Centre for Internet & Society

English might be the language of the online world, but it’s time other languages had their say, writes Nishant Shah. The article was published in the Indian Express on June 5, 2011.

On skype the other day, a friend narrated an incident that made the otherwise familiar terrains of the internet, uncanny. His grandmother, who had recently acquired a taste for Facebook, had signed off on a message saying “Love, Granny”. For people of the xoxo generation, this sounds commonplace, in fact it might even be archaic. However, for my friend, who had never thought of his emotions for his grandmother as “love”, it produced a moment of sheer strangeness.

In Gujarati, it would have been silly to think of your emotions for family as “love”. There are better nuances. The emotional connect between lovers is different from the affective relationship with parents. The fondness for siblings is different from the bond with friends. And it was unnerving, for him, to have this range of emotions suddenly condensed into “love”. Like many of us polyglots who work in the rapidly digitising world of the World Wide Web, he was experiencing the gap between the mother tongue and the other tongue. It is an experience that is quite common to non-native speakers of English, who have to succumb to de facto English language usage on the global web and often find themselves at sea about how to translate emotions, histories and experiences into a language which does not always accommodate them.

This experience only becomes more intense for people who are fluent neither in the English language nor in international online English. This question of localisation of language remains one of the biggest gating factors of the internet. It also remains, after literacy and skills, the biggest impediment to including people from non-mainstream geopolitics in discussions online. Several global linguistic majorities have dealt with this by producing different language webs. Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and German are among the largest non-English language internets which are in operation now. However, in post-colonial countries like India, where linguistic diversity is the order of the day, the efforts at localisation have been sporadic and not very popular.

There are many facets to the implementation of localisation practices. It requires developing local language fonts so that people don’t have to merely transliterate local words using an English language script. These fonts further need to be made translatable into other languages, identified by machine translations. Keyboards and hardware infrastructure, which grants ease of access to the users need to be built. Tool kits to de-Anglify the computer language, code, browser signs etc. are being developed. There are many attempts being made by public and private bodies in the country to produce this ecology of localisation, both at the level of hardware and software.

And yet, adoption of localisation tools, despite a growing non-urban user base, remains low. Most people engage with the digital and online services through English, even though their fluency with the language might be low. One of the reasons why localisation of Indic language content is facing so much resistance is because of a narrow understanding of localisation as linguistic translation. Most attempts at localisation in the country merely think of translating English terms like “browser”, “code”, or “password” into the regional languages. In many instances, the term is merely rewritten in the local script.

Such an approach to localisation ignores the fact that the language of technology does not only produce new expressions and words, but also new ways of thinking. While localising the English language content, care also has to be given to translating the contexts, which the words and phrases carry. Do a simple exercise. Take the word “Password”. Try and translate this into your local language so that it makes complete sense to a native speaker. You will realise that just saying “Password” doesn’t mean much and that it requires background information to make that word intelligible to a community.

The second is that localisation is not merely about giving rights to generate content online. While the Web 2.0 wave of user-generated content is ruling the internet now, we must realise that most people come online to consume as much, if not more than, what they generate. Policies that promote local language information production, translation projects etc. need to be in place so that the minimum threshold of information is available online in languages other than English. Government documents, state records, public artifacts, etc. need to be digitised and made available in local languages so that people can access data online.

Localisation is not only about language and translations. It is about changing the top-down approach; instead of forcing existing concepts on to material realities which don’t always fit them, it is time to see that the true power of digital technologies is in building bottom-up models where everyday practice can be captured through localised vocabularies that allow for users to say, “I love you,” to anybody, in a language, and meaning that makes sense to them.

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http://openid.orange.fr/adamwarren says:
Jun 14, 2011 07:37 AM
I agree that we English-speakers should bow to a dilution of our language's prevalence. The only proviso should be a key to the terms used, or a link to some reference material to guide us in the arcana of other tongues. The explanatory material in this article is a useful contribution to this. I should hate to see a "hamburger" sameness standardising the net.
Adam Warren.
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