Facebook, which claims to have 175 million users worldwide wants to capitalize on an estimated 225 million Arabic speakers and a few million Hebrew speakers. Not that it hasn't already: Middle Easterners being the Internet-neurotics they are (how else are you to entertain yourself in authoritarian climes?), Facebook estimated in 2008 it had 365,000 members in Egypt, 200,000 in Lebanon, 173,000 in the United Arab Emirates, 126,000 in Saudi Arabia and 100,000 in Jordan. The numbers are almost certainly higher today.
But expect those hundreds of thousands of users to get frazzled: it's not so easy having to go back to writing from right to left, as Arabic and Hebrew demand, after writing from left to write all these years.
"I am a native right-to-left language speaker myself, having grown up speaking Arabic and studying Farsi and Hebrew, in addition to French, English and German," writes Ghassan Haddad, Facebook's engineer who's overseeing the launch and deciphering its challenges:
For example, with right-to-left languages some of the characters, mainly punctuation marks and numbers, are the same as those used in left-to-right languages like English. The mix of characters between languages written in different directions makes it difficult at times for Web applications to determine the correct direction in which to display the language. Design is another challenge, since a Web page laid out from right to left looks like a mirror image of an equivalent English page. All components on the page must be changed, including text alignment, ordering of tabs on pages, different fields on forms, labels, buttons and much more.Fascinating what programming can do for human detection and interaction:
Linguistically, both Arabic and Hebrew are highly inflectional languages. In English, verbs do not change based on the gender of the person described, whereas in Arabic and Hebrew, two words with the same meaning are used differently based on whether a person is male or female. In order to deal with this issue, our developers built a feature we call dynamic explosion, which detects a person's gender and selects the matching translation.If Haddad's tricks are so successful, maybe Facebook can also provide instant translation between Arabic and Hebrew (of the linguistic, social and cultural kind) and finally do what no American, European or Asian mediator has yet managed to do with people who speak Arabic and Hebrew: Bridge their 60-year divide.
I can see it now, in Facebook language: What's on your mind? End the Arab-Israeli conflict already. As Joan Rivers would say: "Can we talk?" Who needs Camp David when you have Facebook?