The Internet’s English, Vinglish problem

The Internet’s English, Vinglish problem

By Sorab Ghaswalla

Mumbai, October 12, 2012

It’s funny sometimes how you cannot see things that are right under your nose. The same happened to me. It was the most obvious topic for a debate but I had no clue about it all this time despite it staring in my face. Till one day I woke up to it. Gently prodded by none other than Gmail. How? Well, that’s what today’s story is all about.

Have you realised that English has become the default language of the Internet? Besides of course the tech languages like HTML, PHP and stuff like that. At best, the fight often is between Queen’s English and English as she is spoke in one of England’s erstwhile colonies - the United States of America. Nevertheless, English it is when you conduct your business on the Web.
The big question then - what do those who have no or little clue about English do when they want to surf the Internet? Throw up their hands in frustration or simply bring a translator along? Who knows? Since I belong to the Englishwallahs, never had a problem there, mate. Till Gmail made me wake up to the problem of others. 
Earlier this week, this email service by Google announced two features; both of which are bound to make users delirious, but one of them has huge ramifications.And makes eminent business sense, too.
You no longer need to know English to send out an email. Gmail’s made that possible. It’s gone and added over 100 virtual keyboards, transliteration and IMEs—collectively called input tools—in Gmail.
Don’t get bothered by the technical mumbo jumbo. These are basically tools that will enable you to type in the language and keyboard layout of your choice. You can even switch between languages with one click. (
How’s that? Suddenly, the non-native, non-English speaking fella out there has a vista opening up for him. So, if you know only Hindi, Tamil, German or Swahili for that matter, no problems. Log in and fire away.
The other new feature in Gmail is that you can now send free SMS from your account, irrespective of your location. Gmail has tied up with cellular operators around the world. Check if yours is on this list and type away. Hey Mom, look, free SMS!
Obviously, Gmail hopes these two features will multiply its users manifold. I believe it will. Both make horse sense, like I said before. Free SMS will bring in the young crowd, email in non-English language will pull in the elder ones. Wow, boom!
In my books though, the benefits of non-English email far outweighs the second add-on. Non-English email may not be brand new but Google has made this feature available to the masses. There do exist email packages that allow you to send out non-English emails, like Thunderbird by but these come with their own complications. By introducing a virtual keyboard, Gmail has taken care of a major problem associated with the sending of emails in languages other than English. One click and you are done. That’s what will do the trick for Gmail, where others failed.
Which brings me to the broader question – how do non-English speakers tackle the Internet? Again, for those of you who didn’t know this, Google has a translate button. Websites can embed that to help readers translate the site content into a language of their choice. Where Web pages or documents are concerned, Google Translate puts out a helpful pop that asks you - Do you want to translate this document?
Evidently not. A report by ScienceDaily ( released late September, quoting a study by Europe's leading language technology experts, says most European languages face “digital extinction” because of a lack of technological support.
I shall not go into the details here but the study showed that while English had the best language technology support amongst all European languages, .....Dutch, French, German, Italian and Spanish were considered to have "moderate support." Languages such as Basque, Bulgarian, Catalan, Greek, Hungarian and Polish exhibit "fragmentary support," which also places them in the set of high-risk languages.
I would say such a study should be conducted not only for Europe but throughout the world. What kind of technology support do “foreign languages” (dare I use the word?) enjoy in the digital world? How much are the ISPs, portals and other major players doing to remove this digital divide? I say it’s so unfair. Admitted that a major portion of the world does speak a smattering of English, but in my books, not providing enough support for non-English speaking people of the world is still chauvinistic. Or do I smell a conspiracy here by the English speaking crowd?

Previous columns by Sorab Ghaswalla