Home >Opinion >Online-views >Mind your language on the Indian internet

Whenever I hear my Bengali in-laws talk about how the ilish maach (Hilsa fish) is so much better in Dhaka, or my Punjabi college-mates talk about their visits to the other Punjab, it reinforces a fundamental belief that I have about the Indian identity. Language is our most powerful marker of identity, superseding both caste and religion.

India today speaks 780 languages written in 86 different scripts. Twenty-nine of them are spoken by at least a million people, 22 are recognized by the Constitution as official languages. Unfortunately, the internet, as we know it today, is not fluent in Indian languages—they account for less than 0.1% of the content online. Given the fact that Indian language users already outnumber English speakers, this is a problem that needs to be fixed now—abhi, ekhon, ippo, eega!

According to the KPMG-Google report Indian languages—Defining India’s Internet, over 23 crore Indians (the equivalent of the entire population of Brazil) are Indian language internet users. And by this definition, they have no idea what most of the internet is for, because it’s presented in a language they do not understand! Have you ever wondered how that might feel?

Humour me for a second, and go to the settings menu on your smartphone. Find the tab that says ‘Language and Input’ and then select a script you don’t understand, like Cyrillic or Bahasa. Then hit the home key. Now try and change it back to English. That sense of total disorientation and nervous fumbling is what the Indian language internet user experiences every single day.

In order to solve this problem, we’ll have to build the Indian internet first. This will primarily be driven by three major stakeholders—governments and large corporates providing essential services like banks; smaller digital-first companies that inhabit your smartphone; and the users themselves. Since each of these entities have to build their Indian language experiences from scratch, there is tremendous scope for new business models that can help serve these needs.

Government services and large corporations such as banks and other financial institutions are prime candidates for localization. Since they already serve hundreds of millions of Indians, they don’t have to go through the trouble of acquiring Indian language users online. These are “must have" services that most Indians have no choice but to engage with. And since their local language offerings online are rather anaemic, the engagement ends up happening offline. But why shouldn’t we be able to book a ticket on IRCTC, open an SBI bank account, or buy an LIC policy online in the language of our choice?

The path to localization for these entities is one that requires a lot of hand-holding. Weighed down by idiosyncratic requirements such as the need for on-site installations, compatibility with legacy systems, and limited capabilities of in-house tech teams, these behemoths will need extensive support. Service providers looking to serve them will have to engage them in the good old IT services model, perfected by the likes of Infosys Ltd. This is not to say that the incumbent IT services players are the right companies for the job.

But their model of deep client engagement, custom software deployments, and project style billing with a high upfront fee coupled with an annual maintenance contract, might just be what’s needed.

Most app developers and internet start-ups don’t localize because they don’t have an easy and cost-effective route to do so. A high-touch services-led localization model will not work for them, and neither will tools that only do part of the job. Such companies need a LaaS (Language as a Service) platform on the cloud.

In other words, they need the business equivalent of a Google Translate built to serve the Bharat market. Companies like Reverie Language Technologies (disclosure: Aspada is an investor in the company) have built platforms that enable start-ups to go multilingual after a relatively straightforward integration.

Local language users could just be the ultimate growth hack for start-ups hungry for growth. According the same KPMG-Google report, 60% of Indian language internet users said limited language support and content was the largest barrier for adoption of online services. E-commerce companies, cab-aggregators, hyper-local grocery start-ups and pretty much every other digital property will have to learn to speak to their customers in their language or risk obsolescence.

Even if they manage to provide their services in Indian languages, these companies both big and small might run into a more substantial barrier. In my experience, Bharat’s literacy does not necessarily equate to fluency. We’d rather talk and listen, than read and write. Therefore, in order to truly leapfrog the many barriers to creating content on a mobile phone, the answer may lie in voice.

A widely shared WSJ article titled The End of Typing chronicled the many travails of a new mobile phone user in Bharat. One of the excerpts that stood out for me was an interview with Megh Singh—a porter in a Delhi railway station who said he enjoyed using the internet on WhatsApp and UC Browser, but didn’t know what email was. He then proceeded to squat under the station stairwell, whispering into his phone using speech recognition on the station’s free Wi-Fi. Bharat has literally hundreds of users like Singh, and if the Indian internet is to flourish, developers will have to build interfaces that empower such users. Besides Google’s significant efforts in this space, local companies like are working on this problem, and it is my fervent hope that the Bharat user will one day be able to simply talk to her phone.

Every entrepreneur who’s ever set up a storefront in the offline world will attest to the fact that business is usually done in the customer’s mother tongue. Speaking in the customer’s language engenders trust, and a sense of comfort. And that’s good for business. It’s about time the Indian internet woke up to this fact.

Sahil Kini is a principal with Aspada Investment Advisors. The Bharat Rough Book is a column on building businesses for the middle of India’s income pyramid. His Twitter handle is @sahilkini

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