Why Vernacular is the way to go

If you like to tell stories or share news in your mother tongue, you are at a unique point in history where you can reach a huge audience ready to consume and share them. You could be a news provider, a publishing house, or just another guy waiting to unleash his bestselling novel to the world. And if you just like to cuddle up with a good story in your native tongue, congratulations, entrepreneurs and investors are creating platforms to ensure that you will find that story, and will be able to share it with your friends.

Stories give us meaning and language carries that meaning, and thus, has a central importance in our lives. Vernacular is defined as the native language or native dialect, opposed to a literary one. What does this distinction mean? Just that vernacular is how people like to communicate, versus how they have to communicate. We use vernacular to tell stories closest to our heart.

The way to spread ideas

Languages have played a key role in preserving our shared myths, stories, beliefs, and ultimately, our culture. While we consider the invention of writing as the beginning of history, the oral traditions are much older. While the classes use the dominant language of a time (also called the lingua franca), the masses use vernacular.

In the time of empires, rulers imposed their language on courts, while the masses carried on with their own tongues. In 17th Century Europe, Latin was the language of scholars but the stories close to people — like Dante’s Divine Comedy -were written in the vernacular. To reach the masses, priests of all faiths adopted their people’s language. In Europe, Bible was translated to German, Spanish, English and other languages and in India, Ramayana was translated to Telugu Ranganadha Ramayanam by Gona Budha Reddy and into Hindi Ramcharitmanas by Tulsidas. The Bhakti Movement in 12th Century India also led to translation of a lot of Sanskrit texts into vernacular.

From the old to the young

In Mario Puzo’s Godfather, when the main character Don Corleone gets angry with his eldest son, he curses him in their native Sicilian language, which the author calls most satisfactory for expressing rage. The powerful capability of vernacular to convey emotion makes it the best tool artists use to influence people. Books, plays, and movies in vernacular languages dominate with a different degree of force.

The urban Indian youth of today are fascinated by the country’s rural stories and language. While most Indians of last generation saw English fluency as a pre-requisite to a respectable life, not so with teens of today. They freely curse or swear in their mother-tongue, and enjoy the hinterlands of Wasseypur with offbeat heroes speaking the local dialect. Far from hiding these as something to be ashamed of, today’s youth takes pride in saying it like it is.

For Pratilipi, a Bangalore based startup focusing on self-publishing in Indian languages, more than 85% of the reading audience is less than 34 years old, and 87% of them come from the urban areas and overseas. This shatters the myth that only older people or villagers speak vernacular.

Rise and rise of vernacular in India

Due to India’s colonial past, English has been the primary language of government, business and education. And India now has the second largest number of English speakers, behind only the United States. Yet, only around 10% of the population can read, write and form their own sentences in English. And a minuscule 1 in 5,300 Indians speaks English as his or her first language.

The majority of Indians speak vernacular, and this number is growing. While our Constitution lists 22 official languages, according to 2001 census, there are 122 major languages and 1599 other languages or dialects in India. The table below lists the numbers.

The trend is clear. Across categories of initial language base, more and more people are using vernacular. Rising population contributes to this trend with 838 million Indians in 1991 to 1060 million in 2001. And even these data points are more than a decade old. Population has increased, and it’s highly likely that vernacular speakers have increased too.

Challenges and trends

If vernacular is so widespread, why do you not see more of it? This depends on where you look. If you look at old media — movies, TV, printed books, newspapers and songs, you will find enough people creating great vernacular content. But if you look at the faster growing, rapidly expanding new media — web, mobile apps, e-books and social networking, you will be hard pressed to find tools to create or consume such content.

We see two reasons for this. One, a vast majority of Indians — around 75% — do not have access to the internet. Two, even for those with access, the technology does not support vernacular language implementation. Luckily, both of these walls are coming down.

While internet penetration in developed countries is above 80%, India is still at 24%, and ranks 136th among 191 UN members in terms of this percentage. For China, this number stands at 51%. While depressingly low, this number is growing fast. It grew from 10% in 2011 to 20% in 2014. Analysts project it to reach around 40% by 2017.

The rise of mobile devices is driving the speed of internet adoption. In terms of processing power as compared to the nineties, a smartphone today is a mini supercomputer, one that around 160 million Indians carry in their pockets. This number was only 29 million just 3 years ago. As a result, mobile internet penetration is rising. India had 110 million mobile internet users in 2013, 159 million in 2014, and is poised to reach 314 million mobile internet users by 2017. The numbers challenge, though big, is diminishing fast.

The next one is more complicated. Implementation of varying language scripts on different kinds of hardware and software platforms is a unique technological challenge, though not a new one. Google already supports 71 languages on Gmail with varying scripts like Greek, Japanese and Arabic. Most European countries like Germany and France use software written in their language. They create and consume large amounts of native language content. Yet, from 29 languages each spoken by over a million people in India, Google has implemented only 8 and Facebook has implemented only 13. Even these tech giants are yet to develop support for the many more local languages and dialects of India.

The way to go

These closely tied trends give us a clear glimpse into the future of vernacular content. First, more and more people will have access to the internet, and they will access it on their mobile device. This will be boosted by low data prices being offered by telecom incumbents.

Next, more and more people will consume content in their own language. This is proved by the popular app Newshunt (now Dailyhunt), which has more than 75 million downloads and has been funded by investors like Sequoia Capital, Matrix Partners, and Falcon Edge Capital. Their USP? News and books in Indian languages. The Bangalore based Pratilipi, less than a year old, has authors being read over 100,000 times on its web-based reading platform.

Businesses are also waking up to the importance of offering their services in the people’s language. Indian e-commerce giant Snapdeal already offers its website in Hindi. HDFC, a leading Indian bank, has launched its HDFC Securities Android app which enables you to trade stocks in 11 Indian languages. Startup news giant Yourstory is poised to launch stories of Indian startups in 6 Indian languages.

While these moves clearly show the potential demand for vernacular content, what about the technical challenges? Relentless entrepreneurs are overcoming this last obstacle too. Bangalore based Reverie Technologies offers local language technology solutions in 45 languages. Their Language-as-a-Service platform helps businesses translate their applications and content in local languages in real-time. Betting on the potential of this technology, Qualcomm Ventures and Aspada have invested USD 4 million in Series A funding for Reverie.

The time is now ripe for explosive growth of vernacular languages through the multiplier effect of new media. Increasing user base, increasing demand for vernacular content, and rapidly developing easy-to-use technology all indicate that if you are a content creator, a voracious consumer, or a visionary entrepreneur aiming to capture large parts of Indian customers, vernacular is the way to go.

Originally published at www.linkedin.com.

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