Apple's iOS operating system doesn't suffer from a paucity of ebook readers. In fact, the situation is so exemplary that one might ask for advice when it comes to selecting between the $14.99 Voice Dream Reader and the free but feature-rich Dolphin EasyReader. And I haven't yet mentioned Apple's very own ebook reader and purchasing hub, iBooks, which is to be called Books in an upcoming iOS update. Oh, and let's not forget Google Play Books, NOOK and Amazon Kindle. These are all accessible and you can even purchase extra high-quality voices for some of them to enhance your reading experience. Guys, we're practically spoiled! But I'll be Panglossian if I claim reading all sorts of books on iOS is a pleasant experience because, well, it isn't.
What's wrong with book reader apps on iOS?
The issue of complicated, nonstandard tables and graphs aside, nothing will go wry as long as your chosen book is monolingual. That is, as long as the text of your book is in a single language, you won't encounter hurdles. But as soon as you reach a line, sentence or paragraph written in a different language, you'll notice the problem.
To make the record straight, however, a clarification is in order.
VoiceOver itself is perfectly capable of altering the TTS engine voice and switching to the proper language as soon as it detects text written in a different language. Needless to say, this hinges on the proper use of language tags. So if a French block of text isn't specified as being French, VoiceOver can't make the switch and the culprit is to be found elsewhere. However, in spite of the fact that VoiceOver is a consummate multilingual screen reader, most -- if not all -- book readers on iOS aren't, and this shortcoming manages to torpedo the pleasure of reading bilingual or multilingual books and passages -- stuff mostly found in educational offerings.
Three examples are worth a thousand paragraphs!
If you're reading this article with VoiceOver on iOS, you should hear the following sentence read via a French voice: Ceci est une courte phrase française et sert d'exemple pour mon article. That's because I've used the proper "span lang" tag to mark the above sentence as French.
Now let me provide a more complicated bilingual example, taken from the provided language notes for my favorite French courses, Coffee Break French:
gender: Just like many other languages, French uses different “genders”. Some words are identified as “masculine” and others are identified as “feminine”. Note that masculine words are not only “male” beings or creatures, and likewise that feminine words are not only “female” beings or creatures. For example, the word maison (meaning “house”) is feminine, and the word jardin (meaning “garden”) is masculine! There’s no reason for this - the best idea is just to learn whether a word is masculine or feminine when you learn it. Note that while nouns are masculine or feminine, there are also masculine and feminine forms of adjectives too. We’ve already come across two of these: bon/bonne and enchanté/enchantée.
And another example from the very same courses, this time in the form of French expressions followed by their English translations:
à plus: see you later. This is quite informal. Note that you pronounce the ‘s’ of plus.
à toute à l’heure: see you later.
à plus tard: see you later. In comparison to à plus, you don’t pronounce the ‘s’ of plus in the phrase à plus tard.
I can't read my bilingual language books using Voice Dream Reader and iBooks, and that doesn't bode well for visually impaired language learners or bilinguals
To put it in a nutshell, if I email a properly formatted/tagged HTM/HTML document to myself as an attached file, VoiceOver will read it as expected by making proper language switches. However, if I send the same file to Voice Dream Reader, the app will fail to switch to an installed French voice where French text blocks appear. It lacks proper language identification/switching features. More importantly, however, the same is true about Apple's iBooks. Upon trying to send the same document to iBooks, it provides me with an option to convert it to PDF, and the PDF file won't be processed by iBooks in terms of language identification and voice switches -- everything is read in pure English.
Now my question, or grouse, is why iBooks, with its universal appeal, provides zero language recognition, identification and switching features. By the same token, why should an expensive app like Voice Dream Reader fail to take the needs of those who read bilingual and multilingual passages into account? It's quite evident that language learners or bilinguals can't get the most out of their expensive iDevice purchases if the status quo isn't rectified. Any chance of diverting the "i" of "iBooks" in iOS 11.3 to the realm of proper language identification? I'm fine with an "lBooks!" How about you?