Digitisation gives new life to dying languages

Swathi Moorthy New Delhi | Updated on May 15, 2018 Published on May 15, 2018

Ol Chiki script of Santali, one of the 22 official languages of India, is gaining popularity. Even dying languages such as Gondi are getting a new lease of life thanks to an open source tool developed by a set of software professionals.

The reason is simple. The professionals believe that there could be many research materials hidden in these fading languages, which will help address concerns of today.

Loss of a language also means that you lose knowledge of medicinal herbs, architecture and literature that could result in potential research output in the future, said Madan Karky of Karky Research Foundation that develops Tamil language tools.

“To prevent the loss digitisation is the only solution,” he said.

In the recent times both the Centre and State governments, and many private players are working with start-ups to provide regional language-related products and services. For example not-for-profit organisation Indic Project, which develops open source tools for language digitisation, has developed natural language processing platforms, such as LibIndic that communities can pick up and customise it to digitise their language.

Multiple dialects

The organisation is also working on self-learning predictive input tool and style book that can pick-up the most commonly used words in the particular area. It could be a jargon, rules in an organisation or even words that are unique to the area. Anivar Aravind, Executive Director, Indic Project, said that the tool will be useful especially in States where there are multiple dialects.

The professionals are taking help of the locals to revive the languages. But to scale and foster more languages, both Centre and State governments should create an ecosystem that makes adoption of Indian languages digitally easier, they said. According to a report by UNESCO, around 197 Indian languages are endangered and close to 62 languages are on the verge of extinction. The tool developed by the Indic Project can support all official languages and is working to include more. However, there are challenges.

Lack of resources

Aravind said that developing a tool needs good understanding of structure of the language, morphological analysis and roots of words. All these takes significant time, money and effort, which smaller communities cannot afford since it is more often than not voluntary. There is also lack of human resources in this space as it is not considered a full-fledged career path. Opportunities are not lucrative yet. To give native languages the development scale and boost it needs, government should intervene.

The Ministry of Human Resources and Development launched Bharatavani, a multilingual knowledge portal, in a bid to foster language diversity and leverage research and development in languages couple of years ago. The portal is managed by the Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysuru.

There are ongoing efforts to develop multilingual computing tools under the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing as well. However most of the tools developed are not open source and hence cannot be used by public. “For this to pick up the government not only needs to invest in creating tangible solutions but also make them available for wider use,” Aravind said.

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Published on May 15, 2018
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