“Ban everyone from speaking hindi in the office”, was the sweeping advice I was given by a fellow Brit upon moving to Delhi. We were both leading large Gurgoan based teams for London headquartered companies and were discussing how hard it was to order a sugar free tea…
As a developer you might learn a few programming languages before specialising in one at work. As a British programmer you might find yourself swapping the union jack for a white flag while you diligently take the u out of colour in your css, but spare a thought for our co-workers in South Asia or Ukraine or Indonesia or anywhere you have outsourced you latest coding project. Who’s English are we using to code in anyway ?
The “ugly american programmer” would say its his English. His name is Jeff Atwood and he created Stack Exchange. Atwood says its simple pragmatism for us to use English as the de-facto standard language. Is he right ? Or will it actually be Engrish or Chinglish ? I however, conscious that India will soon have more developers than USA am willing to place a bet on Hinglish.
Even if you don’t agree taking a deeper look at Hinglish is not a crazy idea. Back in May 1999 MIT Professor Kenneth Keniston gave us two solid questions about technology which he thought Hinglish would answer.
How can the new electronic technologies be used to close, rather than widen, the gap between the powerful and the powerless, the privileged and the underprivileged? How can the new technologies be used to deepen, intensify and enrich the cultural diversity of the world rather than flatten or eliminate it? These questions come together with particular intensity in South Asia because of the fusion of power and language on that subcontinent. But by the same token, solutions that develop in South Asia will be relevant to the rest of the world.
Fifteen years later and I am wondering if any solutions have appeared ? To find out the answer I headed over to the Jaipur Literary Festival on Southbank for an early Sunday morning talk entitled “Awaaz Do: Voices from Urdu, Hindustani and Hindi” where I posed my questions to Francesca Orsini who invited me to her SOAS Hinglish Workshop.
The first thing I considered is how Hinglish speakers have adapted in an age of romanised keyboards. At the Jaipur Literary Festival Achala Sharma, former Head of the BBC Hindi Service, highlighted the plight of getting the nuanced sounds correct and argued that complicated sounds can not be captured on her phone using texts. If you normally speak with a British accent try sticking your tongue on the roof of your mouth and say a few words. You can probably do a passable Apu style accent. Choose any sound and try uttering it while breathing out, repeat the exercise but breath in. Feeling a bit silly, ok, try conveying your new sounds using your keyboard. This no doubt is what almost 842 million Indian phone users have been doing daily. Sharma assertion that an English keyboard can’t capture Hindi sounds was challenged by an audience member. They concluded that we won’t convince the next generation to stop using romanised scripts and go back to Devnagari but we should invent some rules to help convey the language digitally using romanised keyboards.
While I digested this over at the SOAS Hinglish Workshop I met Swiftkey’s Product Manager Aarti Samani also trying to find answers. She was rightly excited about her product launch the next day. Not only does Swiftkey now support 22 Indian Languages, Aarti told me over our picnic lunch that her team were addressing those difficult sounds made up by splitting letters in half and placing those at the top of the board. Aarti went on to tell huffington post in the same week
The update incorporates algorithms to identify characters that aren’t used — to reduce the number of characters in the keyboard. “What would take 3-5 keystrokes can be done using one.”
Testing the iPhone Swiftkey’s Hinglish pack was an eye opener. With predictive words I could confidently write my very first Hinglish tweet something I would never do because as Sharma had asserted I need rules.
Now I have them. Not only that Aarti’s software also learns vocabulary and shares it across its cloud infrastructure. This not only means new vocabulary is captured but also languages at the risk of extinction can now be documented.
So if you can use a keyboard what about voice recognition? My testing research suggests that Siri still doesn’t understand Hinglish and Google doesn’t understand my accent but seems to understand other people’s Hindi really well. Especially for often search terms like film titles and actors names.
