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African Languages: Assessing the text input difficulty


Communication with electronic text based devices is prolific in this era of globalization. In many socio-cultural contexts the ability to input digital text undergirds sustainable social practice of literacy. Simons and Lewis (2010) describe the social practice of literacy (EGIDS levels four and five) as a sign of a healthy language. A text input device which does not intuitively work for language users can be seen as discriminating and be a reason for speakers to choose to not use their language in digital mediums (Trosterud 2012), adversely affecting language development efforts. The challenge then is to provide a digital text input method (1) that works well for the orthography of any given language and (2) that users also find intuitive.

Paterson (2015) presents a framework to evaluate or rank the complexity of the text input task on a per orthography bases. We apply this framework and present the results from five Nigerian languages: Ezza [eza], Bekwarra [bkv], Cishingini [asg], Okphela [atg], and Igbo [ibo]. We discuss relevant user experience (UX) considerations for keyboard layouts and unique actions undertaken in the communicative act of ‘encoding’ language (typing). We follow previous work which focuses on majority language text input methods (Bellman & MacKenzie 1998, Castellucci & MacKenzie 2013, MacKenzie 1992, 2002, 2007, MacKenzie & Soukoreff 2002, Soukoreff & MacKenzie 2001, 2003a, b) and apply considerations for minority language orthographies - especially those orthographies which overtly mark tone and other distinctions via diacritics.

Many minority language users often find it difficult to type in their languages because of the way that orthography specific and language specific characters are accessed through existing keyboard layouts (Paterson 2014). The keyboard layout is an essential component in text input both on mobile touch screen and traditional devices. Barriers to efficiently using text in digital mediums has a wide impact on language vitality, by affecting the way that language users perceive their language’s viability in the 21st century context. Minority language users acknowledge the difficulty of text input in their languages (Esizmetor 2009: 13, Zheltov 2005).

Perceptions about the need for text based digital communication devices has sufficiently challenged language communities leading some to change their orthographies (South Pacific - Boerger 2007: 133; Central Asia - Cooper 2005: 149, 160; Americas - Jany 2010:235-6). However, it is unclear if the issue is the text input process or some other interaction between users and an orthography. The African context is not immune to these challenges (Bailey 2007). Africa is probably more sensitive to text input difficulties than other geographical regions like the South Pacific because many Roman Script African orthographies overtly mark tone and other distinctions via diacritics.

26 Mar, 2015 00:00
Eugene, Oregon

Referenceable as:

Hugh J. Paterson III (2015) African Languages: Assessing the text input difficulty. Paper presented at the 46th Annual Conference of African Linguistics. Held at the University of Oregon 26th-28th March 2015

Bibliography for Presentation

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  • Bellman, Tom & I. Scott MacKenzie. 1998. A Probabilistic Character Layout Strategy for Mobile Text Entry. Proceedings of Graphics Interface ‘98, 168-76. Toronto: Canadian Information Processing Society.
  • Boerger, Brenda H. 2007. Natqgu Literacy: Capturing Three Domains for Written Language Use. Language Documentation & Conservation 1.2: 126–53.
  • Castellucci, Steven J. & I. Scott MacKenzie. 2013. Gathering Text Entry Metrics on Android Devices. Proceedings of the International Conference on Multimedia and Human-Computer Interaction - MHCI 2013, 120.1-.8. Ottawa, Canada: International ASET, Inc.
  • Cooper, Gregory. 2005. Issues in the Development of a Writing System for the Kalasha Language. Ph.D dissertation, Macquarie University.
  • Esizmetor, David Oshorenoya. 2009. What Orthography for Naijá? Paper presented at Conference on Nigerian Pidgin, University of Ibadan, Nigeria.
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Hugh Paterson III
Hugh Paterson III

My research interests include typological patterns in articulatory phonetics; User Expereince design in language tools; and graph theory applied to language and linguistics.