Beyond English: Brands Need To Adopt Indian Regional Languages

According to a report, by next year Hindi Internet users will outgrow English user base in the country

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Recently, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi citing a report claimed that India has crossed over 750 million Internet connections. To some, this might be just a number, but when you look through a micro lens, almost half the number of Internet connections were added in the last four years, exhibiting a strong Internet demand. India is a huge market for Internet-based companies, and now you know why a flock of foreign Internet-based companies such as Facebook, Netflix, Spotify are stressing more on their Indian operations.

That being said, a large chunk of the market of these Internet users, and more importantly the next 100 million internet users, continue to remain untapped, with few eyeing the opportunity. Curious? It is the adoption of regional languages by Internet-based companies to communicate and acquire new customers seamlessly. It is a proven fact that people express and understand well in their mother language!

Looking Beyond English

From the ardent of the Internet, we have been forced to adopt English language as the only mode of communication. Whether it be searching something on Google, or writing an email, or even purchasing something online. It was earlier assumed that in India, the Internet was used by citizens who are well-read and are comfortable with English.

“The Internet has been designed in such a way that it has consciously blocked all the users who don’t understand English,” said Arvind Pani, chief executive officer (CEO) and co-founder of Reverie Language Technologies that provide vernacular language solutions to various sectors.

However, with time, cheap availability of smartphones and arrival of Reliance Jio, the notion that the Internet is for ‘suit and boot’  people has been smashed to the core. According to a Google report, by 2021, Hindi Internet user base will outgrow English language users. Hindi along with Bengali and Marthi users is expected to reign the Internet community of this country with around 75 per cent user base.

Lal Chand Bisu of Kuku Fm— a podcast platform which targets primarily regional language speakers—said that by 2030, the Internet users is expected to touch 1 billion mark in the country with over 800 million users looking for regional content. This is why Netflix, Amazon Prime, Spotify and Apple Music have been incessantly producing local content.

Agriculture is the backbone of this country’s economy. We are well aware that farmers or people associated with the agriculture sector have little understanding of English, so does that mean they should be deprived of all the technological advancement and agronomic solutions to compete against more advanced countries? No. This is why new-age agri-tech startups are coming up with solutions in regional languages to directly connect with farmers and help them yield more produce.

Tauseef Khan of Gramophone claimed that agri-tech is a $300 billion market, where the farmers are interacting predominantly in various regional languages. So it means that to compete in this market, a company has to offer regional language to interact more with farmers and scale.

To cite some examples, PolicyBazaar after using Hindi to connect to non-English speakers and RummyCircle after using regional languages for their ads saw a rise in new customer acquisitions.

It is established now that regional language indeed helps in emboldening stronger relationships with users and bolsters customer acquisition. But then why don’t all companies adopt regional languages?

Challenges & Solutions

One major challenge attributed to the adoption of the regional language in the digital space is the multilingualism of India. The country currently boasts of 22 official languages and hundreds of unofficial languages present across the lengths and breadths. This is why English becomes an easy choice for founders and businessmen. 

Although, Khan pointed out that most of the companies are now understanding the need for regional languages to reach far corners are moving from English to regional languages.

Resonating with Khan, Pani said companies now have to understand that India is not an English speaking country but a regional speaking country first. According to him companies need to design their websites/apps in such a way that it will provide Indian user regional language first experience.

He further continues that India needs to have its own digital standards for regional languages. Taking an example, he said that after a child learns Hindi in school and starts using digital medium, he will be perplexed by seeing additional 8-10 characters present, thus complicating the user experience. He also stressed that for English there is a generic keyboard pattern, ‘QWERTY’, but there is no such keyboard pattern for any Indian languages.

He partly blames this to a lack of standarding of character set for Indian regional languages. According to him, standardizing of character sets for Indian languages is done by  foreign bodies which are unaware of the nuances of Indic languages.

However, on a positive note, though addition of regional language to one’s platform might look shelling a lot of cash, apparently it is not.

Pani said if one goes for a conventional real-time regional language communication, then the cost might be high. However, leveraging technology, ten languages can be bundled up and the cost of implementing them would be one time. He said with the benefit of technology one does not have to incur the expense up front. In fact, based on the usage of any  particular language, the company can incur expenses. Pani suggests that a company should not consider spending on a language as an X and spending on 10 languages as 10X, instead it must be looked at as 1.1X or 1.2X.

Adding to this Bisu said if a company has successfully managed to pull off regional language, then it has to simply replicate from the same playbook.

While it is true that India has over 1,600 dialects, Pani said if the main language is Hindi, then most of its dialects can be accommodated in the programme with the help of technology.

COVID-19 - Watershed Moment For Regional Language

The ongoing pandemic has brought down the world to its knees, with businesses struggling to sell their products and economies touching new lows. However, while this virus outbreak will be remembered as the dark phase in the history of mankind, this has actually helped in faster regional language adoption by Indian companies.

Khan, whose Gramophone started its operations from Madhya Pradesh, always had the plan to include other regional languages on its platform. However, the pandemic has expedited the adoption rate. He said the regional activities like farmer meetings which were done physically earlier are now being done virtually over Zoom, Google Hangout and other platforms in their regional language, indicating that there has been a faster adoption rate. Gramophone currently has Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and English on its platform and will add Telugu and Tamil in future.

Pani going down the memory lane said that when Aadhaar card was initially asked to link with PAN card, almost 1 billion citizens of this country received SMS alerts from the Indian government in English language. “How do you expect 1 billion people in this country to understand English?” questioned Pani.

However, he pointed out over the years, the government’s mindset has changed, with COVID-19 being the recent example. We all have heard awareness about the virus on a callertune in regional language, or must have received a SMS in local language from the government in the past eight months; this denotes that the government is indeed stressing more on regional languages. From Modi’s address to the nation to important information available about the virus on the government's website in multiple languages, local languages have struck the chord of the masses.

Bisu’s Kuku FM too added six regional languages in the last seven months on the back of rising demand for regional language. He said though a Gujarati person was able to understand Hindi, he/she still insisted on getting the content in Gujarati. 

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