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Writing Tibetan on computers and smart phones

Tibetans face a serious problem when trying to use new technologies: most computers and smart phones need installing additional fonts and input methods before they can work with Tibetan characters. Apple has solved this problem: since 2011, all versions of MacOS and iOS have got integrated support for Tibetan. Just select the Tibetan keyboard, and you can write and display text in Tibetan. With Windows and Android, the situation is totally different.

The first time I tried to write Tibetan characters on my Windows computer, it took me several hours to find an input method which worked properly. I was in China at that time, and several solutions developed in Western countries were located on websites which were virulently anti-Chinese. The only consequence of putting this software there was of course that it was not accessible to Tibetans living in China. Some of the input methods are not compatible one with another. Others were developed in China and available only with documentation in Chinese; Tibetans living in foreign countries will find it hard to use them.

Tibet: Tibetans are passionate computer users, but installing Tibetan fonts and keyboards remains a nightmare.

Tibetans are passionate computer users, but installing Tibetan fonts and keyboards remains a nightmare.

Another problem is that there is no universal Microsoft font which can display all the relevant languages properly. Arial Unicode was supposed to be one such font; however, if you try to display Tibetan text using this font, all the characters will be torn apart into small pieces. This means that websites using Tibetan characters have to use specific Tibetan fonts just for Tibetan texts, but not for text in other languages; this is not always easy to achieve with multilingual CMS (content management systems) which are currently used for many websites and blogs.

Then I tried to install Tibetan on Android smart phones and tablet computers. I was in Beijing's biggest "electronic market", where you find in six huge buildings everything related to consumer electronics and computers. For a whole day, I walked from one shop to another, trying to find specialists who could help me to install Tibetan fonts and input methods on the products they sold; in the end, I had to do most of it myself. However, with the only working solution I have been able to find so far, the system has to be "rooted" (i.e. you must be able to access the system files). On some cheap tablet PCs, this is already the case when you buy them; on others, this requires following a complex procedure which is generally only available in Chinese; on still others, it is impossible. Then you have to replace the default system font by a new one, which is able to display Tibetan characters, but has got no Chinese characters. As a consequence, if your system language is set to Chinese, the system messages are simply not displayed anymore. Choosing Tibetan as system language is not an available option; you have to select a Western language, which is of course problematic for Tibetans living in China.

Tibetan tablet PC: After considerable efforts, this tablet PC is able to display Tibetan text and keyboard, but it cannot display Chinese characters anymore.

After considerable efforts, this tablet PC is able to display Tibetan text and keyboard, but it cannot display Chinese characters anymore.

On Tibetan language TV channels, some smart phone producers in collaboration with local universities run ads boasting that they have been able to install Tibetan fonts and input methods on specific smart phones; of course, these features are only offered on quite expensive brands. How is it possible that in the 21st century, having a smartphone writing Tibetan is an achievement even worth mentioning?

Microsoft (Windows) and Google (Android) are among the biggest software producers in the world. Is it asking too much that they provide the Tibetans with systems where they can simply select Tibetan as the system language and start to use their native language and its traditional writing system? I have worked for several years as a software and web developer. If I get in trouble simply trying to write a few Tibetan characters on a modern computer system, just imagine the problems Tibetans, who are new to this technology, will have. This is a scandal. Should we not help the Tibetans to preserve their language and culture? The same is of course true for many other minority languages in the world.

Comments (3)

  • lobsang Tsering

    I am a Tibetan. I do study software engineering. I need a partner to develop Tibetan font for windows phone. Open source only.
    Khawa.lobsangtsering@gmail.com

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  • Aural Architect

    Wow! This situation is simultaneously tragic, ridiculous, embarrassing, unnecessary and pathetic! Microsoft & Google really need to get this issue resolved- ASAP! Both of those companies have abundant access to all the means & resources to develop & propagate simple, efficient and elegant solutions to this glaring deficiency. But waiting on them to do the right thing would be a foolishly frustrating exercise in futility.
    Open source is definitely the way to go!
    Unfortunately I doubt that I have the knowledge nor experience to be of much help with this project.
    There is a free piece of software for Android called Multiling Keyboard. The developer seems to be quite knowledgeable has been extremely helpful & accommodating in the modification & development of his software & plug-ins for minority languages. He may be willing to help or at least provide some insight/direction/ideas...

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  • tse

    The Tibetan fonts work from Android versions 5.1.1 Recently I had tibetan keyboard on Baidu Chinese keyboard from a friend but I do not know details. However I changed the phone and now cannot use Baidu keyboard with Tibetan.

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