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Open source is good for language learners

If you didn’t already know, open source refers to software produced by the community. This could be anyone with an interest in the project and its development. The point is that the motivation to contribute comes from a desire for a better product, and not from a desire to make a profit.

Open source is everywhere now, perhaps most visibly in community projects like Wikipedia, and in operating systems. Linux is making headway as a popular desktop operating system with distributions like Ubuntu, and Android (it’s Linux!) is a major contender in the smartphone market.

You might not have considered, though, that open source is also a very good thing for language learners. Here’s why.

Everything can be translated

This is the stem of all the benefits for language learners. Having stuff in the language you want to study is great for creating an immersion environment. Once any open source project picks up some momentum, it attracts users and developers who’d like versions of it in another language. You quickly get translations being released.

If it were a commercial, closed-source project, the only way it would get translated is if enough people demanded different language versions that it became commercially viable for the company to hire translators and make a new release.

With open source, though, all it takes is somebody who’d like to see the project translated and is willing to contribute a little. Once a translation into one language gets going, more and more people will notice and contribute here and there. Very quickly, you can get a complete translation created by the community.

This is more likely to happen with open source as there’s no obstacle to anybody contributing, and it’s easy to do so. You don’t need commercial incentive, just a willing user base.

You can get some translation practice

If you’ve got skills in a foreign language, pretty much all open source projects will welcome you to contribute a bit of translation work. It benefits everyone as you get practice (and perhaps the chance to spread your name a little bit) and  the community gets a good translation of something that they’d like to use.

The translations are free

Once a translation gets done, it’s then free for everybody to use. So not only has it cost the project nothing, it hasn’t cost the community anything either. This only adds to the motivation for more people to put in a little bit of work and benefit a lot of people.

Also, the translations aren’t just free in a financial sense. It’s open source, so they’re free for everybody to use as they wish. This means that you can easily choose around and switch between languages, without having to worry about different licenses and copyright issues. This is great for language learners - just choose the language you’re studying, and you’re free to use it.

The translation is high quality

You might be concerned that a community-produced translation won’t be as high-quality as a professional, commercially produced one. This isn’t true at all. Because the community is large, there are so many more eyeballs on the project than there could be for a commercial one. Anybody can come along and have a look, so anybody can spot mistakes, point them out, or even correct them themselves.

This creates a snowball effect, where the better a project becomes, the more attention it attracts, and the more contributors and proofreaders you get working on it. Everyone has a direct interest in the quality of the project (and its translation), so quality work gets done.

There’s open language discussion

Another factor in the quality of community translations is that they’re discussed freely and openly on the projects message boards, wikis, IRC etc. What better way to get some experience of the inner details of a language! For any large open source project, there’ll be people working on and discussing translations. The best bit is, anyone is welcome to get involved with this.

Updates get done faster

Another great thing about community-based projects is that they tend to react and adapt faster than commercial ones. There’s far less restriction and bureaucracy to deal with. Rather than thinking “is this good for profits?", contributors only need to think “is this good for the project?”

With contributors around the world, there’s nearly always someone checking or working on the project. Improvement trickles in constantly and adaptations can be made rapidly.

Also, there’s no need for any middleman steps of protecting copyright, encrypting stuff, obfuscating code etc. With open source, you want everyone to see the innards of the project, including its translations.

So you the corrections and improvements mentioned above get made and distributed more quickly. That means better translations for you, and faster updates to them.

Commercial players want in on this

This system is so good, in fact, that commercial companies are trying to get in on it. I have mixed feelings about this. It often seems to me that it takes the benefit of community work from the community (free work), but doesn’t give back the usual result of open source (free, open projects).

When this kind of open-source work is used for commercial projects, it’s usually called crowd sourcing. Facebook is a good example of this. They’re currently using their huge user-base to translate their interface into a myriad languages, for free.

OK, so it’s not actually perfect

Now, as you can see I _love _open source and think it’s one of the best things going on at the moment. I’m certainly singing its praises here. So what’s the catch?

Well, open source isn’t perfect. The translations I’m raving about here do often have little bits missing, in which case you’ll just see that part in English. And mistakes do get made (they just get corrected quickly, as mentioned above).

A few open-source language opportunities

Linux OSes: Ubuntu, Linux Mint

You can download and use Linux operating systems like Ubuntu or Linux Mint (I’d recommend Linux Mint) for free. They come with translations into pretty much any language. We’re talking hundreds of different languages and variations here.

And, if you really want to get involved you’re welcome to contribute by working on those translations to make them even better. A big opportunity to do this is with community-made software designed for these operating systems.

The repositories

One key feature of the the two operating systems above is that they use repositories of software. These are carefully maintained lists of software that are set up to be easy to install and use, and guaranteed to be free of malware. They also tie in very nicely with the translations for the OS itself.

A huge proportion of software in the Ubuntu / Linux Mint repositories (they share the same list) has already been translated into most languages. But there are always more updates and new software, so there’s always more translation to be done!


The English language Wikipedia is by far the largest and most comprehensive. But it’s growing rapidly in many other languages. It’s fantastic translation practice. Just find an article that interests you, go to the Wikipedia for the language you’re studying (and there will be one), and create a page.

Translate as little or as much of the article as you want, and then just add a translation tag once you’re done. For example, [[zh:Linux Mint]] for Chinese. And of course, you can do this in reverse and translate back from the language you’re studying.

Either way, not only are you getting language practice, you’re also helping numerous other people. And, because it’s community-based, your work is just waiting for someone to come along and help you with it.

Aside from that, you can also put the Wikipedia interface itself into your target language, to get more exposure as you use the site.


Tatoeba really is fantastic. I’ve written about it before, as it’s probably the easiest community translation project to work on. It’s a collection of interlinked example sentences translated into a horde of different languages.

It’s clever because a sentence translated Chinese → English → French will show up not just for Chinese → English searches, but also for Chinese → French searches, and all the other permutations there. These chains can be dozens of languages long, so contributing in one language is helpful to users studying totally unrelated ones.

You can also find Chinese example sentences on Chinese Boost.


RhinoSpike isn’t quite as open as Tatoeba, but it is another community-based language learning project. You can submit texts that you’d like recorded by a native speaker. In return you have to record other people’s texts in your native language. This trade system isn’t typical for open-source, but it does produce good results.

The easiest way to contribute

If you’re willing to put some time and effort in to help the community, good for you. But there’s one very easy way to help make all this even better: just use open source software. The more people that use it, the better it becomes. This happens for a whole range of reasons, but ultimately we need the numbers.

The more people that use open source stuff, he more commercial software producers take notice and offer more support for open source stuff. And of course, the more users there are the more attention and contributors it gets.

So if you’re a language learner, try out some open source stuff today. Language is for communication, and open source is for communities.

Contact me: mhg@eastasiastudent.net


By the way, I'm a freelance software developer -- contact me about your software development project.