Lakshmi Valsalakumari is an IT professional who wants to expand her horizons. She attended the recent Wikimedia Developers Camp in Bangalore and had this story to tell:
Lakshmi with Santhosh Thottingal, the lead developer of Wikimedia’s font and keyboard tools
I have been an Information Technology professional working with well-known software organizations over the last 15 years. While IT has been keeping me busy, productive and happy, I have also all along harbored an interest in history and the humanities. I have recently decided to pursue these interests full-time, joining a research program at the Centre of Exact Humanities, International Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad, India.
With my recent shift into academics and research, I have been referencing Wikipedia quite a bit in the last two to three months, and I have been amazed at the sheer magnitude of information found on it. While I have been reading the Wikipedia pages extensively, I had never yet considered editing it, not even in English, the language I reference Wikipedia most in, and the one I use most on computers.
Editing and contributing content in Malayalam, my mother tongue, had not really occurred to me either—Malayalam being a language I hardly used on my computers—until I attended the Bangalore Wikimedia Dev Camp.
I have tried typing Malayalam using my regular browser, but I have not been very happy with the effect. This was not the way I liked to see Malayalam written and rendered, so I had not made any further efforts to write Malayalam online. At the camp, I met Santhosh and Manoj—avid Malayalam Wikipedia contributors—and they persuaded me to give it another shot.
The first step was to download the Meera Unicode font for Malayalam, then to change my default browser to one of those that can render Meera well (I tried out Google Chrome; Firefox was even better, I was told), and then to try out typing Malayalam using the regular English keyboard.
I liked what I saw. When I typed the suggested key combinations, even complicated Malayalam letter combinations were being rendered the way I would have written them using pen and paper. I tried more and more combinations—ta, tha, tta, Ta, tma, thra, tya, zha—and was pleased with the effect. This was fun!
Demos of how transliteration keyboards for Malayalam work
Soon, I was creating my first article. I noticed that on the main Wikipedia page, an article on Barcelona mentioned Catalonia as a red link, meaning that no further information was available in the Malayalam Wikipedia on it, whereas there was plenty of information on the same subject in the English Wikipedia. Manoj guided me through the steps as I created my first page in the Malayalam Wikipedia, copied the template information over from the English article and saved the heading, trying to get it right in Malayalam. I viewed my saved efforts, and with a sense of achievement, I went to grab a coffee.
Back online with my coffee, I was surprised to find a message on the article Talk page—someone had already posted a comment on the page I had just saved, chiding me for the lack of content and references. “This will drive away people from Wikipedia,” the post read. “Please ensure I get enough content on the page!”
Man, that was fast! I had no idea people were watching and following Wikipedia edits this closely. Manoj encouraged me to type more, so I returned to my effort. While I was getting comfortable with the typing, I was still grappling for suitable words in Malayalam for the content I was reading in English. Manoj suggested Olam, an online dictionary, and sure enough, I was able to find several of the Malayalam equivalents I was searching for.
And so, I typed on. Again, to my surprise, I found people editing the content and giving helpful suggestions even as I was still typing—one person told me to leave native names as such and not translate those, and another formatted some of the changes. By the end of the day, I had posted a decent amount of info, although there remained much more to be added.
I was happy with my day’s work. I had never imagined that using Malayalam on my computer and editing the Malyalam Wikipedia content would be such a pleasant and enjoyable experience, one that I was actually looking forward to!
Another point I must mention here is the sheer volume of Malayalam content that I have started seeing online, on Wikipedia pages and elsewhere. This must be due to the attention paid to this field of languages, literature and culture online by movements like Wikimedia. In 2005, I remember searching online for a well-known Malayalam lullaby Omanathingalkkidavo by Irayimman Thampi, but could not find anything. I had then resorted to the memories of my immediate relatives to try and pen the forgotten lyrics. Now, when I search for the same, the amount of material that comes up on that lullaby is amazing!
My heart-felt appreciation to Wikipedia and all its online community members who have made all of this possible. I hope to be part of this movement myself and do my bit toward furthering easy availability of multi-lingual content online
The Wikimedia Language Engineering team is developing technologies that make it possible to speakers of all languages to contribute to Wikipedia in their language as easily and naturally as possible. Lakshmi’s story is an example of how these technologies enable people to develop reference and educational content that makes Wikipedia useful to people in the whole world. These technologies are deployed in Wikipedias in most languages of India, and more languages and projects are being added all the time.
Amir E. Aharoni, Software Engineer (Internationalization)