Global Editions

The internet has a language problem

Imagine standing on a platform and you can see the train arrive, but only 1 out of 10 people get to ride. For the majority of Pakistanis this is what the internet feels like.
by Danish Amjad

The internet–one of the biggest technological revolutions, and a force for good–speaks nearly exclusively in English, the language of the Pakistani elites. This has left millions of hardworking men and women, who are the backbone of our country, unable to ride the rails into the knowledge economy.

In 2017, Google included Pakistan among four developing countries that would produce the next billion smartphone users. Three years later, Pakistan is living up to its potential. Fueled by  increased country wide access to 3G/4G connectivity and cheaper original equipment manufacturer (OEM) handsets from China, Pakistan is roaring past 70+ million smartphone users. A couple of years more, another 30 million smartphone users will be added crossing the 100+ million mark.

So clearly, we’ve laid the railroads, with the smartphones as the metaphoric platforms. Then what’s stopping the people from riding?

The language barrier

In the Economist Intelligence Unit’s ‘Inclusive Internet Index’ report published this year, Pakistan was ranked 76th out of a 100 countries, effectively positioning it as the least inclusive country in South Asia. The language barrier, both in terms of local script for digital content and mass audience local relevance, has continued to be one of the contributing factors.

Up till now, many local language content producers have not fully embraced digitizing the national language. Those that have, are yet to adapt the best practices of digital design. For instance, many leading local language newspapers don’t even have the search feature on their website (unimaginable for an English news website). Urdu magazines and books are stuck in the era of print publication, and government websites, already very confusing and cluttered, are in English first. Most Pakistani tech ventures are launched in English language first. In short, the digitization of local script and content has been highly underwhelming.

The fifth largest by population, Pakistan has had a confusing relationship with minding its languages. Under article 251 in the constitution, Urdu, a language spoken by eight percent of the population at the time of partition, was declared the official language of the country at the time. English sustained as an official language and the language exemplifying the class divide.

In 2020, at best, ten percent of Pakistan is educated with English as the primary medium of instruction. Most students graduate from government schools and madrassas which use their respective regional languages as the primary medium of instruction such as Urdu, Sindhi and Pashto etc. Moreover, growing up, learning the Quran in Arabic script and pronouncing the words is a rite of passage for a majority of the population.

It is clear that when it comes to reading and learning, local script has an advantage.

A more diverse internet

One may concede that the internet has historically been in English because of its legacy: it  was created by an Englishman, Tim Berners-Lee, and many of its early users were in North America. But recent trends by the Internet World Statistics show users speaking Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and Arabic far outpacing those speaking English.

But have the Pakistani local languages, and Urdu in particular, been adopted by the internet? I believe the answer is no. The Pakistani user is predominately forced to view the internet through the language of its colonial past. A quick test of this is the Urdu language Wikipedia entries of ~158,000 articles only, compared to 6 million+ for English—positioning Urdu at #53. Countries with smaller populations than Karachi and Lahore (Sweden, Denmark, and Poland) and with far more English literacy outnumber Urdu when it comes to local language articles on Wikipedia.

Unlike other Asian countries, the internet in Pakistan is far behind in adapting to the demand for local language.

Increased learning outcomesIt is common for Pakistanis to speak in Urdu or other regional languages at their homes. It may be concluded that ‘the country thinks in local languages’. The debate on the efficacy of local language is hotly contested in the realm of the national education system and curriculum. Many educators and policy makers have long acknowledged the power of the mother tongue when it comes to creating positive learning outcomes and preserving cultural traditions. They hold the view that English should be taught as a skill and not as a medium of instruction.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has argued since 1953 that “every effort should be made to provide education in the mother tongue”. In India, the government’s National Education Policy (NEP), approved in July 2020, recommends the medium of instruction (MOI) to be the local language, wherever possible. In Pakistan, Punjab’s Education Minister, Murad Raas states that “The research conducted in Pakistan as well as internationally indicates that using the language of common use (In this case, Urdu), as the MOI boosts learning”. In her study, Wilson Center Global Fellow Nadia Naviwala suggests that Pakistan has a learning crisis “because of the use of foreign languages in education”. According to a British Council survey, 94 percent of English-medium private school teachers in Punjab do not speak English. And the findings of the recent Mixed Indicators Cluster Survey and Annual Status of Education Report suggest that less than 50 percent of Punjab’s girls and boys can read basic English words and sentences. This despite using English as the medium of instruction in the past decade.

Research suggests that language of common use as the MOI can help counter the issue of rote learning. Further, it can lead to noticeably better academic results, reduced drop-out rates, improved levels of literacy and fluency in both the mother tongue and the official or majority language.

