Enter the maze

Turn Right in Tenejapa

Lots of people going one way on a bridge

Suppose you are the successful designer of an in-car satellite navigation system. You've made lots of money selling it in the UK and the US and are now ready to take on the world. You want to be inclusive. It should be natural and easy to use by all. You therefore aim to produce versions for every known language. It should be easy shouldn't it. The basic system is fine. It can use satellite signals to work out where it is. You already have maps of everywhere based on Google Earth that you have been selling to the English Speakers. It can work out routes and gives perfectly good directions just as the user needs them - like "Turn Left 200 meters ahead". It is already based on Unicode, the International standard for storing characters so can cope with characters from all languages. All you need to do now is get a team of translators to come up with the equivalent of the small number of phrases used by the device (which will involve switching units from eg meters to yards and the like, but that is easy for a computer) and add a language selection mechanism. Simple...

Not so simple, actually. You may need more than just translators, and you may need more than just to change the words. As linguists have discovered a third of known languages have no concept of left and right. Since language helps determine the way we think, that also suggests the people who speak those languages don't use the concepts. "Turn right" is meaningless. It has no equivalent.

So how do such people give directions or otherwise describe positions. Well it turns out they use a method that for a long time many linguists suggested would never occur. Experiments have also shown that not only do they talk that way, but they also think that way.

Take Tzeltal. It is spoken very widely in Mexico. A dialect spoken by about 15 000 people in the Indian community of Tenejapa has been studied closely by Stephen Levinson and Penelope Brown. It is a large area roughly covering one slope of a mountainous region. The language has no notion of left or right. Unlike in European languages where we refer to directions based on the way we are facing (known as a relative frame of reference), in Tzeltal directions use what is known as an absolute frame of reference. It is as though they have a compass in their heads and do the equivalent of referring to North, South, East and West all the time. Rather than "The cup is to the left of the teapot", they might say the equivalent of "The cup is North of the teapot". How did this system arise? Well they don't actually refer to North and South directly, but more like uphill and downhill, even when away from the mountain side: they subconsciously keep track of where uphill would be. So they are saying something more like "The cup is on the uphill side of the teapot".

In Tenejapa they think diferently about direction too

Experiments have shown they think differently too - Show Europeans a series of objects ordered so "pointing" to their left on a table, turn them through 180 degrees and ask them to order the same objects on the table in front of them, and they will generally put them "pointing" to their left. Do this with a native Tzeltal speaker and they will tend to put them "pointing" to their right (Still pointing uphill or whatever). Similar things apply when they make gestures. Its not just the words they use that are different, it is somehow the way they internally represent the world that differs.

So back to the drawing board with the navigation system. If you really want it to be completely natural for all, then for each language you need more than just translators. You need linguists who understand the way people think and speak about directions in each language. Then you will have to do more than just change the words the system outputs, but recode the navigation system to work the way they think. A natural system for the Tzeltal would need to keep track of the Tenejapan uphill and give directions relative to that.

Writing software for International markets isn't as easy as it seems. You have to have good knowledge of not just local languages but also differences in culture and deep differences in the way different people see the world...if you want to be an International success in a way that respects those from elsewhere.