On the question of what needs to be done to help Indic languages only speakers to improve their lives and livelihood through mobile (and technology at large) – the views tend to run all over the spectrum.
Tech majors (like Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft & Facebook) feel they have done enough and to do anything beyond there is no “ask” from the users’ side – who are happy to keep using English (even though their English knowledge is basic) as it is an Aspiration & Social Status language in Tamil Nadu & India. Even whatever these companies (and open source efforts like Open Office) have developed for Tamil remains largely unused.
People like me, feel companies and government have to do more and keep at it – over a period (sooner) offer the same level of possibility and features that are there in English for local languages as well. This will improve the users’ productivity and hence their lives profoundly. And this starts with the basics of the user-interface being in local languages – in a car, the controls like AC Cool/Hot button being in Tamil as குளிர் / வெப்பம். The idea is doing something in your mother tongue that you know well compared to your basic English skills which can lead to errors and lower productivity.
When I was speaking on this to Aazhi Senthil Nathan an expert on the field of translation, he gave me a different perspective. In India especially Tamil Nadu, our populace has largely become bilingual and they can read (or learn to read quickly) English scripts (they won’t understand the meaning) – and there is no point in imagining them to be monolingual. Just by offering UI in say Tamil you will not have many takers. In his view the problem is not the User Interface – changing File to கோப்பு, may mean a check-box for a product manager in their localisation tasks, but users in Tamil Nadu care little for it – as they can figure it out in English (we Tamilians are smart) on few tries.
The real problem is how you train them and educate them. As an example, a first step, in say on the usage of MS Word or Adobe Photoshop will be to prepare the training materials, courseware, videos, manuals in Tamil (and other local languages). Local language should be more than skin deep – the user interfaces don’t matter much – but the language through which you communicate with them, impart knowledge and make them productive has to be Tamil.
This insight is leading me to see the importance of all-around improvement of Tamil medium school education – a topic I had written about a few weeks ago.
If you want to understand a bit of background here, you can read my earlier post on Google for Tamil in which I wrote: “In the early decade(s) the pace of development (for Tamil) was painstakingly slow and limited to fonts and keyboards, then it just took off – coinciding with the meteoric rise of Mobile phone users in India. In the early years, the Tamil technology pioneers had to work very hard to see their language show up on the computer screen when none of the platform software vendors cared for any of the non-latin languages. Even within Tamilians, we had bitter ways over the technology standards to power Tamil which got resolved with Tamil Nadu Government’s G.O. in 2010 – looking back I am happy that I had a tiny little part in that. I remember the days when I was the Vice-Chairman and then Chairman of INFITT, a non-profit registered in California, it was tough to get the attention of American companies to implement even the basic features for Tamil – then gathering the data to convince them this market is worth their attention was next to impossible.
Today, all the five technology giants have extensive support for Tamil – Apple (iOS, Mac OS), Microsoft (Windows, Bing, Bhasha India and more), Google (Android, Google Search and more), Facebook (Tamil LUI), and, Amazon (Kindle). The journey for Tamil & other Indian languages to reach the place where the English language is in Computers today, in my opinion, is another decade away but it is sure to happen as the consumer market in India is the only one outside China that is still open for business.”