How many languages did you speak today? Chances are there was a lot of English at work and at home, but at least a sprinkling of Hindi (or Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, Tamil or Kannada) when you were chatting, gossiping or joking with friends and family.
You toggle so effortlessly that you probably don’t notice it, except when the option is no longer available — when arguing with a non-English-speaking cabbie while on vacation, for instance, or trying to write a heartfelt message to a faraway friend on Facebook.
And that’s the key reason for the host of regional Indian-language social media platforms that have been popping up over the past four years—Shabdanagari and Mooshak in Hindi, in 2015; ejibON for Bengali, in 2014; Prasangik for Assamese, in 2013; Muganool in Tamil, in 2012; with an early start made by Vismayanagari (Kannada; 2008).
“I set up Muganool.com out of love for the language and culture, and of course because it is so much easier to express oneself in one’s mother tongue,” says Sathish Kumar, 31, a software solutions company owner. “On Muganool, the feed is much better, you get relevant news and people’s views making them a delight to read. On Facebook, there’s just too much of timepass.”
Most of these platforms are modelled on Facebook. You can post updates, links and videos on a newsfeed, share and repost links, form groups and live chat.
Some are even named after their inspiration — Muganool, for instance, comes from the Tamil Mugam for Face and Nool for Book.
Many go a step further. Shabdanagari has discussion forums, Prasanagik has a crowd-sourced encyclopedia section and ejibON has a crowd-funding tab.
For users, the differentiator has been this sense of community.
“It’s too much of a crowd on Facebook,” says Umashankara BS , 39, a Bengaluru-based marketing professional and Vismayanagari user. “Here, I feel like I know who I’m talking to, and they know me. We share opinions about politics and literature, and once a month 15 of us meet at a Bengaluru café. That’s not something I would dream of doing via Facebook.”
Property consultant Siddharth Bora, 35, who left Assam for Delhi a decade ago, describes Prasangik as his home away from home.
“It takes me back more than an STD call can,” he says. “Prasangik feels intimate, almost private. While on Facebook it is considered rude to post content in the vernacular or go on about elements of your culture, here that is exactly what a lot of us do. From other homesick migrants to my mother in Assam, a 67-year-old retired lecturer.”
It seems strange to hear the word ‘intimacy’ when talking about interaction on social media, but it’s a concept that keeps coming up among users of the regional-language sites.
“Users take pains to give feedback and comment on post, unlike Facebook, where most content is lost in the crowd and clamour,” says Pankaj Trivedi, 53, a college staffer from Gujarat and a Shabdanagari user. “Also, since it is a language the users are confident in, conversations tend to sound more courteous. People are polite to one another. I know that there is a certain kind of audience that enjoys reading my posts and that makes me more comfortable posting on Shabdanagari.”
On ejibON (meaning ‘e-life’), a community has been formed across borders, with 10,000 users in India and Bangladesh bonding over their love of the language — and the idea of an undivided Bengal.
“Language can be such a great unifier,” says Bangladesh-based Maruf Sunny, 28, web developer and founder of ejibON. “The aim of this website is to build a sense of community across borders and religions to celebrate the Bengali community online.”
Thinking vs Feeling
These days, we think in one language and feel in another, says, Sunil Abraham, executive director of The Centre for Internet and Society. “Whether it is music, literature or even relationships — it feels truer and more ‘authentic’ in our mother tongue. So, despite a lot of English content and services online, we still yearn for our own languages in the online world. This is precisely why Wikipedia in regional languages has become so popular.”
For greater representation of Indian languages online, Gaur’s website actively encourages people to embrace and personalise their Hindi as they do their English.
“I want users to coin and combine words, use hashtags,” he says. “Eventually, I want more Indians to voice their opinions online so that the English-speaking elite are not counted as the voice of the nation. Today, whatever trends on Twitter is taken as the opinion of the majority. That’s just inaccurate.”
With thrice as many people offline in India as online, and most of them non-English-speakers, the potential of such websites is immense, Abraham points out. The stumbling block, of course, will be the resources — internet access and electricity.
Meanwhile, the money is already flowing in. Last month, Shabdanagari.com raised $200,000 (about Rs 1.35 crore) from Indian investors.
The way forward lies in governmental support, says Abraham.
“Indic language technologies are not sufficiently developed because of insufficient investment by the government,” he adds. “Existing work needs to be promoted and technology infrastructure developed to protect and promote India’s linguistic heritage.”