iOS wishes - A keyboard for bilingual people

When you go on holiday abroad and speak to a stranger, they immediately recognise whether you’re speaking their language or not. Say that again? Do you speak English? What language do you speak? It doesn’t take any particular skill for two people to realise that they are not going to understand each other if they don’t speak the same language. Even very young children will look confused at their parents if someone talks to them in a language they’re not familiar with. Despite all the progress in mobile computing, the iPhone is still cannot grasp this concept. Your iPhone is never going to tell you “you’re speaking some language I cannot understand”.

Since the first generation of the iPhone, Apple allows users to add more than one language keyboard — you may be using it this button to switch to the emoji keyboard. If you speak two or more languages you can switch between keyboards with their own layouts to help you typing in different languages with ease. Up to 2016 with iOS 9, that’s still all you can do. As clever as my iPhone had become, I still need to tap on a button every time I want to type in a different language.

While being able to switch between keyboards is a massive advantage over its physical counterparts, it still requires the user to tap on the globe key. I’m writing in English, tap on the globe key to get English. Now I’m texting someone in Spanish, tap again on the globe key to switch to Spanish. Do I want to add an emoji? Tap the globe again to switch to the emoji keyboard. To continue typing in Spanish, tap again the globe key to switch to the English keyboard. No, I want the Spanish keyboard! Tap once again the globe key. Before you know it you are tapping on the globe key as often as the spacebar.

No more keyboard switching

The concept of switching keyboards tapping one key is not that convenient if you have to use it all the time. It’s easy to think that the eight-year-old implementation has remained this way because most of the people never use more than one keyboard. Bilinguals and trilingual are the minority here.

If you don’t share my pain you are probably thinking: why don’t you just use one keyboard instead? “Autocorrect happens” I answer. If that little helper that is autocorrect is causing trouble with one language, imagine what it’s going to do when you start typing a word that it’s obviously not in its dictionary. When I leave work and I’m waiting for my train I may accidentally text On my way ‘hombre’. That’s the Spanish Autocorrect not familiar with the English word ‘home’ and recommending ‘hombre’ instead. For a bilingual speaker that would read on my way man.

So far I have mentioned the annoying globe key and Autocorrect. The third item is the one I believe has the key to solving this nightmare. Predictive text. This is Autocorrect’s cousin but much more knowledgeable and well-behaved. Predictive text is a friendly assistant who tries to guess what you are typing offering you three options without trying to complete your sentences. Apparently it uses some advanced language syntax technology to suggest the next word you are going to type next. That’s simply brilliant. If you are the lazy kind of typer you and also tap on the word suggestions and they will appear on the screen like magic.

Stop the presses! We’ve got it! This is the kind of magic we need. Maybe I should talk to Predictive text about it. Dear Predictive text. Would you be interested in a summer course to learn Spanish? I know you won’t learn a lot in two weeks, but it may come in really useful next time you see a Spanish speaking person. Do you know any? They’re the ones to type in a foreign language while you recommend English words.

Now that I mention it, you may have met Spanish Predictive text from the Spanish keyboard. Yes, it’s the guy that comes when you tap on the globe keyboard. Same as the Japanese emoji guy. Maybe from now on, like in iOS 10, whenever you see a Spanish word you can tell your Spanish keyboard buddy to jump in and take over automatically. Humans do this all the time, so it shouldn’t be a big deal for you.

Automatic replies matching the language of the sender

While predicting the language you are typing can be difficult to implement and end up not being practical for a number of similar words in different languages, we should get iOS to learn about the situation and realise that we are going to use one of the languages we speak. For example, on a messaging app, if someone is writing to us in French, iOS surely understands this language is not English. Wouldn’t it be useful if the keyboard to reply to a text message in French would be a French one?

Without knowing anything about what’s happening behind the scenes I’m just using the logic: if Predictive text can analyse an incoming text message and come up with a sensible response, surely the same text analysis engine can learn when an incoming text is written in a different language.