Can we stop being English – what are we really when we do business as Indians?
The Make-in-India campaign, which is nothing but “providing jobs for Indians”, will not gather steam if local languages are not used in manufacturing, commerce, and banking to empower young Indians to go out and become entrepreneurs themselves. Beyond the 56 cities in the country, 65 per cent of India is still rural. But we need to prepare for mass migration to cities over the next two decades. When that happens, the English language will not serve the needs of these new urban citizens and consumers. If the State and Central Governments, along with industry bodies, want to provide access to services and employment, then digital information in the local language is the only way to achieve socio-economic growth in the nation.
There is an assumption that English is the panacea to Indian commerce, but it is not for people who migrate from agriculture to services. Their inability to comprehend English will lead to lack of pride in their culture, thereby creating an impression that their natural language is a detriment to their economic advancement. For the short term though, one can try to introduce apps that teach English to this section of the population; however, it will not solve the larger problem for 400 million Indians who are between the ages of 18 and 30.
By undermining Indian languages, India’s political and social agenda will continue to be driven by only 40 million Indians who completely comprehend and converse in English. Data provided by the Indian Census says that a total of 100 million people can understand English. But there are 850 million more Indians waiting for consumer and industrial technologies to be built in their language. According to the Census of India, there are 75 million speak Tamil, 74 million speak Telugu, 38 million speak Kannada and more than 400 million speak Hindi as their first language. While politics leverages the language issue to stir up riots for votes, there is sparse attempt to convert digital information to benefit native language speakers.
So, perhaps, we need to look beyond Uber, Ola, spas, boutiques and e-commerce last-mile delivery services, which use English a primary mode of imparting services, as long-terms job creating industries..
“While English is important for economic growth, the opportunity to build content in local languages is a far greater business opportunity for industries. In the long run, it will become an additional source for inclusive economic growth,” says Mohandas Pai, founder of Aarin Capital and ex-CFO of Infosys.
This is why everyone from Google to Facebook is creating information services in local languages. Word on the street is that even Indian e-commerce companies are thinking of piloting content in local languages. But the question is, how do we go about it and how soon?
Our factories need local language
In China, all machine manuals are in Chinese. In Japan, they are in Japanese. If these countries can use local languages for tabs used by factory workers, why then don’t we? Let us look at this reporter’s experience in reporting manufacturing and why local language makes sense.
In Hyundai India’s factory in Chennai, 3,000 machine hands are busy on the factory floor. About 95 per cent are employed locally and while they communicate in broken English, they feel comfortable around those people who understand their language only. But guess what, these employees create “WhatsApp” groups, on their smart phones, to communicate in their local language, which is mostly in Tamil, within the factory premises. These hardened hands discuss poetry, movies and life. Sometimes, they even speak about machines. This is a significant development because they are communicating in a local language about operating a machine. Now, imagine if machine manuals are available in Tamil, on employees’ smartphones, as a Hyundai app with rich text and videos. Instead of spending hours training them on the job, this could be a supplement to better their skills and also reduce lockouts.
Travel to Bangalore and you have Toyota and Bosch spending a lot on training their workers to use machines. The power of smartphones and native language content on apps can plays a vital role in additional training. Today, there is little information available outside the factory in terms of manuals. A HR source in a global factory said “Workers will collectively bargain for chicken biryani to be served on a daily basis. The last thing on their mind is to have local language operating manuals.” As unfortunate as this quote sounds, maybe we are doing a bad job of getting things done. The discontent between local language speaking workers and their English-speaking bosses stems from deep-rooted poverty, social experiences, and lack of access to education and information.
Knowing local languages should not become a barrier to business or a job. But that is the way it is. No one admits to this in principle. But it is a social disease that plagues India to this day.
“Converting machines manuals to Indian languages is not a challenge at all. Making it available in as many languages through smartphones only increases economic growth,” says Gururaj Deshpande, founder of the Deshpande Foundation, who support social entrepreneurs turn their ideas in to businesses.
According to FICCI and the Labour Bureau of India, every year, the manufacturing industry (including ancillaries) suffers production-time losses of over $50 million in revenues, because of days lost to strikes and lockouts. Most of them are disputes over salary settlements.
Our consumer Internet companies
E-commerce companies boast of big sale numbers. But, if they do not integrate local language technologies, they will not be able to add new consumers. Of the 200,000 sellers registered on each platform, only 15 per cent are active because English remains a barrier. They have a difficult time understanding the simplest details in English. Therefore, e-commerce companies employ individuals or agencies to onboard these sellers, which remains a cost of servicing.
“English has centralised all information on the Internet, it has therefore become a language of choice. But it also ignores the presence of a large dataset of local language or native speakers,” says K Vaitheeswaran, a startup mentor. He adds that consumer Internet companies will eventually need to look at specific regions and test if their platforms will be accepted in the local language. That’s one way of adding more customers.
The consumer side of the business is also going to be tricky if English is the language of choice. Everyone from Flipkart to Amazon India says that their revenues have surpassed the $1 billion mark. But as these companies continue to saturate their customer base, in the top 30 cities, they need to test local language technologies to add more customers in potential towns and cities. However, this would mean spending additional money because they have to rebuild the entire computer architecture for local languages and work with linguists to get the translation right.
In a market where the money is drying up, which until now made television companies rich with e-commerce companies’ advertising spends, it would be unfortunate if these companies do not attempt to offer local language services on their app or website.
“They have to pilot one language before they can figure out if it is working for them, and it is not an expensive journey. They can only increase their sales if content is in local language and payment modules are also in native languages,” says Arvind Pani, co-founder of Reverie Technologies.
Do not find reasons
There are several other applications that be can be found in using local language technologies for business. Your Story’s “Bhasha” platform showcased entrepreneurs who are building local language technologies for other companies as a service. Here is a list of companies at Bhasha (Indian Language Startups) that want to bring Indian back to the native speakers.
If someone said that India having too many languages is a barrier, then it is surprising that it has held itself together for this long. Movies and cricket have played a major role in building nationalistic fervour. But it is about time that businesses also became a unifying factor. and that when imparted through local languages, it become a powerful tool to make India aspire for larger development goals. In his book “The Blank Slate”, Steven Pinker says, “Much of what is today called “social criticism” consists of members of the upper classes denouncing the tastes of the lower classes (bawdy entertainment, fast food, plentiful consumer goods) while considering themselves egalitarians. Perhaps we need to find the balance, after all, by looking back at our roots through language.
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