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Monday, 24 December, 2001, 08:16 GMT
India's language barrier to computing
Sadhu using a computer
Most Indians cannot use computers until they learn English
In India, computers that work in English alone are leaving hundreds of millions of potential users out in the cold. But as Frederick Noronha reports from Goa, the country is working on developing programmes in native languages.

The 496 million Hindi speakers, and the hundreds of millions on the subcontinent who speak Bengali, Urdu and other Indian languages, would like to make computers their own.

But their problems start at the keyboard, since there is a big difference between Indian-languages and English when it comes to reading and writing on computers.

Keyboards designed for the English language alphabet must be adapted, with special software, so that their keys can produce Indian texts. This software constructs Indian language characters out of smaller pieces known as glyphs.

For example, the South Indian Kannada language pieces together 142 glyphs in thousands of combinations to produce words based on Kannada's 49 characters.


In defining global standards for computing, the special needs of less influential nations seem to get sidetracked.

To complicate matters, early researchers working on this issue in India constructed their own sets of glyphs or character pieces.

Large number of potential computer users in India
Large number of potential computer users in India
This often meant that text composed on one computer could not be read on another loaded with rival software.

This was a great handicap since it is the ability of computers to talk to one another that makes them such powerful tools.

As computing spreads across India, these language-based digital divisions persist even today. Recently, the South Indian states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu pushed ahead with standards of their own.

And small firms like Mithi in the central Indian city of Pune have worked out their own solution to send and receive e-mail in 11 Indian languages besides English.

Free alternatives

Most of the current Indian language programs have been developed for use with Microsoft's Windows operating system.

But many computer users in the region are pushing for free software alternatives that everyone can afford.

At the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology and the National Centre of Software Technology, Tamil and Hindi language systems have been developed for Chennai and Bombay.

Both rely on the Linux operating system which is freely available on the internet.

Now that these breakthroughs have been achieved there's real hope among the 90% of Indians who do not read and write in English that the digital language divide will soon be bridged.

See also:

28 Jun 01 | South Asia
India mobile giants merge
23 Jan 01 | Business
Bridging the digital divide
19 Mar 01 | dot life
Bridging the digital divide
24 Sep 01 | Sci/Tech
India's simple computer for the poor
16 Jul 01 | Sci/Tech
Wired up for wealth
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