Just last week the Indian government made an announcement mandating support for Indian language on all phones sold in India from July 2017 onwards. Any mobile phone (smartphone or feature phone) sold in India after this date will have to support display of content in all 22 official Indian languages and provide input capability in at least 3 languages – English, Hindi and one regional language.
Those of you who know me or follow my writing will understand why I am personally delighted with this news. It underscores what I have been saying for a long time – that true digital inclusion will happen when we facilitate Indians to access the internet in their mother tongue, reversing the long-time elitism that has restricted access only to English language users. Unlike other emerging internet markets, notably China, we have not built our hardware and content ecosystem around local languages, which is one of the key reasons that internet growth has lagged behind in our country.
If we speak of equality as a fundamental right, then when it comes to internet access, every Indian should have the right to access the net in the language of his choice. This is the right which the government wishes to implement today.
However in practice, this is not easy to deliver. The 22 ‘scheduled’ languages listed in the Constitution are just the tip of India’s linguistic iceberg – as per the 2011 Census, there are 122 languages in the country, each spoken by more than 10,000 people. A more in-depth survey by the People’s Linguistic Society of India reports that a total of 780 languages and 66 scripts exist in the country. Assam (55 languages), Gujarat (48) Maharashtra (39) and West Bengal (38) are among the most linguistically diverse States in the country. (Source : The Hindu, July 2013)
Even China with 7 major dialect groups, and 297 spoken languages, does not boast of the linguistic diversity of India.
Handling rich linguistic diversity poses an immense challenge to hardware manufacturers, software and content developers. I know from personal experience that it is not so easy to tackle it using a technology solution alone. When Anant was founded in 2012, one of our first creations was a vernacular language operating system for tablets and mobile devices.I may say, this was developed much before Google Android came up with Indian language support. Later, keeping with market trends, we evolved the Anant product to a mobile application development platform supporting multiple Indian languages. Our work has required research effort, time, money and patience over the last 5 years.
Also, it’s not enough to tackle just one piece of the puzzle. A language technology solution is an ecosystem solution – it starts with hardware, but equally requires integration with the operating system, application development process and the content creators. Only when this entire ecosystem is integrated and works together, will we achieve a true multi-lingual solution.
To put it simply, a hardware manufacturer may develop language support and integrate with the OS of his choice. But the application developer still needs to develop applications that are tested and capable of rendering in 22 languages. And of course, content developers need to provide this too. Otherwise, the consumer may have a device that supports all Indian languages, but the apps he uses may not work properly in local language. He may be able to display content in his mother tongue, but the content that he wants to consume is not available online. He may be reduced to getting language support only for text messages and a few websites.
This complex, interdependent ecosystem is broken and fragmented today. We have some developers who develop local language mobile keyboards, some companies who work on language translation, Google which supports certain languages and some application developers who offer apps in a handful of languages. We have a few content creators who develop content in certain Indian languages. This does not represent the entire chain from hardware to software to app to content and it certainly does not include all potential mobile internet users
So, mandatory hardware support for Indian languages is a step in the right direction, but it’s just one step. The next step, is for application developers to create rich applications that smoothly render all vernacular languages.
At Anant, we have developed a mobile application development platform that facilitates marketers and developers to build an app that renders in all 22 scheduled Indian language, on any phone or operating system. And we are working on an ambitious plan to facilitate coding of apps in Indian languages – so that language is neither a constraint to creation or consumption.
If you share my vision for a digitally and linguistically inclusive India and have an idea that you wish to take forward, I invite you to connect with me and jointly explore the solutions that will power Digital India in the future!
Phani Bhushan is the founder of Anant Computing, the first mobile technology platform that is 100% locally developed. Anant has been developed to power the next generation of mobile applications that are light, cloud-based, rich-media, vernacular friendly and device agnostic. Team Anant is inspired by the vision of a more digitally inclusive India, where everyone with a mobile phone can both create and access high quality apps ,sans language barriers.