Learning the language on your mobile...

October 25, 2011

Imagine you’re a young Maharaja arriving in a new land. You need to master one crucial thing to take control of your Kingdom – learn the language.

“It’s phataphati,” said Rahul Mittra whose planned Vijeta app was one of the recent finalists of Nokia’s Bhasha competition in Bangalore which invited students from four design schools to develop new ways for Indians to communicate on their phones in local languages.

Rahul studied design at the University of Leeds before returning to India to enroll in a master’s degree at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur. English is the language he feels most comfortable writing in, but there are words like ‘phataphati’ that only work in Bengali.

“If my Mum called and said, how was your exam? I’d say – it was phataphati,” Rahul explained. “It means it was awesome; I killed it. But it’s hard to translate exactly, and that’s why we need apps like Vijeta.”

Vijeta is a location-based social network game. The player – the ‘Maharaja’ – arrives in a new territory and visits different locations and people to learn new words and find his way around. When he’s learned enough of the new language he can think about invading new lands, owned by other players, by learning more vocabulary. “The biggest thing was thinking about what would motivate people,” Rahul said. “Nobody wants to learn a language like they are in primary school, you’ve got to design something people want to join and come back to.”

Rahul, and his team mates, are what designer, and Bhasha judge, Professor Mahendra Patel calls ‘Pseudo Indians’ – part of a modern educated work force who have been brought up using English at school, but who who still need to use local languages for cultural reasons, or because of where they work. “In the North we need to be trilingual with English, with Hindi and a regional language. In the South you can be bilingual with English and a local language,” Professor Patel said.

Mobiles have been a voice-only phenomena for the vast majority of the 400 million Indians chattering away on their phones in hundreds of languages. India has 22 official languages, and thousands of local languages and dialects, but young Indians schooled in English are finding it harder to write in their mother tongue, while literacy in rural India remains very low in any language. Projects like Bhasha, sponsored by the Nokia Research Center Growth Economies Lab aim to make Indians more literate in their local languages – and open up the possibilities for them to use text and icons to interact more.

Younghee Jung, who leads the Nokia Research Center in Bangalore, devised the Bhasha competition after working on ways to develop Indian text input. Younghee found a growing “heart-aching” disconnect between people who can talk, but no longer write, in their language their families have used for generations. She said: “I am comfortable with English everyday but given a chance I will always choose to read a book or a newspaper in Korean, which is my mother tongue.”

On most Indian mobiles, the default language is set to English, and developers have found it hard to design a standardized Indian script because the alphabets are complicated and varied. But this is not an insurmountable problem, according to Professor Patel: “Indian scripts require more sophisticated programmes, but this is not a big thing. It’s not as hard as Japanese. Language is a very emotional thing in India and I don’t see any movement towards one script or one language. But we have now agreed a standard keying in system and in the next few years we’ll see progress towards regional language and scripts that makes mobiles meaningful to more people.”

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And Indians do like it – TV channels that began with mainly English programmes switched from the ‘Bold n Beautiful’ to ‘saas n bahu’ and saw their audiences rise exponentially. None of the major English newspapers are in the top ten dailies.

“Personally, I never use Hindi or Bengali on my mobile,” Rahul Mittra said, “but if English is about business, Bengali is about emotion. What I wanted to do with the Bhasha competition was to give Indians the ability to do what they really want – express themselves.”

This article was written for Republic Publishing for Conversations by Nokia

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