Gmail Indic Transliteration

People started sending emails in Indian languages when email services like E-Patra became common. These services did not become as popular as the other email services though. I guess this is largely because they required users to learn to type in their regional languages. Learning a new keyboard map to use their custom font(which both sender and receiver had to install) and remembering it all the time wasn’t a very easy task. In comparison, transliteration is much easier because users type what they want in English and the letters you type are mapped to letters pronounced similarly in the regional language that you want your text to appear in.

Transliteration tools for Indian languages have existed for a very long time. Google has offered users such services for quite some time now. But it isn’t surprising that not many people took notice. The Blogger team introduced Hindi transliteration two years back. The number of blogs in Hindi have shot up since then. Google, then introduced Hindi Transliteration as a product of Google Labs to make things easier for people who didn’t have Google Accounts. Slowly they added support for languages that do not use the Devanagari script.

Today Google has integrated the transliteration button into the regular Gmail interface. It isn’t a Gmail Labs feature that needs to be activated.  For those of us who live in India, this feature is already active. If not, you can add the language you would like to use in your settings window. I think this feature addition is great because now there’s no reason for me to feel lazy to open another tab and transliterate my text to Hindi. I can do it right inside Gmail.

On a slightly different note, I’d like to point out the interesting things I learnt while I was playing around with this new feature today. The first thing I learnt, of course, is that it works quite flawlessly for common words in Hindi. But when it came to words in English, things were a little different:

When I tried to pronounce English words after they’ve been transliterated into Hindi, I realized that the two languages use two very different pronunciation patterns. Most of the Hindi we write is spelt out phonetically. English is very different in this regard. This is probably the reason why people, who do not have exposure to the language right from when they start schooling, find pronouncing the simplest words difficult.

Example: In English: Bob, how is it possible ? In Hindi: बोब, हाउ इस इत पोस्सिबल ?

It can work the other way around as well. Recently when I introduced Gora Mohanty to students in our college during a workshop, I just wasn’t able pronounce his surname properly. Several people pointed out my mistake, but it took me sometime to get used to the idea of saying मोहंती instead of मोहंटी. In India, most people learn their mother tongue before they learn any other language. By the time, they start learning English, they’re already accustomed to the pronunciation patterns of the language they are more comfortable speaking in. If their mistakes are pointed out early enough they begin to understand the difference. Imagine yourself making a mistake while you were learning your multiplication tables. If you were corrected at that time, it would have been simple for you to accept your mistake. If you hadn’t been corrected and if you had come along without knowing that you made such a mistake, things would be very different. It’s extremely difficult to accept that what you’ve been doing repeatedly for a long period of time is incorrect. That’s the state most Indians are in whenever someone corrects their usage of any language. I can say this because I hate it when people correct my Hindi and others hate it when I try to correct their English. On the other hand when someone identifies errors in my pronunciations or spellings in English and tries to correct them, I am not that bothered.

Unfortunately, we Indians have no choice but to learn both our regional language as well as English. I wonder whether this is true in places like France and Germany too. Because I have a German friend who wants to come to India to take lessons in English.