Beyond English

Will domain dot भारत spur the growth of Indian languages on the internet?

Modi's effort to promote the use of Hindi and e-governance has given hope to those who want to see more vernacular content online, but many challenges have to be overcome.

For most of its short history, the internet has been the English speaker’s playground. Though English is the world’s third-most spoken language (after Mandarin and Spanish), it is by far the most commonly used language on the internet. If you wanted to make sense of most of what’s on the World Wide Web, you had to be able to read and write English.

This is slowly changing. The launch of Devanagari script web addresses on Sunday, allowing people to use  .भारत domain names, was another step in the slow effort to bring about a multilingual Web. Already, Indian languages like Hindi – one of the most commonly-spoken languages on Earth – lag far behind. The move gels well with the new government’s effort to promote the use of Hindi, and its push to increase digital services available to all citizens. The next few years could well see a spurt in vernacular content online.

But first many challenges have to be overcome. “At present, not a single Indian language figures in the top 10 languages prevalent on the Internet, though Chinese, Arabic and Russian feature in the list,” said a McKinsey report on the internet's impact on India. “The next wave of internet adoption in India will be dominated by local language speakers, which underscores the need for much more content and applications to be offered in local languages.”

Vernacular internet

Early studies of the internet attempted to quantify how much of the web was in English. A 1997 estimate put the number at 80% of all websites, while the Online Computer Library’s study in 2003 concluded that 72% of all online content was in English. Today that number is much lower.



W3Techs, which conducts surveys of the internet, now estimates that about 55% of content on the Internet is in English, followed by German, Russian and Japanese. Indian languages don’t crack the top 35.

The analysis is by its nature imprecise. The internet is vast and mostly uncharted. Estimates suggest search engines have indexed only 40% of Web content, leaving much off the mainstream radar. Measuring language becomes even harder because, in the early years, when fonts were harder to render, most non-English content on the internet was spelt out in Roman letters.

Indian Wiki

The rise of multilingual scripts has changed that, and made it easier to evaluate the diversity of the internet. Yet even the best approach relies more on sampling than measurement. There is one section of the Web, however, that does allow for comparisons of absolute numbers.



Relative to other tongues, Indian language-articles still comprise a minuscule portion of Wikipedia. English, Spanish and French are perhaps expected, but even languages like Vietnamese have nearly 10 times the number of pages that Hindi does. Waray-Waray, the fifth-most commonly spoken language in the Philippines, appears to be an outlier because of an automated translation method that creates pages in that language.

Hindi content has been growing on the internet encyclopedia, from no pages in 2003 to more than one lakh in 2011, but it still falls far behind the languages that are spoken as commonly as it, like Spanish and Arabic, let alone those with much smaller reach. Of course in many countries English is not spoken at all, so Internet users need web pages in their own language. In India, because of the language-class association, the majority of Internet users are at least conversant in English.



Obstacle course

The impediments to further growth are all too apparent. For one, internet infrastructure still leaves much to be desired. Though India has the third-largest internet user-base in the world, only 10% of the country is actually online. Even by 2015, when internet access is expected to reach 28% of the population, the equivalent rural figure is likely to be just 9%, according to estimates.

“A lot of the core infrastructure that is necessary for language computing is missing,” said Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Centre for Internet & Society. “There’s no mandate by the government that these languages must be supported, no comprehensive dictionaries, no thesauri, no machine translation capabilities, no optical character recognition capabilities. Because our market is so insignificant for proprietary software makers, they haven’t done enough to develop these. Meanwhile, the free software community is too small and mostly English-speaking.”

The government has launched some initiatives in this regard, like a National Translation Mission aimed at machine translating text from English into Indic languages, as well as banks of fonts that are free to use. But Abraham said that while the government is clear this should be a priority area, it underestimates the scale of the problem.

“We need large scale investment by the government into each language,” he said. “We’re looking at maybe even Rs 100 crore per language, to bring each of our traditional languages into the internet age.”

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.