For many Indians who are still offline, language is a massive barrier to the online world.
Indian language content constitutes less than 0.01% of the internet today. But make no mistake, the next wave of users in India will be non-English speaking, a study of 4,612 urban citizens and 2,448 rural Indians by management consultancy KPMG India and search giant Google shows.
Indian language internet users already far exceed the number of English language users in the country – their user base grew from 42 million in 2011 to 234 million in 2016, the study showed.
To capture this emerging market, businesses must ditch the status quo where English is king. Besides, merely having a phone with a regional language keyboard, search capability, and translation tools isn’t enough anymore. What is needed is a complete ecosystem.
That is the bridge Reverie Language Technologies is building. The Bengaluru-based startup provides regional language capabilities to device makers and app developers, among others.
“An entire generation has grown up not being able to type in its own language…and has instead been forced to adopt English usage in order to get on the information superhighway,” said Arvind Pani, co-founder and CEO, Reverie. Language equality on the internet “seems like a distant reality” to him.
Along with providing surface level solutions like translations and Indic display fonts for feature phone, Reverie is also working to integrate Indian languages at the device and app levels. Its team of around 66 employees focuses on creating a start-to-end Indic language experience, from rendering fonts and creating display support for devices to accurate typing and content discovery.
Reverie was founded in 2009 by siblings Arvind and Vivekananda Pani, and SK Mohanty, Vivekananda’s colleague from the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing. It works with original equipment manufacturers, chipset makers, and developers, besides consumer internet companies in the e-commerce, travel, and media space.
In August 2015, Reverie secured $4 million in funding from Bengaluru-based venture capital firm Aspada and California-based Qualcomm Ventures.
India’s language conundrum
The 1.3-billion strong country is home to 22 official languages and over 122 other major ones. Further, there are over 700 dialects written in a multitude of scripts. Yet, India’s education system and job market favour English.
However, “almost every new user coming online – roughly nine out of 10 – is not proficient in English,” Google vice-president, India and south Asia, Rajan Anandan, told the Times of India. “So, it is fair to say that almost all the growth of usage is coming from non-English users.”
By 2021, around 201 million Hindi users will be online, the KPMG-Google study estimates. Some companies are already preparing for this. Chinese giant Alibaba’s UC browser, available in over 13 Indian languages, is more popular than Google Chrome and other browsers. Over 60% of UC’s Indian users have opted for Hindi as their preferred choice, Arvind said. In April, Google Translate launched neural translations between English and nine widely used Indian languages. Amazon’s Kindle now supports e-books in five Indian languages.
However, Reverie says it is the only company using machine learning and artificial intelligence for translation, search, and data mining for complex Indic scripts. Its clients include e-commerce platform Snapdeal, the HDFC Securities app, Ixigo, the Indian Rail Train PNR Status app, Abhibus, and the government of India’s eNAM portal for farmers. Reverie recently helped localise the government’s digital payments app, BHIM, in eight languages.
However, mere translation can’t solve all problems. Some need a design overhaul.
For instance, the image of a shopping cart on websites can leave many Indian language users clueless. Some local words or phrases, like, say, in Malayalam, can be 1.5-2 times the length of their English versions, and a Hindi phrase 1.6x of its English equivalent, vertically.
Besides, users must also have access to Indian language content in inexpensive, lightweight apps.
Companies can’t do all this alone. The government must also lend a hand. For instance, jobs can be advertised or listed on non-English language sites, too. “Just because someone does not speak English, he/she should not lose out on opportunities, if they are otherwise skilled/qualified for the role,” says Arvind.
“Eventually, all businesses operating in India need to ask themselves: How Indian are they?”
This article first appeared on Quartz.