Digital native: Mind Your Language

The lack of localisation on the Internet is a symptom of a larger problem.

Written by Nishant Shah | Published:November 6, 2016 12:09 am
Specific countries, who have realised that web access and literacy are closely connected, have started working hard at developing localisation strategies for the digital. Specific countries, who have realised that web access and literacy are closely connected, have started working hard at developing localisation strategies for the digital.

It has been a festive season. Greetings are in the air. Well, realistically speaking, smoke-filled smog is in the air and greetings are all on social media. In a flood of messages — gifs, animated icons, poetic snippets, messages written in a script that looks vaguely Devanagari, and quotations that bestow glee and gladness upon all — that made their way into my social media feed, there was one that stood out. A friend, after wishing me happy Diwali, wondered why we don’t have an emoji for it, considering a large population celebrates it across the globe. While she was being facetious, wondering why our WhatsApp visual expressions are so terribly limited, it did draw attention to the fact that localisation on the internet is not something we have paid much attention to.

One of the most basic premises and promises of digital revolution was global connectivity. We believed that technologies are benign, and, as more and more people get connected, we would find an international level field where diversity can be reconfigured. Those who were underrepresented were to be visible, those who were silenced would find a voice, and those who were neglected would form communities of togetherness to shape and inform opinions of how the world was to operate. In many ways, some of these ambitions have been realised. Like never before, people, who have never been connected, are finding innovative ways of making their voices heard and their demands met. Direct action governance, which allows citizens direct access to those in power, is dramatically changing the way our governance is shaping up. The capacity of a regular voter to communicate directly with the elected politician has brought about a rapid change in a way in which we had never imagined. The citizen consumer definitely finds empowerment in the ability to interact and negotiate with corporations, and provide reviews based on their experiences of the products and services.

The scope of digital networks is incredible, with regards to how it touches almost every aspect of our life, and it continues to surprise us with the new access that it grants us. However, it is important to remember that we must not confuse scale with diversity. The variety of services that the digital makes available to us are almost infinite, with a new app available for everything that you can think of. And yet, the number of services does not mean that more and more people are being served. Increasingly, the different apps and services, global in their ambitions, and local in their application, are designed to the same kind of user. They are primarily in an English language interface, presume digital literacy in their interface design, and cater only to the privileged few who already have access and presence in the sphere of the digital.

Specific countries, who have realised that web access and literacy are closely connected, have started working hard at developing localisation strategies for the digital. Countries like China and South Korea, for instance, have worked tirelessly at designing input devices that can be used by those who do not speak English. Keyboards, touch screen interfaces, and voice language inputs that work with local languages have taken precedence in their technological innovation. Their localisation efforts also help in building multi-lingual web interfaces so that there is a burgeoning universe of apps, platforms, websites, and devices that do not discriminate based on language. They have invested in scripts that offer multiple fonts, optical character recognition for PDFs to be text-searchable, translation apps that work on large corpus of text, and a strident localisation that focuses on ways of cultural expression on the digital networks.

Unfortunately, even as the Indian government promotes digital access for our developmental future, we have stayed focused largely on English language content and education. While the post-colonial legacy of English-speaking cultures in India cannot be denied, it is worth noting, that with the digital, we continue to reinforce the primacy and importance of English over our local languages. The struggles we have of building local language archives, finding non-English interfaces, and developing literacy for people who speak other languages are indicative of how exclusionary our digital dreams can be. The lack of a diya in the WhatsApp emoji collection, or the inability to write in local languages, messages of love and festivity — Shubh Diwali has so seamlessly become Happy Diwali — is only a symptom of the much larger problem of the globalisation emphasis that refuses to acknowledge the importance of the local in our digital networks.

Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore