“Only if you use English you will get to more things”: Using Smartphones to Navigate Multilingualism

Naveena Karusala
May 14, 2018 · 2 min read

Thinking about human-centered computing across borders, a concern that naturally arises is how systems can work with the multiplicity of language abilities present among diverse sets of users. For example, when countries like Switzerland, Canada, and India have multiple official languages, how should the public sector make decisions around language in the online dissemination of information? In India specifically, the rapid increase in English language smartphone use combined with the relatively slow-growing English literacy rates points to a specific scenario in which users are using systems despite language barriers. Combined with the meaning that English holds in light of India’s colonized past, smartphone use in India provides insight into how users might navigate language in technology use. We asked the following research questions:

  1. How do new smartphone users in India learn to use and engage with English language-smartphones?
  2. What meaning does language have in the context of their technology use?

We built on work that explores technology-aided multilingual interactions, localization of systems, and usability of input tools, newly bridging it with theoretical work on multilingualism, which situates language in historical and ongoing processes, such as colonization. Through our qualitative study of new smartphone users with low English fluency across six diverse sites in India, we found that users preferred using English or the Latin alphabet for many use cases, including app navigation, typing messages, and consuming online content. Meanwhile, local languages were reserved for specific scenarios, such as consumption of local content and informal communication. This was due to a combination of usability issues with local language content creation and consumption and the social, economic, and digital mobility users associated with English. It seemed that smartphones, in their current design and uptake, were promoting users’ utilization of English to further mobility while hindering the uses of local languages that users did want to execute.

These findings seemed to provide some answers to a question that prior work on localization has encountered: what exactly is the problem with simply translating interface text to the predominant language among target users? Well, if language is so deeply tied to aspects of identity, such as mobility, it may not make sense to design with language as a standalone tool. Our paper describes how, instead, decisions around language in the design of interactive systems could better take into account users’ identities and associations with language, drawing upon Pennycook’s theory of language use as an act of identity (Pennycook 2004) and evolving conceptualizations of intersectionality (Crenshaw 1991, Dhamoon 2011).

Naveena Karusala, Aditya Viswanath, Aditya Vashistha, Sunita Kumar, and Neha Kumar. “Only if you use English you will get to more things”: Using Smartphones to Navigate Multilingualism.” In Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ‘18). ACM, 2018.

Human-Centered Computing Across Borders

This publication is meant to be a co-learning space for researchers working on human-centered computing, across various borders and intersections. Here we share our stories, work, reviews for others' work, and more. Join us!

Naveena Karusala

Written by

PhD student in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington

Human-Centered Computing Across Borders

This publication is meant to be a co-learning space for researchers working on human-centered computing, across various borders and intersections. Here we share our stories, work, reviews for others' work, and more. Join us!

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