Hello reader! Welcome to the first issue of Reclaim :)
I started this newsletter as a personal learning project to uncover what it means to decolonize our psyches, our tech, and with both of those, our society. You may be wondering, though—if this is a newsletter about decoloniality, why are you writing in English?
Simply put, it's what I grew to be comfortable expressing myself in. Although my parents are fluent in Tagalog and Ilonggo, my childhood was lush with Western fairytales, Disney shows, and private school peers who grew to be just as habituated to English. And that...makes me really privileged. In a world where most software applications are written originally in English, language is a non-issue for me and the remaining 7% of humanity that speaks, reads, and writes fluent English.
We don't often think about how we utilize the vernacular in tech. For one, English is considered a national language here in the Philippines, and there are way too many terms deeply embedded in our collective experience of the internet (ie. "window", "tab", "settings") that we can't just substitute with the closest Filipino word.
Leave the status quo unchallenged, however, and you may find that there are too many things we risk when we default to creating in English:
We risk creating an online monoculture of Anglicized software and content, leaving dying dialects and languages to fade while Western thought flourishes;
We widen the digital access gap between English- and non-English speakers, reinforcing the language as one of wealth, privilege, and power;
And we lose sight of indigenous values so nuisanced that their essence is impossible to capture with English alone. (More on this later.)
As Kenneth Keniston wrote in his essay Language, Power, and Software, language is "a critical variable in determining who benefits, who loses, who gains, who is excluded, who is included." Thus, this first issue highlights how we currently use local languages in Philippine tech—and the opportunities we, as technologists, have in localizing digital spaces. How might we design for pluralism, resisting hegemony in the process?
In today's mostly-English internet, there are three common ways that product teams utilize the Philippines' local languages.
📣 First, there's marketing and content. You'll see this with apps like Kumu, GCash, Grab, and Angkas—even though their microcopy and UX patterns are all in English, they still communicate to users in their local language with ads, notifications, and social media captions.
🌐 Filipino translations can also be seen in add-ons to foreign software. Web browsers are good example of this, with Google Chrome providing the option to translate webpages in Filipino and Mozilla developing Firefox in Tagalog, Cebuano and Hilgaynon.
📱 And rarest of all is seeing Filipino microcopy built directly into local products and websites, even in their early stages. I've only seen this executed once in RCBC's banking app, DiskarTech (but if you know of any other examples, please, hit reply!)
The last one requires emphasis, because it’s more than just talking about a product in a local language, or adapting a foreign product to fit our context. This is about building something new with a local frame of reference—indigenizing from within. Now, a not-so-brief moment to gush over what DiskarTech did well and what we can learn from them in bridging language divides for a more inclusive web.
Case study: DiskarTech, the Taglish super-app
The use of Taglish, or codeswitching between Tagalog and English, isn't a new idea in FinTech. Many ATMs in the Philippines often start their user flows by giving options to continue in either Taglish or English. This practice rarely carried over into the realm of online banking or budgeting apps, though.
Enter DiskarTech—an app launched by RCBC last July 2020 in alignment with Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas' mission to bring more unbanked Filipinos to the formal financial system. It brands itself as a 'financial inclusion super-app', packed with features that simplify opening a basic deposit account and accessing digital services like bills payment and telemedicine.
What caught my attention, though, wasn't just the array of features itself, but how RCBC grounded both the product and its marketing in Filipino values.
Let's start with the app's name. It's a play on the words tech and diskarte, loosely translated as 'enterprising spirit' or 'creative problem solving'. This established a central theme for product communications and marketing material: Kung madiskarte ka, madali nang maabot ang buhay ginhawa. (With the right approach to your finances, it's easy to build a comfortable life.)
The DiskarTech team leveraged on this and other Filipino realities, reaching nearly a million downloads in under a month:
💸 Savings Goals. After signing up, users go through a flow to set savings goals linked to a deposit account inside the app. Unlike most budgeting tools, though, DiskarTech's microcopy is tailored to fit cultural nuances. Most Filipinos are saving to provide for family needs, and the examples reinforce that, ie. "Tuition fee ni Boy; Pambili ng cellphone kay Jun-Jun". This small shift makes managing finances feel instantly more concrete and relatable.
✨ Strategic Incentives. RCBC understood that for many Filipinos, a lack of money is a barrier to opening a bank account. By offering lucrative promos and campaigns for loyal users, DiskarTech responded to this, incentivizing diskarte. A single mom reportedly made P30,000 through app referrals alone (the "NegosyanTech" program), and many influencers have followed suit; DiskarTech has also raffled off mobile data ("AyuData") and opportunities to double users' savings balance, enticing many to download and utilize the app as a source of passive income.
😆 Warmth and Humor. DiskarTech rolls out a lot of Taglish content. They have a theme song entitled Madiskarteng Pilipino (reminiscent of television networks' station IDs), a Tiktok dance, and a special feature on noontime show Eat Bulaga, putting them in a position and light that is extremely accessible to the Filipino masses, and that no commercial bank could reach before. Watch any of their livestreams—they have a financial literacy podcast now too—and you may find that the hosts' hugot and humor can actually make financial discussions fun. DiskarTech now has users from all 81 provinces of the Philippines, and it just released a Cebuano version.