So we can write but perhaps not speak to our devices. Ravikant said in his SOAS talk that languages that didn’t make it into print may go from oral to digital with gesture technology. The Economist this month is talking about robots that employ basic gestures to communicate with their users, such as pointing at places. So I tried some gesture technology. We all know Indian’s like shaking their head, so I taught iPhone to open application when I shook mine. It worked a treat.
Until that is, iPhone couldn’t identify my face and thus I no longer could control the phone. After much swearing at Siri in English, I figured out that I could ask to Turn on Assistive Touch in English and take back control. So I am not sure I shall be head shaking to control my phone going forward.
In the coffee break Ravikant and I discussed how we have had to invent fonts for various projects. The Hinglish Project from the Indian tourist board is worth checking out. It provides a Hinglish Hindi Font and Hinglish English font which you can overlay in graphics program.
Ravikant talk at the SOAS Hinglish Workshop took us through the Linux Hindi KDE and the heated discussion around localisation. Ravikant showed us a scene from the film Teen Batti Char Raasta, where our heroine declares that we took the railway from the British we may as well take the phrase Railway Station. In more recent media you see people send eCards in adverts and talking about the internet but I am starting to believe that translations are needed to convey basic technology concepts.
Ravikant informs us that in evolving language for technology in Hindi, 'webmaster' was translated as 'Jalraj'.
— Rachel Dwyer (@RachelMJDwyer) May 27, 2015
Last month a 10 year old at a Delhi NCR school was scared that his school tablet would get destroyed in the monsoons. It was the first machine his family has owned so they asked me for advice. I explained he needed a sturdy waterproof cover and an insurance plan. No I couldn’t translate either. Google gave us Jalarodhak and using this word we were able to explain and find what we needed to keep his machine safe.
This approach of needing technology translations is also something I have observed in the office. Concepts such as transparencies in jQuery are essential but hard to convey. Until that is you understand word opaque is the root to explaining the concept. Talking about opaque gradients is much easier than talking about transparencies.
It was straight after this conversation I was introduced to online Urdu tutorials teaching coding which requires further study in its own right and still very much comprehendible to the Hinglish speaker.
Back at the SOAS Hinglish Workshop. Francesca Orsini was explaining that although politicians may naturally use Hinglish in interviews, in most formal communications such as speeches, a flawlessly single language is employed. This is important to know for us Internet technologist as regulations are starting to change our working landscape. Last year the Indian government asked for a ban on online services some essential for us programmers such as GIT. Like diplomats posted to Delhi urged to learn Hinglish for their work perhaps we too will need Hinglish to win internet equality.
Another massive influence on south asian computing industry is the rise of the MBA graduate. Santosh Desai in his talk also made the point that MBA graduates had already had huge influence on the advertising industry and their delivery of Hinglish. There are some parallels for the technologist that are worth exploring.
The last point that I absorbed was how Hinglish wasn’t just a straight code mixing or code switching between the two languages of its name. At SOAS we were introduced to Bhojpuri media and Tamil Trolls. Rachel Dwyer and Helen Ashton gave a fun talk on Chennei Express a comedy that relies on Tamil. They took us through a wide range of language switching in the film. Helen also made the point that both British English and American English interchangeably and to make the songs rhyme.
We could go on and I probably will in my next talk. The wide variety of Hinglish and its influence on the technology industry is in my opinion set to break into the mainstream and give our ugly programmers some beautification. We seem to be at the early stages of answering Professor Kenneth Keniston questions but with devices that understand at least the vocabulary of Hinglish we can start to “deepen, intensify and enrich the cultural diversity” especially within the technology community. Its the thing I observed with my various Delhi based development teams over the last ten years. The teams bantered in Hinglish and used English to discuss work. The Guardian seems to agree;
English will always be the language of opportunity, but Hinglish is the language of friendship. MTV India knows that. That’s why it asks its audiences to be cool, I mean bindaas!
What kind of programmer masti ko ban karte hai? I would rather communicate in the language I know fluently about the language I love. I didn’t ban anyone from speaking Hinglish instead with some Jugaad and some technology I now program in Hinglish.