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Languages of India

India’s Indigenous Languages Drive Wikipedia’s Growth

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Despite accommodating the world’s second largest English-speaking population behind the United States, it is India’s indigenous language speakers that are creating and consuming the content that is driving Wikipedia’s growth on the subcontinent.

The Wikimedia Foundation last year issued a $40,000 $440,000 grant to the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), which, along with the local Wikimedia chapter, has trained almost 2,500 Indians how to edit and create content in their local languages.

While the country’s official languages are Hindi and English (when the country earned its independence in 1947, the states couldn’t agree to be represented by a single local tongue) there are over a thousand recognised dialects, and 22 official languages spoken by over a million people.

Last September, CIS targeted ten tongues — Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Odia, Punjabi and Telugu — and started working with India’s Wikimedia chapter, responsible for coordinating the local volunteer efforts, to boost the amount of local language content being created on a range of websites including, Wikipedia, Wiktionary, and WikiCommons.

CIS said that between September 2012 and April 2013 the number of page views increased by almost four million. Additionally:

- 13,400 articles were added in the top four languages, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and Hindi.
- Page views on the 25,000 Bengali entries grew by 1.4 million to about 4 million.
- There were consistently over 100 active Malyayam Wikipedia editors.

While each community used the platform for a different purpose there were three themes that cut across the different languages: cinema, places, and local personalities.

The training attracted people from all walks of life.

Tamil grandfather Sengai Podhuvan didn’t even know how to switch on a computer before the training, but the 78-year old has become one of the site’s biggest contributors; a blind man now edits Hindi Wikipedia entries; and Sujarta, a Chennai stay-at-home mum, who doesn’t speak English, now edits the Telugu Wikipedia between the hours of 11am and 3pm, when most housewives, who, like herself, did not go to university, are usually watching India’s colourful soap operas.

While the program has had an impact, director T. Vishnu Vardhan admitted there were some ominous findings. After CIS stopped supporting the Assamese Wikipedia in January 2013, the 20 active editors all but left the site.

“The decline over the last three months also alerts us to the possibility of building dependencies on the program, which is a concern that we need to address going forward,” Vishnu said. “We need to ensure this community and new people are sustained, that we engage them keep and them interested by showing them the excitement of being part of open knowledge building.”

Ultimately, Vardhan hopes this capacity building exercise will spark a self-fulfilling cycle of local Wikipedia content production and consumption. These reach of these tools is growing as last month, mobile operator Aircel and Wikimedia India announced that subscribers could freely access m.wikipedia.org, available in 19 Indian languages, from their mobile phones.

“Everyone is now Googling stuff but what if an ordinary Urdu-speaking guy sitting in Lucknow, using a smartphone, wants to learn about Delhi? Where is the content? While the majority of the population understands bits and pieces of English they’re not fluent in writing or reading and still need to access information in their mother tongue. This is where I personally see a huge potential for Indian language Wikipedias,” Vardhan said.