Developer Area/Language strings

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For internationalization (i18n) and localization (l10n) reasons, all strings that are displayed to the user in Mahara are stored in "lang strings" and printed via the get_string($identifier, $section) function, rather than being placed directly in the code. This function will check to see if the user has any foreign language langpacks instealled, or any custom lang files, and will use the string from those if present. Otherwise, it will fall back to the core lang files.

How to use get_string() in PHP

The function get_string() takes these parameters:

  • identifier: The name of the lang string, unique within its section. The identifier must be acceptable as a PHP array key. By convention, it's often the same as the English contents of the string, in all lowercase without spaces. Alternately, it can represent the purpose of the string rather than the exact wording of the string.
  • section: The file that the lang string lives in. This is technically optional; if left off, it will default to "mahara", a section that contains many common core strings.
    • Examples:
      • 'admin': For the core "admin" section
      • '': For the "blog" artefact plugin
      • 'theme.primaryschool': For the "primaryschool" theme
  • params: (Optional) A lang string can contain one or more sprintf() params. If present in the lang string, matching param values will be expected from the get_string() call that uses the string, and will be placed in. Params are helpful for translation into languages with different word orders.


$yesstr = get_string('yes');                     // lives in lang/en.utf8/mahara.php
$clamstr = get_string('pathtoclam', 'admin');    // lives in lang/en.utf8/admin.php
$blogstr = get_string('blog', '');  // lives in artefact/blog/lang/en.utf8/
$copyrightstr = get_string('feedrights','', $USER->displayname); // Lang string with one param

// A pluralizable string. The first argument is the count of pluralizable items; get_string will use this
// to determine whether to use the singular or plural (or which plural, in non-English languages with more than one plural form)
$updatefilesstr = get_string('updatednfiles', 'mahara', 5);

How to use lang strings from a Dwoo template

You can also access lang strings from inside Dwoo templates, with the {str} tag:

{str tag='identifier' section='section' arg1='first param value' arg2='second param value'}

The code that makes this work is in htdocs/lib/dwoo/mahara/plugins/function.str.php

How to use lang strings from Javascript


You can even use lang strings in Javascript. First, you have to preload them into the page by providing a $pagestrings argument to the smarty() function...

// Providing a $pagestrings variable to smarty()
$pagestrings = array(
     'admin' => array(
     'mahara' => array('yes')

... and then, you can access them from Javascript using the Javascript get_string() function, which is similar to the PHP get_string(), except that it leaves out the "section". (NOTE: This means you can't include two language strings with the same identifier and different sections.) It also only accepts substitution params of type "%s".

<script type="text/javascript">
    confirm(get_string('discardpageedits', 'first param value'));

A number of Javascript strings are also hard-coded to be always available via get_string() in Javascript, if certain Javascript files are included by Dwoo. See the function "jsstrings()" in "htdocs/lib/web.php" for this list.

Dynamically fetched via AJAX

As of Mahara 15.10, you can also fetch language strings dynamically, via Ajax. Just use the get_string_ajax() function. Unlike pre-fetched language strings, dynamically fetched strings can include a section parameter, and other parameters. This function will cache the results for each get_string_ajax() request.

This function works asynchronously, so it is not suitable for use in alert() and confirm() calls. The function itself returns a placeholder <span> tag with a unique ID, which gets replaced by the evaluated string when the AJAX call comes back. So if you tried to use it directly in an alert(), confirm(), or other immediate-output method, the user will see the placeholder instead of the result string.

<script type="text/javascript">
    // CORRECT! Insert the return value into HTML on the page.
    var noresults = get_string_ajax('noresultsfound', 'mahara');
    jQuery('#notice').html('<p class="no-results">' + noresults + '</p>');

    // WRONG! Your user will see '<span id="str790709789087"></span>' in the alert box.
    alert(get_string_ajax('cannotremove', 'auth'));

Anatomy of a lang file

A lang will be named {section}.php, where "section" is the section value to pass to get_string(). It will contain a series of lines adding keys to an array called "$string". Like all Mahara library files, it should begin by checking the INTERNAL constant to prevent direct access from a web browser.

defined('INTERNAL') || die();

