Initiatives like Digital India have provided technology platforms with a great incentive to celebrate Indian language scripts, keyboard and input formats as they welcome the next 500 million internet users on board. However, there are concerns that little or no standardisation has taken place to ease access for new-to-internet and vernacular users, and digital platforms continue to rely on made-for-English-speaking user formats and script.
According to a report by research and consulting firm RedSeer, about 80 per cent of India’s digitally monetisable users prefer their content to come in vernacular languages, not English. Vernacular monetisable Internet users have three times the total spending power of monetisable English internet users.
“There is an assumption that the consumer accessing internet in vernacular languages is from certain geographies, (but their) buying capacity and age groups might be misleading for businesses. There are people who would want to access services in their mother tongue in urban areas as well but they have not had the platforms to support it,” says Arvind Pani, chief executive and co-founder, Reverie Language solutions.
While every platform tries to at least provide vernacular (software) keyboards, there is little or no consistency in the underlying technology or design. So, if a user moves from one operating system to another, they might have to figure out the new interface again; that is too much trouble for a new-to-internet user, he adds.
Currently, the Digital Indic standards follow Unicode, governed by a consortium based out of Silicon Valley.
“From a technology perspective, we have every sort of technology available for businesses to introduce vernacular solutions. The only thing preventing it from actually happening is the intent,” says KPMG Partner (Digital and Fintech) Manish Jain. KPMG recently launched a report suggesting the government could focus on creating awareness about mobile payments through regional-language advertisements and systematically planned digital literacy programmes. However, the problem of actually completing transactions in English language apps and webpages remain ongoing impediments.
Vishal Gupta, CEO and co-founder of women-oriented multi-lingual content platform Mompresso, notes that there is no dearth of content creators and consumers in regional languages. “Tools to improve the content, however, are a hiccup — those like spell-checker and plagiarism-tracker, which the basic English language user may be familiar with and using. Those are not easily available for vernacular creators who might be first-time internet users and content creators,” adds Gupta.
Countries like Japan, China and Germany use their own digital language standards overriding the Unicode standard. Before Unicode, text input, display and storage were not standardised in most Indic languages and the language work on computer systems was limited only to fonts. However, the ease of access continues to be greater in scripts like Devanagri, Bengali and Tamil due to larger readerships and obvious business case for these, unlike other Indian languages.
A clear standardisation for underlying technology outside the popular vernacular languages will be a huge boost to digital inclusion, as well as the Unesco initiative to boost cultural diversity through all-round access in a population’s own language, say experts.