2019 has officially been declared as the International Year for Indigenous Languages by the United Nations. Perfect timing to do so when the entire world is awakening to the importance of its native languages. This is especially true in India – a country with one of the highest number of local languages – where the balance continues to tilt towards content in Indian languages. While we have been talking to experts from around the world about some of the tectonic shifts such as MT and Blockchain in the Language industry, it’s time to talk to our very own Sandeep Nulkar to get some insight on the changing nature of the industry in India owing to the rise of Indian languages.
Suddenly, the mainstream media is flooded with stories of startups in the language technology space as far as Indian languages are concerned. India has always been a linguistically diverse country and technology has been around in our country for over two decades now. So why this sudden focus on our languages? What changed?
Well, a seemingly routine event has had a huge impact on the way Indians are going to be served content. In September 2016, Reliance launched Jio making unlimited access to the Internet affordable to the masses. What it did is also bring about a significant reduction in the prices of smart phones. With the cheapest smart phone now costing merely two or three thousand rupees and access to the Internet costing as little as a couple of hundred rupees, millions of Indians suddenly got online.
However, the common man’s food became the eCommerce industry’s poison. Less than 1% of the content available online was in Indian languages, while more than 90% of the country’s population did not use English as their first, second or even third language. Language, for the first time, became a barrier, crossing which was no longer optional if the aspirations of millions of Indians needed to be converted into revenue for eCommerce companies. It was now mandatory to speak to Indians in their languages. Language technology companies started cropping up by the dozen to identify and address the many problems this created on the demand or supply side. Content in vernacular became the flavour of the season and the media lapped up the frenzy.
Wow, that almost sounds like the beginning of a content revolution of sorts! How is the language technology industry responding to this? What are some of the key problems that these companies are trying to solve?
There are many problems, as will always be the case when something is undergoing such a paradigm shift. The biggest problem is that there simply isn’t much content online in Indian languages. This leads to smaller problems on the content generation as well as the content translation sides. Language technology companies are therefore trying to identify and solve problems primarily in these areas. Facilitating data input, spelling and grammar checkers and voice-to-text tools on the content generation side and MT Engines, Translation Memories, multilingual dictionaries and tapping into the latent supply of translators and post editors on the content translation side are some of the problems that language technology companies are trying to solve. Then there is also the problem of digitising available content.
This looks like an uphill task. Something of this scale cannot happen without some support from the government. Is the government taking any steps to support language technology companies?
Thankfully, the government seems have identified this problem too and has a vision to create an ecosystem in which language and language technology can thrive. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology launched this grand initiative with the Bhashantara Symposium in New Delhi in August 2018, bringing the industry, academia, government and language and language technology companies on one platform. The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and the Technology Development in Indian Languages (TDIL) have now taken it upon themselves to further this cause. In fact, the FICCI has dedicated an entire chapter to this cause by way of the Indian Language Internet Alliance (ILIA). Interestingly, even the Government of Maharashtra under the aegis of the Rajya Marathi Vikas Santha has been very active on this front. In March 2019, they launched a translation course aimed at creating more language professionals.
What about you? You’ve been an integral part of the translation and localisation industry ever since it came into existence in 1991-92. How are you contributing to this?
On a personal level, I have been a part of the deliberations that have happened at the Central and State government levels through the various initiatives they have taken. I have also served on the Committee appointed by the State Government under the aegis of the Rajya Marathi Vikas Santha to draft a translation course that was finally launched recently. I am working closely with the FICCI to start various initiatives at the state level for Marathi as well.
On a company level, we started Vernac Language Technologies, a language technology company that is beginning to change the way Indians consume content. We have used technology to enable citizens, who know English and their mother tongue, to contribute to bringing more content online in Indian languages. People can work from their mobile phones from wherever they are and whenever they are free, in slots as brief as a few minutes. With billions of words needing translation into Indian languages, we are going to need every person we can reach to contribute to this momentous task.