$string['changepassworddesc'] = 'New password';
$string['changepasswordotherinterface'] = 'You may <a href="%s">change your password</a> through a different interface.';
$string['oldpasswordincorrect'] = 'This is not your current password.';

// A pluralizable string. In English, the single should be mapped to key 0, the plural to key 1. For other languages, it depends on the
// pluralfunction defined in their langconfig.php
$string['updatednfiles'] = array(
    0 => 'You have updated %s file.',
    1 => 'You have updated %s files.',

Plural strings

Or maybe it'd be more accurate to call these countable strings. In the English language we have only two plural forms: singular (one) and plural (more than one). Other languages have multiple plural forms. For instance Slovenian has a dual plural form, which means that you use a different word ending depending on whether you have one, two, or more than two.

To allow translations into languages with different pluralization schemes than English, there's a special syntax that should be followed for strings that have words that might be pluralized with a numeric count, such as "You have 3 blogs"/"You have 1 blog".

First, when using get_string(), pass the count of items in the string, as the first custom param to the string:

get_string('fileattachedportfolioitems', 'artefact.file', $numitems);

Then, in the lang file, you make the string an array. In English, the array item with key 0 should be the singular form of the string, while the array item with key 1 should be the plural.

$string['fileattachedtoportfolioitems'] = array(
    0 => 'This file is attached to one other item in your portfolio.',
    1 => 'This file is attached to %s other items in your portfolio.',

This syntax allows for other languages with different pluralization structures than English. Each language's langconfig.php includes a pluralfunction, which determines what key it will return for the count number. English returns either 0 for singular, or 1 for plural. Other languages may return more or fewer keys. So, the same string in another langpack might look like this:

$string['fileattachedtoportfolioitems'] = array(
    0 => 'Ta datoteka je pripeta k %s drugemu elementu v vašem listovniku.',
    1 => 'Ta datoteka je pripeta k %s drugima elementoma v vašem listovniku.',
    2 => 'Ta datoteka je pripeta k %s drugim elementom v vašem listovniku.',
    3 => 'Ta datoteka je pripeta k %s drugim elementom v vašem listovniku.',

See Language Packs/Plural forms and for more information.

The count parameter must be the first parameter. If you don't want it to be printed first in the string, use a sprintf position specifier to move it around:

$string['setprobationpoints'] = array(
    0 => 'Set probation points to %2$d for %1$d user.',
    1 => 'Set probation points to %2$d for %1$d users.';

Note: Mahara contains quite a few old plural strings which don't follow this format. It'd be great if you can fix them when you find them. The corrected string should use a different name than the old one, so that translators will be prompted to translate it. Only remove the old string once you've removed all references to it from the core code.

Mahara lang strings are sprintf() format strings

The reason we use "%s" as a placeholder, is because every Mahara language string is passed through the PHP sprintf() function before printing. In other words, Mahara language strings are actually sprintf() format strings!

You can see the full sprintf() format syntax here, but there only a few things you need to know:

Escape a literal "%" as "%%"

If you need to print the percent character "%" in a language string, you have to escape it by putting two percents "%%" instead.

$string['onehundredpercentcorrect'] = 'You are 100%% correct!';

You can use "%s" for most placeholders

When you're writing a language string with a placeholder, most of the time you can get away with using "%s", which tells sprintf() to format the value as a string. PHP will sensibly auto-cast most values appropriately for this.

$string['mynameis'] = 'Hi, my name is %s!';

For decimal point number placeholders...

The main exception to using "%s" is if you need to print a decimal number in a placeholder, especially if it should have a certain number of decimal points. In that case, you can use "%" followed by ".", followed by the number of decimal points, followed by "F".

$string['twodecimalpoints'] = 'This number has two decimal points: %.2F';
$string['threedecimalpoints'] = 'This number has three decimal points: %.3F';

Although in many cases it may be less error-prone to just handle this on the PHP side of things. That is, instead of passing a decimal number to get_string(), make your script round and/or format the number and cast it to a string, and then send that already-formatted number string to get_string().

