Helping Malayalam Take the Digital Leap

Swathanthra Malayalam computing is a free software group which has spearheaded the movement to bridge the language divide in Kerala The volunteer-based group has created several Malyalam fonts, a keyboard for the blind, supported many government digital projects

Published: 22nd February 2016 07:49 AM  |   Last Updated: 22nd February 2016 07:49 AM   |  A+A-

Even as the world celebrated International Mother Language Day on Sunday, the digital experience for non English speakers is highly diminished. Vernacular languages face several challenges on the digital front -- from not being supported by operating systems and mobile apps to a miniscule presence on the Internet, which is dominated by English.

Swathanthra Malayalam computing (SMC) is a free software group which has spearheaded the movement to bridge the language divide in Kerala in the technology front and is today the biggest language computing community in the country. The volunteer-based group has created several Malyalam fonts, a keyboard for the blind, supported many government digital projects and a keyboard that can support Indian languages for android phones.

“The primary objective of SMC was to enable people to read and write digital content clearly in Malayalam,” said Hrishikesh K B, secretary of the group. Towards that aim, SMC’s first challenge was to develop open source Malayalam fonts. “Developing fonts for an Indian language is slightly more tedious than English, as languages like Malayalam have many more characters and some are conjunct consonants or combination characters. So we had to develop a rendering engine which would display the right script,” said Hrishikesh. Till date the group has created ten Malayalam fonts.

The open source collective, which was initially called Malayalam Linux,  was started by Baiju Muthukadan in 2001, when he was a student at NIT, Calicut. “I realised that Linux supported a few foreign languages like Portuguese, so I wanted to explore if the same could be done for Malayalam,” said Baiju. Soon other Malayalam language enthusiasts joined him and a mailing  list was created where they discussed how the digital word could spread in Malayalam. The group was rechristened SMC in view of its broadened objectives.

Apart from localisation of several softwares, which means translation of its English terms to Malayalam, SMC helped the government come up with a standard set of Malayalam words to be used in softwares and mobile apps by co-ordinating the Malayalam section of the Frequently Used Entries for Localisation (FUEL) Project. “Without a standard, developers can use any Malayalam synonym of an English term during localisation, which can cause great confusion,” said Hrishikesh.

A six-key Braille keyword, IBus Sharada Braille, was also developed by SMC member Nalin Sathyan as part of a Google Summer of School project. The project was a very personal one for Nalin, whose father is visually challenged and himself a technology enthusiast. “The keyboard can be used to type in seven Indian languages, English and French,” said Anivar Aravind, SMC’s board member, who mentored the project.

Making much progress in Malayalam, the group later spread its reach to other vernacular languages and is now a pan-Indian community. “The solutions we created for Malayalam could be used for other Indian languages too, so we started looking at Indian languages as a family in our Indic project,” says Anivar, who also the Executive director of the project. The project is supported by International Centre for Free and Open Source Software (ICFOSS), an autonomous institution under the Kerala government. Indic Keyboard, which currently supports 23 languages and works on android phones, was launched by SMC in March 2014, and in comparison the Google Indic Keyboard only supports 11 Indian languages.

Currently developing an open source alternative to Google Translator for Indian languages is one of the projects the group is working on.

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