Regional Languages in the Digital Space: An Opportunity for Social Mobility?

India has a complicated relationship with the English language. While the decline in the dominance of regional languages has been lamented for decades, English remains the favoured medium of education, especially in urban India for those who can afford it. Even politicians who agitate about the importance of one’s mother tongue and are proponents of its usage in educational institutions, send their own children to private English-medium schools. This relationship is made complicated by socio-economic factors. Colonialism ensured that English became a globally dominant language and in its wake, left the language an aspirational quotient. One’s proficiency of English is a product of access to more economic and educational resources. This makes one’s mastery of English a marker of socio-economic class. Thus, English proficiency is a function of socio-economic factors.

Among affluent Indians residing in urban areas, children struggle with Hindi and their mother tongues. They primarily use English to communicate their ideas and emotions at home, outside, and in the digital space. The 2001 census of India estimates that 226,000 Indians speak English as their first language. They comprised less than .01% of India’s population. As for the rest of the country, a large number of people understand fragments of English, fewer can read it, and very few can write it. Proficiency in English, thus, remains inaccessible to the vast majority.

Now, the internet and smartphones have come into the picture and they have spread quickly across the country. According to a 2017 report by Google and KPMG (a management consulting firm), “Indian Languages — Defining India’s Internet”, there were 234 million Indian-language internet users and 175 million English users in 2016. By 2021, the gap between the two groups is expected to widen. Users of Indian languages are expected to more than double to 536 million, while English users will increase to only 199 million. Nine out of 10 new internet users between 2016 and 2021 will use local languages, said the report.

This gap between the inaccessibility of English and the accessibility to smartphones has created a huge demand for content in regional languages. The literacy rates in rural India have increased from 46% as per the 1991 census, to 58% in 2001 and 69% according to 2011 census data. There were 420 million internet users in 2017, according to a report titled “Internet in India 2017” by the Indian and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI). According to the same report, urban India has a projected internet penetration growth of only 9%, and has perhaps attained its level of saturation. In contrast, rural India registered a promising growth rate of 26% internet penetration. This data is proof that the potential scope for tapping the market is immense. The report also indicates that there are 750 million unrealised internet users in rural India.

A look at the statistics of the widespread usage of regional languages further provides a rationale for tapping its immense potential. While Punjabi is the tenth most spoken language in the world, Telugu and Marathi are the fifteenth and sixteenth most spoken languages in the world respectively. The digital space can reach 250 million individuals of the Bengali population in India and Bangladesh. As per People’s Linguistic Survey of India, Bengali is the second most spoken language in the country followed by Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu and Gujarati. Tamil is the world's eighteenth most spoken language, other than being one of the official languages of Singapore and Sri Lanka.  Further, an increasing number of national advertisers are advertising online in regional languages.

This has huge implications for media houses, advertising agencies and businesses. In October 2017, the BBC ventured into Punjabi, Marathi, Telugu, and Gujarati digital news services. Print, as well as online media, is increasingly imprinting digital footprints in the regional language sector. Factors such as the unavailability of technology and low literacy rates that prevented the growth of the vernacular digital space are no longer impediments.

The exclusivity born out of the inaccessibility of English can be combated with the inclusivity of the internet. As regional languages gain dominance in the digital space, not only can the rural and urban poor hear more voices, but also make their own voices heard. There will be more products that will benefit them as they begin to occupy a greater space in the consumer population. Also, the dominance of English stems from the fact that it is the primary language used to discuss politics, economics, science, and technology. Even fluent speakers of their mother tongues who can write poetry in their languages struggle to find words when they have to talk about the above fields. A language can be sustained only if its use is not limited to just science or literature. When media houses have to publish content for their audience who does not speak English, they must begin the conversation about the latest technology and the economy in the regional languages. Information about new products and technology will not remain restricted to the urban rich, which is largely the demographic that speaks and understands English. Earlier, the knowledge that reached the rural areas in regional languages was largely in the form of initiatives and announcements by the government. This implies that the government picks the areas that they believe the people need information about. With the wide reach of the internet, a wide range of information is now accessible and agency lies with the people. English no longer remains the language of information, and hence power. The inclusivity of the digital space thus has the potential to shake the power structures created around the languages we speak.

Sharvari Karandikar