A billion dollar opportunity

Pakistani technology innovators aiming to build the next billion-dollar unicorn must appreciate the power of scale and growth when it comes to high valuation. For them, local language could be a unique selling proposition (USP), allowing them to carve a niche and reach a critical mass when competing against the global tech giants with English-first products. For instance, it may be some time that a global giant like Facebook can truly fulfill the content and local needs of the Saraiki belt in Pakistan.

Most of the global tech companies operating in Pakistan take a template approach to scale their products globally. And naturally, the first most lucrative niche is the global English consumer. The trickle down to the long tail local language consumer can be rather slow.

Winning by localizing first and fast has been the mantra of success in Pakistan. When you adapt to the needs of the local market, instead of forcing them to a benchmark, you win. Look at         mobile wallet accounts and how they outpaced conventional banking accounts by taking the bank to the customer instead of the customer to the bank. Look at how Careem beat Uber at its own game by having a product that made localization its USP.

Demand already brimming

The case for local languages on the internet is very strong. We regularly see Urdu websites in the Top 15 by viewership in Pakistan. Local language content (albeit from India) predominantly comprises the top trending list on Facebook. The public messages by politicians on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook are bi-lingual or nearly exclusively in Urdu. Urdu memes are the norm now, and Twitter trends are increasingly in local language hashtags. The comment sections are flooded with users having conversation and debates in local languages, mainly Urdu. While most opt for Urdu in the Roman alphabet, the Urdu mobile phone keypads are on the rise. One such keypad has more than 10 million downloads and is bringing the Urdu script to the digital age.

Many Asian companies have understood the power of local language in relation to creating positive impact, and have set a strong precedence for Pakistani innovators to follow. ‘Going vernacular’ is the de jure phrase for tech companies putting local language front and center in their product development road map. Indian unicorns such as Byju’s, Policybazaar, InMobi, Zomato, and Oyo now support anywhere between two and twelve regional languages. Similarly, tech and media companies in Indonesia, China, Japan and Taiwan have built  mass audiences by taking a local language first approach.

As a majority of Pakistan’s population is rural, increasingly more users will be coming online from places other than the major cities. All this indicates to a huge and growing audience for national and regional languages on the internet in the country.

The local language wave is already a reality in Asian countries like India, China, and Indonesia. Technology companies and digital content producers are increasingly realizing the power of scale when the new, and in some cases, first time adopters of the internet are included.

In a Facebook commissioned study on India, the findings showed that as the internet and smartphone access grew, the new Indian language internet users surpassed the English internet users. The report observed that  language internet users are expected to account for nearly 75% of India’s internet user base by 2021.

Looking at the future trends of Pakistan’s language on the internet, we will see:

1: Urdu enablement in global platforms: We already see this happening as Facebook and Twitter add translate features. Other platforms will soon follow.

2: Digital advertisements in local languages: Digital ads in Pakistan will move in the direction of TV ads and wall chalking i.e. nearly exclusively in local languages.

3: Local language first interfaces: Most local developers and tech products usually start with an English-first layout which is translated to Urdu as an afterthought. Local language design, fonts and layouts will start to take precedence.

4: Rise of the aggregators: Internet platforms will become content aggregators and witness increased timeshare for Pakistani language internet users.

5: Hyper-localization: The new local language user will care more about what’s happening around them and their locality and country. Global catch-all platforms will find it hard to fully localize and create openings for local Pakistani innovators to solve the hyper-localization problem.

6: User Generated Content explosion: Once the tools are in place for users to express themselves fully in local language and on local platforms, we will see an explosion in user created content, such as internet forums in Urdu and local language memes.

Local language is key to an inclusive internet

One of the biggest challenges for digital inclusion in Pakistan in the coming years is the lack of availability of content that is locally relevant or in the local language. The GSMA,  an industry organisation that represents the interests of mobile network operators worldwide, validates this as one of the barriers to mobile internet usage after handset cost and overall literacy.

Therefore the internet in Pakistan needs to learn Urdu, Sindhi and Pashto. It needs to start speaking the language that the majority of Pakistanis speak. Only then, the country can progress toward a full-fledged vision of digital inclusion and digital literacy.

It is not only the innovation, but the reach of innovation that will fully take forward the benefit of the fourth industrial revolution to the grass root level. The benefits of full, timely and equal access to information on subjects such as health, education, current affairs, local events, storytelling, entertainment and news are all predicated on its availability in local languages. By removing the language barrier, we can democratize the internet and make it inclusive.


Danish Amjad is the Co-founder & CEO of ‘Pencil.pk’, Pakistan’s first local language news and content aggregation platform.

 

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