Where the lang files are

  • Core lang files live under $cfg->dirroot/lang/en.utf8/{section}.php
  • Plugin lang files live under $cfg->dirroot/{plugintype}/{pluginname}/lang/en.utf8/{plugintype}.{pluginname}.php
    • Note that the "section" for a plugin when invoking it in get_string(), is "{plugintype}.{pluginname}". For example: "", "import.leap2a", "blocktype.contactinfo"
    • Subplugins, such as a blocktype that belongs to an artefact, live under {$cfg->dirroot}/artefact/{pluginname}/blocktype/{blockname}/lang/en.utf8/blocktype.{blockname}.php and have "blocktype.{blockname}" as their section.
  • Theme lang files live under $cfg>->dirroot/theme/{themename}/lang/en.utf8/theme.{themename}.php
    • The "section" for a theme when invoking it in get_string(), is "theme.{themename}". For example: "theme.raw", "theme.primaryschool"
  • Foreign language langpacks are installed into your dataroot directory: $cfg->dataroot/langpacks/{langcode}
    • {langcode} will be the code for the language. For example "pt.utf8", "es.utf8", "en_US.utf8" etc
  • Local lang files live under $cfg->dirroot/local/lang/{langcode}/{section}.php


The main point of this system is to allow for Mahara to be translated. See the "langpacks" documentation for more on that. Basically, you download a langpack from, unzip it, and put it in $cfg->dataroot/langpacks/. Then, users are presented with a language selection menu at the login screen.

If a particular lang string is not present in the langpack, then the English language string from Mahara core is used, unless the language specifies a parent language and the parent language's langpack is installed.


Languages contain a small amount of configuration data. This goes in a "langconfig.php" core lang file. The following values are the most important:

  • thislanguage: The name of the language, in the language. This is displayed in the language selection menu that users see.
  • locale: A list of computer locale strings which this language matches. See the other lang packs for an idea of what these should look like.
  • parentlanguage: (Optional) If this is supplied, then for untranslated strings Mahara will attempt to find a translation in the parent language (if it's installed).
  • pluralization:
    • See the plural strings API.
    • For langpacks converted from PO Format, these values will be automatically generated if you include a "Plural-Forms:" header
    • pluralfunction: The name of a PHP function that will indicate which pluralization rule should be used for a given count. This function should take exactly one integer argument (the count of items) and will return a key which indicates which pluralization form should be used. For instance for English, the rule returns a "0" if the count is one, and a "1" if the count is anything else. All the lang files for the language will then define their plural strings as arrays, with a value for each possible key this function can return.
    • pluralrule: The Javascript equivalent of pluralfunction. This should be a snippet of Javascript that will evaluate an integer stored in the variable "n", and will return exactly the same value as the pluralfunction if it received n as its argument.

Custom lang strings in /local

Many Mahara installations may wish to overwrite only a few lang strings. The easiest way to do this is to create custom lang files under the /local directory. If present, the strings in these files will take priority over strings in the core lang files or langpack lang files.

Custom lang files don't need to translate 100% of the lang file they're over-riding. They can contain as few strings as you to care to actually override.


// This file lives under /var/www/mahara/local/lang/en.utf8/mahara.php
defined('INTERNAL') || die();

$string['yes'] = 'Yessir!';
$string['login'] = 'Sign in!";

You can place foreign language files, and plugin language files under local/lang as well. These are all acceptable:

  • local/lang/en.utf8/mahara.php
  • local/lang/en.utf8/blocktype.contactinfo.php
  • local/lang/pt.utf8/
  • local/lang/mi.utf8/theme.primaryschool.php

Concatenation is bad for translation

Because word orders are different in different languages, when possible you should avoid concatenating lang strings together. You should either use lang string parameters, or just use multiple language strings.


// Works okay for English, but what about Spanish, where the adjective should follow the noun?
$yellowdogstr = get_string('yellow') . " " . get_string('dog');
$greendogstr = get_string('green') . " " . get_string('dog');


// English: $string['coloreddog'] = '%s dog';
// Spanish: $string['coloreddog'] = 'perro %s';
$yellowdogstr = get_string('coloreddog', '', get_string('yellow'));
$greendogstr = get_string('coloreddog', '', get_string('green'));


// In some languages, the word for "dog" might change when it's paired with yellow, or the word
// for yellow might change when paired with dog
// English: $string['dogyellow'] = 'yellow dog';
// Spanish: $string['dogyellow'] = 'perro amarillo';
// Australian English: $string['dogyellow'] = 'dingo';
$yellowdogstr = get_string('dogyellow');
$greendogstr = get_string('doggreen');

And on a similar note, definitely don't concatenate word parts together.


