Seeing a complex problem is not the same thing as seeing a solution

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2010/08/29 07:01 -04:00, original URI:

I had a lot of discussions and presentations and meetings and conferences and lectures while I was in India. So many that I actually lost my voice twice during that month.

There are three in particular that stood out for me in a marked way, that has caused me to really mentally re-assess how I look at the core language and market issues in India.

They were not the three most important conversations I had in terms of position/status/impact/influence of the people I was interacting with.

Each of the conversations I am thinking about now were over successive days of the conference with people whose English skills on scale of 1 to 10 (with 1 being essentially no knowledge and 10 being complete fluency) would be at a 1, or maybe a 2 at best. They came from the larger conference on Tamil and saw me in the time that I was leaving the building where lunch was being served and hanging out getting sunburned (thus they were not at the Tamil Internet conference piece of it that I was speaking in, just nearby at the World Classical Tamil Conference).

These three conversations were only possible due to the help of surrounding people who spoke both English and Tamil to act as interpreters.

You see, the almost all of the people I interacted with in India before, during, and after the World Classical Tamil Conference were in that ~7% that know English.

But these three were in that ~93% of those who do not.

That invisible ~93% that no one seems to be looking at, other than perhaps in the sense that they are trying to encourage the widening of the the number of English speakers.

The conversations were very interesting, as were their thoughts about Tamil and the conference. None of them were captives to propoganda and all of them saw a potential that impressed me because of how often those in the 93% are assumed to not be part of the solution, even though in a sense they kind of are the solution.

Now I don't want to knock the power of learning English if you live in India -- it increases opportunities and while it may not be truth that "anybody making more than USD$2 a day knows English", there are powerful reasons to assume is it is a truism since it can be.

Though few doubt that in Tamil Nadu one can go further with just Tamil. Since even people who know English push for more Tamil. Especially at conferences such as this!

With a literacy rate of up to 73.5% in Tamil Nadu, focusing the efforts of technology on just the ~7% who speak English is leaving a very large group out in the cold who one can reasonably surmise are educated and interested enough to interact with technology and the wider world, and all they need is technology to "lower its minimum requirements" enough to allow for those who can't speak English.

Because the opportunities provided to people who know English have a lot more to do with the ability to interact with technology than they do with the language itself.

This makes the whole ENGLISH barrier feel very artificial.

Especially in Tamil Nadu, more than almost anywhere else in India (including some parts of India that have other, more pressing, barriers blocking their forward motion).

It is only the barrier to technology because we (the technology companies) make it the barrier by not in most cases providing localization targeted at people other than that 7%, as a crutch to help them improve their English, at best.

I have multiple emails that were sent to me by people who saw the article in The Hindu (ref: Me in The Hindu, aka Clearly not all press is bad press) and wanted to know how they could help the effort to make computers more widely available. These are people who know English and yet recognize the bigger problem and feel that learning English is not the answer.

Those people do not make a battalion, or even really a squad. But they mean something. Something important.

I try to make to sure to never forget that in Tamil Nadu, English is not the best answer; it is merely the answer that is better than Hindi. No one I talked to that month misunderstood the word Hindification. or what I meant by it, even if they had never heard the term before!

And in talking to people who had a chance to use the Language Interface Packs several of the languages of India (especially Tamil, in some cases after I cajoled them into doing so on the first day of TI2010), they were by and large not terribly impressed at the overall quality of the translation. I got this feedback specifically for Tamil, Hindi, and Bengali. But I heard secondhand reports that suggest this is a widespread issue.

That is an issue that I believe is genuine and has a specific cause.

Brief embracing of a tangent: True story: When the Hindi Starter Edition was being put together, the subsidiary folks in India inquired about the time frame for the new localization to be done. The folks in HQ were amazed that the subsidiary thought there was ever a plan for two separate localizations for Hindi when there weren't separate localizations based on version of Windows components for any language. They put up with it, but they knew that this would make the Hindi and other Indic language Starter Editions of Windows to be far less than ideal for the bulk of Starter Editions targeted customers.

OK, I guess that wasn't irrelevant enough to be a true tangent, since the theoretical customer of a localized Starter Edition is the very same customer as I am talking about.

Much of the process apparently is done without a clear target customer in mind.

This is a bold statement, but I will say based on the authority of native speakers of these languages who do not feel there is any target that would find the localization to be "made for them."

It is not good enough for the brand new user (as I said) and it looks wrong to the experienced user who doesn't need it but can appreciate it and would appreciate it if it looked good.

So in essence, Microsoft spends a bunch of money to put something together (Language Interface Packs) that are free but which in some cases are not built in a way that any of the theoretical target users will consider usable. They get minimal to no feedback, which of course inspires them to make no changes because if they do not hear about problems then there is no impetus to make changes.

I changed my Windows 7 user interface language to Tamil and showed it to those three non-English speaking people I met in Coimbatore. They all got a quick look at the tamil UI in Windows.

All three of them were amazed and delighted to see a computer that was entirely in Tamil, just like I kind of said in that interview for The Hindu. None of them were regular computer users, and none had their own computer at home, but they had notions of what computers were and had clearly seen them before. But as they looked, I watched their delight move to confusion which they covered up as quickly as they could.

It was clear to me that this was not built for them.

But I knew now that a lot of people would want something.

Seeing a complex problem is of course not the same thing as seeing a solution.


But perhaps there is a solution here. And I just haven't found it.


Ambarish Sridharanarayanan on 29 Aug 2010 9:33 AM:

Nail on the head, as usual! The sentence that sums up the whole issue is "Much of the process apparently is done without a clear target customer in mind." Bravo!

Not that I have solutions in mind, either :-(

Michael S. Kaplan on 29 Aug 2010 9:40 AM:

I think large companies need to decide what it is they want to do in India, strategically. Not just Microsoft -- other companies like Adobe have just as much myopia about India. Until they do they'll never do as well as they can....

Andrew Cunningham on 29 Aug 2010 6:02 PM:

A strong sense of déjà vu when reading this article. ;)

Although, not just India.

Michael S. Kaplan on 31 Aug 2010 12:29 AM:

I know the feeling. :-/

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