Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Googling in Arabic

From the Financial Times:

When it comes to the internet, the Arab world punches well below its weight. Less than 1 per cent of the internet’s content is in Arabic, while the world’s approximately 370m Arabs form more than 5 per cent of the global population.

Internet usage has jumped 1,000 per cent over the past seven years in the Middle East, yet it still lags well behind other regions. Overall internet penetration has reached 10 to 12 per cent, although with the region’s large number of shared connections, up to 50 per cent of the population is estimated to have access to the net.

Google, the internet company, hopes to provide the tools that will help users to increase the amount of Arabic content online. The regional engineering team, based in Switzerland, is adapting existing Google products to the Arabic language while also developing new bespoke products, says Ahmad Hamzawi, Google’s engineering manager for the Middle East. Google News, Blogger and the company’s new browser, Chrome, have Arabic versions. The company’s suite of “cloud applications”, such as Google documents and calendar, has also been changed to include regional features. More innovative is Ta3reeb, which allows users who do not have an Arabic keyboard or cannot write Arabic script to transliterate phonetically into Arabic text through an English keyboard.

“For me the impact of it is very powerful because people can start publishing in a very easy, simple manner, directly in Arabic,” says Gisel Hiscock, the company’s director of new business development for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. While penetration may lag behind, the region is quickly adopting social media trends, such as Facebook, the social networking site, and Twitter, the micro-blogging site.

Comment: Why do I find it normal that Arabs would go for social software more than for other Internet uses? Isn't that part of the culture - extended families, clans, tribes, networks of related people who could be all over the world? Blogging, too, since you have your mouth glued by censorship most of the time.

Ahmed Nassef, general manager of Arabic web portal, says cultural tweaking is as important as translation when launching regional products. “Besides just offering up an Arabic interface, companies need to take the time to really understand cultural and social factors – what works in London may not work in Cairo,” he says.

Comment: Keep dreaming. No profit-oriented business has the time to waste on understanding culture and language and all that wet stuff that makes the world outside their own. Especially not US businesses, where learning a second language is hopelessly low on the priority list.

From the Middle East Institute Blog

Although most Google applications, plus Facebook and other media now have Arabic language front-ends that allow people to blog, e-mail, etc. in Arabic, there are still many challenges to fuller Internet penetration. One is the simple one of illiteracy in the Arab world, which is still high by global standards, especially among women. Another is the problem the linguists call "diglossia": the fact that Modern Standard Arabic, the language of newspapers, university instruction, public speeches, etc., is actually no one's first language; Arabs grow up speaking their own local dialect (usually referred to as ‘amiyya or lahja in the East and darija in the Maghreb), which they learn at their mother's knee. They don't just have to learn to read the language they already speak: they have to learn a related but more complex and formal language that no one speaks today, or may ever have spoken as such. It's a deterrent not only to literacy but to entering the public sphere as a journalist, politician, or academic expected to perform in Modern Standard Arabic.
Comment: This is not limited to the Arabic language. There are dialects in every single language in the world that has more than 1000 speakers. Illiteracy is a problem, granted, but that has nothing to do with the fact that MSA is different from the spoken language. It has to do with corruption, over-population and poverty.

If you are interested in the differences between MSA and dialects, you can read the rest of the posting here, but take what the guy says with a barrel of salt.

For all your English to Arabic and vice versa translations that will help you expand your business into the Middle East visit Arabic Language Experts at

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