$blogstr = get_string('blog', '');
$pluralblog = get_string('blog', '') . get_string('s');


$blogstr = get_string('blog', '');
$pluralblog = get_string('blogs', '');

// Or if you've got a specific number of blogs, use the plural strings API
$numblogs = get_blog_count();
$blogstr = get_string('nblogs', '', $numblogs);

This approach has the downside of leading to a proliferation of language strings, but unfortunately it's the only way to achieve clean translations among different languages with wildly different grammars.

Alphabetize your lang files

From an implementation standpoint, it doesn't matter what order the lang strings are in, within a lang file. However, from a human-readability standpoint, they should be in alphabetical order by identifier.

Many developers are tempted to group them together by function, but any functional grouping scheme eventually falls apart as new strings are added which defy the classification scheme. The end result is a completely disordered file where any particular lang string could be in any place. This is how most of the lang files in Mahara core are.

So just go ahead and alphabetize the lang strings, when creating a new lang file. If you want to ensure that related strings wind up next to each other, give them names that classify them by type.


// Strings are sorta grouped together by functionality, in semi-random order
$string['baseline'] = 'Baseline';
$string['top'] = 'Top';
$string['middle'] = 'Middle';
$string['bottom'] = 'Bottom';
$string['texttop'] = 'Text top';
$string['textbottom'] = 'Text bottom';
$string['left'] = 'Left';
$string['right'] = 'Right';
$string['src'] = 'Image URL';
$string['image_list'] = 'Attached image';
$string['alt'] = 'Description';

$string['copyfull'] = 'Others will get their own copy of your %s';
$string['copyreference'] = 'Others may display your %s in their page';
$string['copynocopy'] = 'Skip this block entirely when copying the page'; 

$string['viewposts'] = 'Copied entries (%s)';
$string['postscopiedfromview'] = 'Entries copied from %s'; 

$string['youhavenoblogs'] = 'You have no journals.';
$string['youhaveoneblog'] = 'You have 1 journal.';
$string['youhaveblogs'] = 'You have %s journals.';


// Strings are in alphabetical order by identifier
// Strings with similar purposes have names that start with their purpose and then a 
//    description, so that they wind up next to each other alphabetically
$string['copyfull'] = 'Others will get their own copy of your %s';
$string['copynocopy'] = 'Skip this block entirely when copying the page';
$string['copyreference'] = 'Others may display your %s in their page';
$string['imagealt'] = 'Description';
$string['imagelist'] = 'Attached image';
$string['imagesrc'] = 'Image URL';
$string['positionbaseline'] = 'Baseline';
$string['positionbottom'] = 'Bottom';
$string['positionleft'] = 'Left';
$string['positionmiddle'] = 'Middle';
$string['positionright'] = 'Right';
$string['positiontextbottom'] = 'Text bottom';
$string['positiontexttop'] = 'Text top';
$string['positiontop'] = 'Top';
$string['postscopiedfromview'] = 'Entries copied from %s';
$string['viewposts'] = 'Copied entries (%s)';
$string['youhaveblogs'] = 'You have %s journals.';
$string['youhavenoblogs'] = 'You have no journals.';
$string['youhaveoneblog'] = 'You have 1 journal.';

Let translators know when lang strings change

If you make a substantial change to the content of a lang string, you should also change the name of the lang string. Normally we do this by putting (or incrementing) a number after it.

The reason for this is because the Launchpad translation interface provides no notification to translators when the English version of a string has changed. Renaming the lang string will cause it to show up as a new, untranslated string, alerting translators to its presence.


$string['namedesc'] = 'The original version of the string.';


$string['namedesc1'] = 'The new version of the string, with content that should be reflected in all langpacks.';

Be sure to also update the name of the string in the PHP files and templates where it is used.

Help files

Help files are a special type of lang file. They're HTML snippets (basically the contents within the <body> tag) which pop up when a user clicks on a help button.

