Imagine Whatsapp in Tamil, Marathi or Telugu!

It could very well become a reality if Indic language typing is introduced in school curriculum

Arvind Pani | January 10, 2018


#Languages   #WhatsApp   #Tamil   #Marathi   #Telugu   #Indian Languages   #Digital India  
(Illustration: Ashish Asthana)
(Illustration: Ashish Asthana)

The digital initiative of the government will be a non-starter unless it is delivered in 22 major and over a hundred minor Indian languages. There is a saturation of English content on web and hence a growing demand for consumption of content in Indian languages. The Technology Development for Indian Languages (TDIL) programme of the government is a push towards localising e-governance content in 22 Indian languages. All e-governance content needs to be delivered not only in text mode but also in speech, because that is the only way to ensure social and digital inclusion in rural India, where illiteracy is still a harsh reality.
In order to dismantle information hierarchies, both voice and data should be easily available in multiple languages. Local languages are going to be a key in convincing next billion users to come online.

Second only to the USA, India has over 125 million English speakers. Online, it is India’s lingua franca, but more of its 1.3 billion people can turn into netizens only if the online use of its 22 other official languages is encouraged. A recent study of 4,612 urban citizens and 2,448 rural Indians by the management consultancy KPMG India and internet search giant Google found that nearly 70% of Indians consider local language digital content more reliable than the English content.

Of all internet using native speakers of an Indian language, most prefer Hindi, the co-official language of the Indian union along with English. By 2021 an expected 201 million Hindi users, 38% of the Indian internet user base will be online, according to the KPMG-Google report. Marathi, Bengali and Tamil would follow capturing 9%, 8% and 6% of the user base respectively.

Native language apps and sites proliferate to make it easier for people to grasp online information. Moreover, increasing use of native languages could help chat applications and digital platforms to deepen their user base.

So, while India is expected to have 536 million Indian language internet users by 2021, a lot of growth is dependent on getting the non-English speaking and non-internet literate audience on to the World Wide Web. 

Computational linguistics is a multidisciplinary field of study which must be introduced at school-level across India. Students should be taught to type in local languages, develop programmes which will enable more and more Indians to come online and circumvent barriers to internet connectivity like language and literacy. We are used to English and when we compare the way we type in English, we find it relatively harder to type in Indic. But what about those who weren’t exposed to English at all but had the choice to type in an Indic language from the start?

The pathway for digital literacy was laid by the development of Indian Script Code for Information Interchange (ISCII) and was developed by the department of electronics (DoE) of the government of India for Indic language processing. ISCII compiled with ISO 8-bit code recommendations and with further enhancement in the year 1991, it was released by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) and eventually became the de facto standard for Indian language data processing. As per an ASSOCHAM-Deloitte study, when it comes to skill training and digital literacy, less than 3% of the workforce has undergone formal training where it identifies adoption to technology as a key hindrance.

In addition, while the typing of English is achieved by typing on the dedicated keys, Indian language is much more difficult given the nature of ‘maatras’ going omni-directional around consonants. This further dictates the necessity to teach.

We have literacy majority in Indic language (>70%), whereas we are still a minority when it comes to English usage (<10%). So, the Indic language users are unlike ‘us’. It is not trivial for anyone literate in local language to be able to type in their language. It can be learnt and taught. When typewriters originated there was an immediate hype for typing lessons in both English and local languages. A similar approach will greatly help in the digital medium. There are several keyboards layouts designed and made available by different software manufacturers. The most popular is the InScript standard designed for computer keyboards with 101 keys. InScript was developed in the late 1980s making it possible to input Indian language-based on Devanagari and eight other languages. The mobile keypads have fewer keys and InScript doesn’t exactly fit in. So, there are various or different layouts in different keyboards for mobile phones. But, the principle of typing is the same.

Learning these fundamentals will help anyone to get started with Indic typing easily. But, where and how does one get introduced to the way to type his/her own language? Children at school level must be introduced to typing in their language. It has been many years since computer education was introduced. It begins at pre-primary but there is no teaching or assignment in Indic languages. Students are expected to work only in English. They are taught about and exposed to word processing and drawing among other applications but not creating or even typing in their own languages.

All schools in India teach local languages. But it is only in writing. If the world has been moving rapidly into the digital medium, why should we not introduce the same in our school?

Basic typing in Indian languages needs to be incorporated as part of the school curriculum. This will help students familiarise themselves with Indic typing. They would not have to stay alienated from the digital medium limited by languages. The approaches to text creation using assisted tools like prediction, speech, etc. is very useful. In order to proliferate the growth of Indian languages digital content, we should train our children right from a very young age to type in our own languages in digital medium. Otherwise, we as a country might as well suffer the consequences of being digitally obliterated when the rest of the world is already in the digital age or rapidly moving towards it.

Almost every new user that is coming online, roughly nine out of ten, is non-proficient in English. Technological advancement could aid and encourage the increased use of local languages. Advance voice translation and new technology could help Indian language internet users who find and search navigation using text inputs in their regional language a challenge. The game-changer to internet connectivity in terms of numbers is the prospect of more companies investing in voice-enabled technologies and locally appropriate web content. Internet and app companies have been investing resources in making their applications more relevant to Indian language speaking users. The scope of this field is vast and could apply to various sectors like digital education, online health services and other areas of development that come under the Digital India initiative. The Digital India initiative might seem like a dream but technologies and people participation can make it a reality.

Pani is CEO and co-founder of Reverie Language Technologies.


(The column appears in the January 15, 2018 issue)

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