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The Multilingual Internet and India

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on December 12, 2008 2 Comments

Ajit Balakrishnan, the CEO of Indian’s fifth largest web portal, Rediff.com, argued recently that data collected over the last decade suggests no evidence that Indian Internet users “want Indian languages.” He went on to state that “practically all of the 300 million young people who aspire to something in this country aspire to learn English.” According to his figures, while the site (Rediff.com) affords email facility in eleven different Indian languages, more than 99% of Rediff email users utilize English. The CEO of another web-based company in India (called OneIndia), BG Mahesh, provided an apt rejoinder. He commented rightly on his personal blog that “It is wrong to assume Indian languages are not a wanted commodity just because a particular language product (in this case, the language support on rediffmail) hasn’t done well.” Mahesh also goes on to note-quite reasonably-that there’s a difference between online reading and writing practices that Balakrishnan does not seem to be factoring into his argument.

Several things occur to me here. I myself have experimented with Bengali and Hindi emailing, and given up quickly, having become so habituated to emailing in English, that composing emails in other languages seems inordinately difficult and time consuming. That’s probably because I was introduced to Indian language emailing way after my hands were “set” using the English keyboard for churning out emails in English, starting with PINE, to using hotmail, lakehead.edu, email.com, yahoo.ca, csuchico.edu, and so on. Because there was a time lag, during which we got habituated to English emailing, many of us who might have utilized such services got into the mindset that email=English texts. While code switching occurred, we made use of Romanized Hindi/Bengali (here I limit myself to speaking for a large circle of friends and family I have electronically communicated with over the years). What worries me is that if people who wield a great deal of influence over Internet usage practices in India, such as Balakrishnan, don’t persevere and try to push local language emailing with the huge new crop of users India adds annually, then the presence of Indian writing technologies on the Net will dwindle before they are given a real chance to take off. Further, Bakakrishnan glosses over the fact that while young Indians may see English as a prestige and/or useful language, and want to learn it, it’s not necessary that they won’t want to engage in reading and writing online in their mother tongues.

I think Mohan’s perspective on reading versus writing practices is very interesting: He asserts that “users [on OneIndia] wanted to ‘read’ our content [in Indian languages] and very few wanted to write in the [Indian] language.” [emphasis added] I can’t entirely explain why that is, except to note that it might be a force of habit, and that it is true of many Indians I have talked to, and it is true of my own practices. The danger lies in misrecognizing the distinct practices the two appear to constitute in an online environment, as Balakrishnan appears to do. I think doing a large-scale study on why that occurs would be very instructive…here’s hoping it gets done someday…soon.

For more on this topic, check out The Multilingual Internet by B Danet and SB Herring (2007).

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2 Responses to “The Multilingual Internet and India”

  1. daveski on: 14 December 2008 at 12:23 am

    How many keys does it take to type in Bengali and Hindi? I was looking at a few Google images and it looks like there are 2 characters on many of the keys for Bengali…would that mean that someone typing has got to constantly be pressing the shift key to toggle back and forth?

  2. Usree Bhattacharya on: 14 December 2008 at 1:13 pm

    Ya, a lot of ‘shifting’ around involved: we have “29 consonants and 14 vowels, including the seven nasalized vowels.” It’s alphasyllabic, with tons of conjuncts, which makes it a little burdensome to type with. It’s not an unsurmountable, problem, but it bothers me a little. 🙁

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