Writing the Web ’s Future in Numerous Languages
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Wed Dec 31 13:24:16 UTC 2008
December 31, 2008
Writing the Web's Future in Numerous Languages
By DANIEL SORID
The next chapter of the World Wide Web will not be written in English
alone. Asia already has twice as many Internet users as North America,
and by 2012 it will have three times as many. Already, more than half
of the search queries on Google come from outside the United States.
The globalization of the Web has inspired entrepreneurs like Ram
Prakash Hanumanthappa, an engineer from outside Bangalore, India. Mr.
Ram Prakash learned English as a teenager, but he still prefers to
express himself to friends and family members in his native Kannada.
But using Kannada on the Web involves computer keyboard maps that even
Mr. Ram Prakash finds challenging to learn.
So in 2006 he developed Quillpad, an online service for typing in 10
South Asian languages. Users spell out words of local languages
phonetically in Roman letters, and Quillpad's predictive engine
converts them into local-language script. Bloggers and authors rave
about the service, which has attracted interest from the cellphone
maker Nokia and the attention of Google Inc., which has since
introduced its own transliteration tool. Mr. Ram Prakash said Western
technology companies have misunderstood the linguistic landscape of
India, where English is spoken proficiently by only about a tenth of
the population and even many college-educated Indians prefer the
contours of their native tongues for everyday speech. "You've got to
give them an opportunity to express themselves correctly, rather than
make a fool out of themselves and forcing them to use English," he
Only there is a shortage of non-English content and applications. So,
American technology giants are spending hundreds of millions of
dollars each year to build and develop foreign-language Web sites and
services — before local companies like Quillpad beat them to the punch
and the profits.
"Gone are the days in which you can launch a Web site in English and
assume that readers from around the globe are going to look to you
simply because of the content you're providing," said Zia Daniell
Wigder, a senior analyst at JupiterResearch, an online research
company based in New York.
Nowhere are the obstacles, or the potential rewards, more apparent
than in India, whose online population Jupiter says is poised to
become the third-largest in the world after China and the United
States by 2012. Indians may speak one language to their boss, another
to their spouse and a third to a parent. In casual speech, words can
be drawn from a grab bag of tongues. In the last two years, Yahoo and
Google have introduced more than a dozen services to encourage India's
Web users to search, blog, chat and learn in their mother tongues.
Microsoft has built its Windows Live bundle of online consumer
services in seven Indian languages. Facebook has enlisted hundreds of
volunteers to translate its social networking site into Hindi and
other regional languages, and Wikipedia now has more entries in Indian
local languages than in Korean.
Google's search service has lagged behind the local competition in
China, and that has made providing locally flavored services a
priority for the company in India. Google's initiatives in India are
aimed at opening the country's historically slow-growing personal
computer market, and at developing expertise that Google will be able
to apply to building services for emerging markets worldwide. "India
is a microcosm of the world," said Dr. Prasad Bhaarat Ram, Google
India's head of research and development. "Having 22 languages creates
a new level of complexity in which you can't take the same approach
that you would if you had one predominant language and applied it 22
Global businesses are spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year
working their way down a list of languages into which to translate
their Web sites, said Donald A. DePalma, the chief research officer of
Common Sense Advisory, a consulting business in Lowell, Mass., that
specializes in localizing Web sites. India — with relatively
undeveloped e-commerce and online advertising markets — is actually
lower on the list than Russia, Brazil and South Korea, Mr. DePalma
said. Mr. Ram of Google acknowledged that the company's local-language
initiatives in India did not yet generate significant revenue.
But the investments, Mr. DePalma said, are smart. "They're potentially
creating the Indian advertising market," he said. English simply will
not suffice for connecting with India's growing online market, a
lesson already learned by Western television producers and consumer
products makers, said Rama Bijapurkar, a marketing consultant and the
author of "Winning in the Indian Market: Understanding the
Transformation of Consumer India."
"If you want to reach a billion people, or even half a billion people,
and you want to bond with them, then you have no choice but to do
multiple languages," she said.
Even among the largely English-speaking base of around 50 million Web
users in India today, nearly three-quarters prefer to read in a local
language, according to a survey by JuxtConsult, an Indian market
research company. Many cannot find the content they are seeking.
"There is a huge shortage of local language content," said Sanjay
Tiwari, the chief executive of JuxtConsult. A Microsoft initiative,
Project Bhasha, coordinates the efforts of Indian academics, local
businesses and solo software developers to expand computing in
regional languages. The project's Web site, which counts thousands of
registered members, refers to language as "one of the main
contributors to the digital divide" in India.
The company is also seeing growing demand from Indian government
agencies and companies creating online public services in local
"As many of these companies want to push their services into rural
India or tier-two towns or smaller towns, then it becomes essential
they communicate with their customers in the local language," said
Pradeep Parappil, a Microsoft program manager. The project's Web site,
BhashaIndia.com, offers user-edited glossaries in local languages for
technology terms and words with slang meanings in social networking,
like "nudge" and "wink." ("Bhasha" is the Hindi word for "language.")
Last December, Yahoo and Jagran Group, a large Hindi newspaper
publisher, started Jagran.com, a portal in the Hindi language, the
native tongue of 420 million Indians. Yahoo, which also offers e-mail
and other content in several Indian languages, says that Jagran.com
has surpassed its expectations for user traffic. "Localization is the
key to success in countries like India," said Gopal Krishna, who
oversees consumer services at Yahoo India. Google recently introduced
news aggregation sites in Hindi and three major South Indian
languages, and a transliteration tool for writing in five Indian
languages. Its search engine operates in nine Indian languages, and
can translate search results from the English Web into Hindi and back.
Google engineers are also plugging away on voice recognition,
translation, transliteration and digital text reading that it plans to
apply to other developing countries. Mr. Ram Prakash of Quillpad said
he was inspired when friends at Google told him they had compared
Quillpad with Google's transliteration tool. He said that he believed
the use of local languages on the Web would soar even as more Indians
strived to learn English. "That's why we say English is not enough,"
Mr. Ram Prakash said, repeating the slogan of Quillpad. "People want
to look forward, and they want to learn English. That is all right,
but English is not enough for all their needs."
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