They can be added in a few different ways. The main ones are:

Pieforms help files

They're most commonly created by adding the 'help'=>true to a pieform element definition. Pieforms will then automatically add code to pop up a help file named "help/forms/{formname}.{elementname}.html". If the form has a "pluginname" and "plugintype" field, Pieforms will look for the help file under the plugin's lang directory.


// The "draft" checkbox will have a helpfile located under
// artefact/blog/lang/en.utf8/help/form/editpost.draft.html
// because of the form's 'name', 'plugintype', 'pluginname', and the element's name.
$form = pieform(array(
    'name' => 'editpost',
    'plugintype' => 'artefact',
    'pluginname' => 'blog',
    'elements' => array(
         'draft' => array(
             'type' => 'checkbox',
             'title' => get_string('draft', ''),
             'description' => get_string('thisisdrafdesc', ''),
             'help' => true

Page help files

A page itself can have a helpfile as well. If the page correctly defines the "SECTION_PAGE", "SECTION_PLUGINNAME", and "SECTION_PLUGINTYPE" constants, then smarty() on setting up the page template, will call the "has_help_file()" function, which checks for the presence of a help file under "help/pages/{SECTION_PAGE}.html". If present, it will print a help button next to the page title. If SECTION_PLUGINNAME and SECTION_PLUGINTYPE are provided, it will look for the help file under the plugin's lang directory.


// Help file will be artefact/blog/lang/en.utf8/help/page/view.html 
define('SECTION_PLUGINTYPE', 'artefact');
define('SECTION_PLUGINNAME', 'blog');
define('SECTION_PAGE', 'view');

See also Developer Area/Pagetop Constants

Section help files

Page sections can have help files. These live under "help/sections/" in the lang directory. They can be invoked by using the "contextualhelp" dwoo tag.


<!-- Help file will be lang/en.utf8/help/sections/activitytpeselect.html
     Note that it's under the core lang directory, because plugintype='core' -->
{contextualhelp plugintype='core' pluginname='activity' section='activitytypeselect'}


TODO: Are the other ways to call up a help file? Will calling that function that generates the help icon do it?

Custom help files in /local

Help files can also be overridden in the /local directory.

  • Core help files will go under local/lang/en.utf8/help/{forms|pages|sections}/{filename}.html
    • Example: local/lang/en.utf8/help/forms/adduser.friendscontrol.html
  • Plugin help files will go under /local/lang/en.utf8/help/{forms|pages|sections}/{plugintype}.{pluginname}.{filename}.html
    • Example: local/lang/en.utf8/help/forms/

Troubleshooting strings that won't change

So, you're trying to change some language strings for development, or a local customization. You change the strings in the file, and reload the page, but the strings haven't changed. Here are some possible causes:

Cached strings

Starting with Mahara 15.10, Mahara caches the navigation menus (which include several translated language strings) into the database. In Mahara 16.10 and up, you can use the "Clear caches" button on the admin screen, or the htdocs/admin/cli/clear_caches.php CLI script, to reset these cached strings.

In Mahara 15.10 and 16.04, the "Clear caches" button is not yet present. As a workaround, you can clear the cache by going to "Administration -> Site Configuration" and clicking the "Save changes" button at the bottom of the page. This will clear the cache whether or not you have actually made any changes. Alternately, you can trigger a cache clearing by bumping the version number in htdocs/local/version.php and running an upgrade.

Default strings copied into user data fields

Some language strings in Mahara are used as default values to copy into user-editable data fields. For instance, the text on "Administration -> Site pages" is generated from language strings, but is then stored in the database once admins edit it. In these cases, updating the original language string will not update the stored user data fields.

Haven't found the right string

Some words and phrases appear in multiple language strings in different files. Double-check that you've found the right string in the right language file. Make sure to check plugin directories (like artefact/annotation/lang/en.utf8) as well as the core htdocs/lang directory.

Hard-coded strings

It's a common bug for language strings to be hard-coded into PHP files or Dwoo templates, rather than moved into the lang files for translation. If nothing else manages to change a string, it may be worth looking outside the lang files to see if it has been mistakenly hard-coded.

If you find this happening in a file that is part of the Mahara standard distribution, please report it as a bug to the Mahara launchpad project. If you find this in a third-party plugin, please contact the plugin author.