Open source office suite alternatives are well able to handle multiple languages. Apache OpenOffice for example, already supports 32 languages, and the upcoming new version will add several new languages, including Danish and Norwegian, according to a press statement from the Apache Software Foundation, released on International Mother Language Day, Thursday 20 February. Multilingualism is also a feature of LibreOffice, another open source office suite, localised in over a hundred languages.
"One of the distinct advantages of free software is the diversity of the community, which often translates into wide language support", comments Italo Vignoli, working for the Document Foundation that helps develop LibreOffice.
The European Commission is hesitant to try open source office alternatives. One of the reasons is a concern that the software's multilingualism may be problematic for use by the institutions, says member of the European Parliament Amelia Andersdotter, referring to a letter that she recently received from the EC Secretary-General, Catherine Day.
Andersdotter: "I absolutely do not understand where these concerns come from. Surely the multilingualism cannot be worse than in the proprietary office suite that we use now. This proprietary solution's linguistic capability is dreadful: it follows none of the member state standards and it can't even integrate the diacritic characters of central- and Eastern European languages. Its support for Romanian and Czech is ghastly."
The EC's excuse also surprises LibreOffice developers. "It is no problem to handle multiple languages in LibreOffice", says Vignoli. "If needed, LibreOffice can be installed on the same workstation with as many language versions as you want, at no extra cost. Doing that with proprietary office suites will require paying for new licences."
Reports and studies published by the Open Source Observatory and Repository show that public administrations using either LibreOffice and OpenOffice are found in all of the EU member states.
Multilingualism is also being tackled in other free and open source projects. For example, Belgium's federal IT service organisation Fedict is funding the development of a multilingual version of Drupal, an open source content management system, which can handle several languages at the same time. The system already has a standard module allowing users to set their preferred language.
Dealing with multiple languages is also a feature of CKAN, an open source solution for managing collections of open data. "Someone from Norway looking for sets of open data in, say, a Belgian repository will likely enter search terms in English or Norwegian, not French or Dutch", explains Irina Bolychevsky, a director at the Open Knowledge Foundation that develops CKAN. "Our Multilingual Extension accommodates this."
"Free software doesn't just bring multilingual power, it also makes it possible for users to adapt these programs to their own needs, including where language is concerned", points out Karsten Gerloff, president of the Free Software Foundation Europe. The advocacy group has long been urging the European Commission to seriously consider free software alternatives to its current proprietary office suite. "After a thorough assessment of user needs, the UK government recently proposed to rely exclusively on ODF as a standard for office-type documents. The UK recognises that free software office suites have long been ready for prime time."
Correspondence between Amelia Andersdotter and EC Secretary-General Catherine Day
Blog post by Italo Vignoli on language support
LibreOffice multi-language spell-check
Apache foundation press release on Mother Language Day
Apache Office multi-language spell-check
Joinup news item
Openfed, multilingual Drupal
Drupal language selection module
CKAN multilingual extension