What am I getting at here? I'm doubtful that the reach and speed of DiskarTech's growth would be at this scale if they didn't start by (1) understanding Filipino realities behind why many remain unbanked and (2) using Taglish in its branding and UX. There is value in literally 'speaking the customer's language', especially if your goal is to make financial concepts and processes easier to understand. Otherwise, you standardize your practices to fit not the masses’ convenience, but that of the fluent English speaker.
The future of localized software
Localization, as Kenneth Keniston puts it, "entails adapting software written in one language for members of one culture to another language for members of another culture." There is so much that goes into it—think scrolling patterns to character sets to dates and icons—that cannot be covered in one newsletter. (Kenniston's essay unpacks a lot of those issues if you're interested in that.)
It's a long process that involves more than just translation, which DiskarTech has shown. They didn't haphazardly translate every single button and finance term into a low-frequency Filipino word (contrast with this website); rather, they intentionally combined foreign and local concepts to create something familiar, delightful, and grounded in local values. It built on Filipinos' long colonial history of twisting American words into shared slang. Here, I'm reminded of a quote from history professor Vincente Rafael in his book Motherless Tongues:
In privileging sound over sense, the masses seem to find a way to make room for English alongside rather than on top of the vernacular. In doing so, they translate its strangeness from a menace into a resource.
I would love to see a future where the use of Taglish and other ‘hybrids’ of English and local languages is no longer a product differentiator—where it's not the exception, but the norm.
Meeting this vision of linguistic pluralism + inclusivity requires both public action and private commitment. A few of Keniston's suggestions:
🛠 Investing in localization infrastructure. In researching for this issue, I learned about community-driven translation software like Pontoon and Pootle, and agencies that specialize in the localization of apps and websites. These are key players in ensuring that English software can still be accessed by non-English speakers, and that technology is a medium for local cultures' preservation and enhancement, not an instrument in their marginalization.
💰 Incentivizing the use of local languages. Kenniston writes, "One positive role of government is to encourage (and finance, through startup grants) projects that use local languages in education, in the development of databases, in Internet communication, and in multimedia Web-based projects." Has anyone seen or considered starting a hackathon exploring the use of local languages in interfaces? I will live to see this.
And as for our own actionables, we can work to start localizing our projects at the earliest stages of creation, building on the approach DiskarTech took. This is a collaborative effort that invites us to ask: How will you ensure that your use of English is not a menace, but a resource? How can you remain grounded in local languages and values in your next design project?
These questions are too rarely asked, perhaps because they have no simple answers. Yet if we agree that the new electronic technologies are the most innovative and powerful technologies of the new millenium, then these questions, however difficult, must be asked. How do the new electronic technologies affect existing inequalities within and between nations? How do they impact the cultural diversity of the world? (Kenneth Keniston)
That ends my ramble for today. If this resonated with you, I'd love to hear your thoughts—send me an email or message me on Twitter :)
Thank you to the writers who inspired this issue:
Sai Villafuerte's Do we live in a monoculture? and the Cultural Learnings newsletter in general;
Patricia Mou's product breakdowns at The China Spec; and
Kenneth Keniston's Language, Power, and Software, and his notes on technology and culture.
Stretch Your Mind
📚 A beautifully illustrated library of Filipino folktales.
Serious Studio and Bad Student collaborated to create this beautiful website and .pdf zine, with both English and Tagalog versions. It's entitled gunitaan, the "memory of who we are that lives in the stories we tell. Mythical and of worlds within and beyond our own, these folktales carry the richness of being Filipino."
📝 The essential guide to conscious language.
A collection of resources on language that includes, empowers, and respects. "Our mission is to help writers and editors think critically about using language—including words, portrayals, framing, and representation—to empower instead of limit. In one place, you can access style guides covering terminology for various communities and find links to key articles debating usage."
💌 How personality creates delight in digital experiences.
I'm taking a personality psychology class this semester and it's just mindblowing to learn how different theorists break down our dispositions! I love how this issue of Delightful Products connected branding and product design to Jungian archetypes:
🎥 Harry Potter and the translator's nightmare.
A fun little video from Vox that captures the painstaking dilemmas of translation. "Translating the Harry Potter books written by J.K. Rowling, in over 60 languages around the world, was not for the faint of heart or vocabulary. Translators didn't have advanced copies of the books to get a headstart and these books could take months to adapt from English. They also had to be clever in their solutions because the books are filled with wordplays, invented words, puns, British culture references, riddles, and more."
🎥 The surprising pattern behind color names around the world.
Another! Vox video! Which doubles as a psychology tidbit for this first issue. Psychologists have long argued that language shapes our perception of reality (a controversial take called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), but perhaps there's something universal to how humans across different cultures make sense of the world. Watch to learn why so many languages invented words for colors in the same order.
🎥 Designing like a writer: How language can elevate your work.
The talk that got me into UX writing, from Slack's Andrew Schmidt. "If you are a UX writer or pen product copy yourself, this talk is for you as it provides content-first tactics for solving design problems — but also a greater appreciation for how language determines the way our work feels and functions."
Thanks for joining me today!
I'm Nikki and I study psychology, design at NextPay, and write on weekends. If you enjoyed this issue, please feel free to spread the word, buy me a coffee, or let me know your thoughts and feedback :) Have an enchanting week ✨
Hi! thanks for putting this together, enjoyed reading it. I'm a product designer based out of Bangalore, India's tech capital. This read was a perspective outside the Indian product bubble.
go nikki!! <3