54):
Wow, what a statement. I really like this vision. I hope it becomes reality. So to wrap up this conversation and the topics we touched on here, what is your one piece of advice on creating high quality products and teams?
Chen Hui Jing (34:10):
Oh, I have a more general statement that will benefit internationalization amongst other things. You should care. You should care about what you're building. And I understand that there are a lot of external factors that your manager's like... this should have been built yesterday. And then you look at it, and I don't control time, but in spite of how difficult your circumstances might be, I still think it's worth it to care that there are some things that you shouldn't just ignore simply because there was a deadline looming. Because things like this, like building, just having building the website semantically is a lot more beneficial down the road than just trying to meet a ridiculous deadline that your management set for you. If I were to sum that up, I'm like, let's put a little more care into the work that we are doing. Again, it's easier said than done, but I mean, I just hope...
Lina Zubyte (35:08):
Wow, that's really beautiful and I feel inspired, and I hope we can create the better world together. We all contribute in any kind of ways. So thank you so much for your time. I really enjoyed this conversation.
Chen Hui Jing (35:25):
Thank you so much for having me. I had a lot of fun with this conversation. I think it's fascinating how we got to know about each other. Thank you so much for having me.
Lina Zubyte (35:35):
That's it for today's episode. Thank you so much for listening. If you liked this episode, please rate subscribe, tell your friends about it, check out episode notes for the resources we mentioned. And until the next time, do not forget to continue caring about and building those high quality products and teams. Bye!