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Tuesday, 23 December, 2008

Of Indian Languages and the Internet

Nikhil Pahwa in a post on Medianama tells us:

At the Internet Governance Forum being held in Hyderabad, Ajit Balakrishnan, CEO of Rediff.com said that there is no evidence from the last ten years of the Internet business that users want Indian languages. Rediff has email in 11 languages, and 99% of the users prefer to use email in English. One of the issues is that “practically all of the 300 million young people who aspire to something in this country aspire to learn English.” Therefore “Let us not assume that users want Indian languages.” He mentioned that Nokia has experimented with Indic language keyboards, and pointed out Eterno’s transliteration app which allows the usage of latin characters for messaging in Indic languages.

There has been interesting posts/comments on this by various bloggers, one in particular by BG Mahesh (Mahesh's post)

Obviously, Ajit Balakrishnan has missed the point. Mahesh does make some interesting comments but I find his ideas unconvincing.

I think all of the posts and blogs I have read on this have not thought about the following:

1. Language is not important, Communication is
This might sound distasteful to language purists, but this is just the basics. Language does become important as an identity projector and for its political ramifications, but beyond that, for day-to-day life, its just a means of communication. In their daily life, people will use whatever language allows them to connect to the largest mass of people, or whatever is easy and available. As of now, its neither easy to read (rendering) or write (script complications in use of "matras") in comparison to English (which uses only letters for both consonants and vowels). One might argue that the Japanese script is complicated as well, but that argument falls short simply because India is more comfortable with English because of reasons I have outlined in point 2 below.

2. Its not just the Internet when it comes to Indian languages
The internet is just a reflection of the society we are. Indian languages are not in their prime in urban India (at least). The average child in North India no more says "ma" and "bapu" while addressing her/his mother and father - surprisingly uses "mummy" and "papa", for the two words that represent a child's closest relationships. Higher education is mostly in English. We don't have too many books for advanced studies written credibly in any Indian language like the Germans or the Japanese have.

3. People might be looking for different content and packaging when it comes to Indian languages
Till now effort has been made to provide Indian language alternatives to the applications that exist in English, as if people will adopt it because of some dying need. Most of these people who have created or pushed for these alternatives, may themselves have had no real need for the same, and have just contrived it to suit their intellectual pursuit or some archaic belief that other people across the often imagined "digital divide" need it - a condescending attitude if not ignorance. A little looking around (and I know I am still guessing it) might show that the solution lies elsewhere. Because of usage, vernacular languages might have their own content and packaging space in media, one that does have overlaps with English media, but also has its own niche - and the same is true for the internet. Some ideas to consider:

1. Blogs: A Tamil or a Bengali might blog about work-stuff in English, but would he blog poems in the same? Poems are about feelings and its not easy to blog in a language other than your mother tongue - after all it will end up being just a transliteration, mush like the way most Indians speak English - thinking in their mother tongue and then transliterating it into English. I am sure content like poems or lyrics or even native jokes would be blogged in an Indian language.

2. Social Networking: It would be so un-cool to network on Facebook in an Indian Language, simply because Indian languages have not grown fast enough to accommodate and now create college-slangs and fashionable yet simple words - the languages have stagnated and gone out of fashion. However, it might be very very cool to use Hinglish, which is a spoken combination of Hindi and English and has been made fashionable by the aspirational urban youth.

3. Mails: It would be a pain to write long mails in Hindi, for example, where getting the "matras" right would be so much difficult. On the other hand, if written in English, people can figure out words even if one makes a "tpyo".

4. Twitter: Now that is something one might want to write in an Indian language like Hindi, or Hinglish, or Telegu or Bengali for that matter. Micro-messaging wouldn't be so much of a pain, even if one had to use "matras" in Hindi, as was the case in mails. On the other hand it might be interesting to explore and tweet in different Indian languages and rediscover them.

The possibilities could be endless. But its important to keep it cool, simple and easy.

The internet is not an intellectual event. Its a mass phenomenon. You have to design for the masses.


நற்கீரன் said...

I think you have some painfully truthful observations, that Indians are obsessed with English. But it would be hard to generalize to other European or Asian groups. French, German, Spanish, Chinese etc probably use their language more compare to Indians. Still, Only about 10% Indian population understands English well, and its hardly any ones mother language.

You also toss out Personal Identity as something unimportant, that’s hardly the case. Culture is key to Economics. For instance Indians watch more far more Indian language movies than English, perhaps even newspapers, magazines, and books. Why not internet media.

It is true that the current Indian Internet population knows English well. But, as Internet reaches the masses, they may prefer local languages. Once you learn local language typing, it is easy as English.

As you noted it is not either or. But, to say your mother tongue is for poetry, and English is for science may be the reality today. But it is not something that India should be proud of….rather it is a failure of the Indian society.

saumitri said...

I agree with you on several points. However, I don't think you can create a design or technology based a moral judgement on the failure of Indian society or what it should be proud of. People don't use products based on morality, but because it makes life easy. Yes there are some stubborn people who would like to believe they live life based on a high moral ground, but that is not what the general mass does.

I think you have misunderstood me when you say that I have tossed out Personal Identity as something unimportant. My point is simply that media in different languages have their own usage. The internet media, as it exists today will have to look for the current content match for different languages, just as TV has done. Indians watch more Indian movies, because the content and packaging suits that medium. The same would not have been successful, if it was presented in the Hollywood style. The same is true for the internet - the content and packaging will need to be worked out to suit the local languages and that is precisely my point. Otherwise, it will seem pretentious and irrelevant and will never gain mass acceptance.

I disagree with you on two counts - one of which is that local language typing is easy. Frankly, given the structure of Indian languages, this is actually very complex. The failure of Hindi typing on Nokia mobile phones, where people still preferred to type Hindi words using English alphabets is one example - and this includes people who were semi-literate as well. The various unsuccessful attempts at developing and commercializing a Hindi keyboard (and I have been part of one such effort) is another. That is why I say, stubborn local language supporters might consider it an affront to their pride that people don't type using local language alphabets, but frankly the masses don't have time for such gibberish. They want to use a design and technology for making their work and life easy.

I also think, that your comment reflects the problem most Indian languages face today. Inflexibility can lead to stagnancy, irrelevancy and then decay. Indian languages need to become flexible and adopt. We need to accept English as a local language in India, just as we had adopted Parsi, Urdu and Hindi. English is just as much part of our culture as Urdu is.

As you say, culture is the key to economics. Its important to not only interpret culture as it should be, but as it is - only then will there be successful adoption of design and technology based on that culture.

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