Will regional languages attract a sizeable chunk of (online) users soon?

When it comes to Internet users and content on the web, India can be considered an English only country. Despite many languages with a sizeable target audience, regional language content has failed to catch the fancy of the average Indian user.
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The latest Internet usage statistics from various sources suggest that India has breached the 100 million users mark in 2011. While it is debatable how many of these 100 million1 people actually switch on their computing devices and fire up the browser or an app with any regularity, it is still a historic landmark. However, when it comes to Internet users and content on the web, India can be considered an English only country. Despite many languages with a sizeable target audience, regional language content has failed to catch the fancy of the average Indian user.

The average Indian Internet user surfs the web, participates in social media, consumes content, shops, transacts with his bank in English. Internet usage is exploding and will continue to grow rapidly for the foreseeable future. As more and more Indians buy smartphones, the number of people who could potentially access and use the Internet is likely to far exceed the number of people who are currently served by the ‘English web’.

As Internet companies try to reach out to more consumers and be relevant to them, they are bound to invest time and money into beefing up their regional language content. Case in point, Yahoo is currently trying to add more languages to its fairly strong suite of language sub-sites. I suspect more players will follow suit. Oneindia has been the most successful in tapping into regional languages and attracting the largest loyal base of users. However, dedicated regional language sites, blogs are few and far between and the regional language audience is largely underserved. On the other hand, music and movies in all languages are very accessible. This could partly be due to the fact that many users who are otherwise comfortable with English content on the web, are keen to consume media in their native tongues.

Some measures have been taken by the government to promote the creation of new content in various Indian languages and particularly in Hindi. One such measure is this. Another trigger for a more widespread adoption could be the emergence of startups working on SoLoMo (Social, Local and Mobile) applications. The state governments need to promote the usage of citizen services by making more content available in the respective languages of the states. However, for the usage of regional language content to go mainstream, you need tools and more importantly people to curate content to suit the tastes and sensibilities of the masses. As astute observers frequently point out, for any website to become popular, it should focus 10% of its efforts on content creation and the other 90% on content curation. The final and perhaps most crucial element is to have devices and peripherals such as keyboards to be available in the various languages. Despite efforts to have a friction-less experience and a complete suite of content friendly to non-English users, usage will remain low until you make the access device less intimidating to the user. It is a chicken and egg problem and right now OEMs are hesitant to invest in producing devices to accommodate the various Indian languages.

When one sees Internet companies, OEMs, and other stakeholders doing all they can to woo Chinese and Japanese audiences, one wonders why the same success should not be replicated here.

I would welcome your take on how regional language content might shape up in the coming years.

Recommended Read: Why Indian Languages Failed to make a mark Online!

1 IAMAI report suggests that number of users who are active at least once a month falls down to 25 million

[Guest article contributed by Shashank P S. The author can be reached on twitter: @shashank_ps]

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