Category Archives: General

Is Urdu Loosing the Race? Digitization of Urdu in Pakistan

Is Urdu Losing the Race?

Current State of Computational Linguistics in Pakistan

by: Waqas A. Khan

On February 15, 2014, The Economist ran a story, “The Urdu Rate of Growth”. The scope of the story was not the national language of Pakistan, The Urdu; however, its name was used as a metaphor to depict the then poor state of growth in the energy sector of Pakistan. Our 200 million people of Pakistan speak a total of 72 provincial and regional languages including Urdu. According to a parliamentary paper, at least10 of them are either “in trouble” or “near extinction”.

From the founder of Pakistan, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah to Justice Jawwad S. Khwaja, everyone interested in making Urdu an official language of Pakistan has failed badly. Partially because those at the top are least interested in it and mainly because, in the twenty-first century, its pace towards a language of computer and science is wobbly and precarious. The debate and quest of making Urdu a digital language has been suppressed by a parallel debate about its usefulness in comparison to English. Both the corners have neglected the need of Urdu digitization as a principle subject. One extreme, the English lovers have denied giving Urdu its space in the national run and the other, Urdu patriots have hated English as a step tongue.

Nations take pride in their language. Identities of the nations are marked with their language. Arabs, Chinese and Germans have taken pride in their languages to an extent that their national and lingual identity is the same today. We, however, have been reluctant. Somehow, from the start, Urdu in Pakistan has been controversial. It was pushed in a multilingual society in a way that it created more enemies than lovers. The first confrontation came from the East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, where Urdu was unknown to the most and the state language, was Bengali. But Quaid-e-Azam in a quest to make a nation decided to tell them, without Urdu, they are not Pakistanis. In 1948, while addressing the students of Dacca University in his immaculate English, he said: “The state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language. And anyone who tries to mislead you is an enemy of Pakistan.”

The confrontation started, we lost Bangladesh, but Urdu, our national language could not become the official language until now. We have been wandering between Urdu/English mediums and our 60% kids have been failing and leaving their studies because of continuous failure in English language papers but neither English nor Urdu have become the languages of Pakistan. In our offices, Urdu is not allowed and in streets English.

The debate again started when in September 2015, the Supreme Court Justice, Jawwad S. Khawaja gave three months to the Nawaz Sharif’s government to implement “Article 251 in line with Article 5 of the Constitution” to make Urdu mandatory for “official and other purposes”.  But the ultimatum expired, Urdu lost the race.

Globally, many languages die. When nations lose pride in their languages, they become prey to this. Globalization, Industrialization, Innovation and population pressure are the most accredited culprits of the crime, “Language Murder”. Economic patterns of the world force outdated communities to espouse to a different culture and language. Their own language does not conform to the global requirements so those nations deliberately encourage a different language to prevail in the place of their own. This is called “Lingual Assimilation”. The assimilation consists of several stages.

At first, the speakers of a susceptible (weak) language face gigantic pressure to speak in the dominant language. This pressure comes from multiple sources, from official communication, school language, peer pressure and government laws. At the second stage which can be called as “bilingualism”, people start adopting two languages as primary. One as a need and other for love of that language, in our case English and Urdu. At the third and last stage, their new generations which are not in love with the other language find themselves more familiar with the dominant language and become less connected to the national language (in our case Urdu). The most compelling factors that emerge at the last stage are the feelings of shame and inferiority about the language of their parents and grandparents. This is the stage of “Language Murder”. Urdu apparently is passing through the last cycle of stage-2. If necessary and timely measures are not taken, it will proceed to the stage-3, the murder.

In this century to save a language, its relevance to knowledge and innovation must be present. In the case of Urdu, we have forgotten this basic principle.  Although progress has been made but yet it is too late to call it a language of information technology (IT). Progressive nations felt this need on time like the German Munchener Oberlandesgericht court decision of 1985 restricts the delivery of computers if it does not accompany operating instructions in German.

Similarly Chinese, European, Russian and Arabian nations took similar measures to enforce their local/national languages. We have been accepting English for all proudly. So no major electronics, computer hardware, utilities and software company of the world bothers to include Urdu in their product manuals today. That is the reason more than 80% of our population is unable to benefit from the automation the world offers today. From Cheque Book to Train Ticket, a common man has no meaning for digitization.

Urdu software development started in 1970 and early 1980s. Since then many applications have been developed for desktop publishing but no one has been successful in offering seamless data exchange between famous design applications like Corel Draw, Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and other such applications. Urdu even today is exported as a picture and none of the high-end design software understands or accepts Urdu as a font/language. It is impossible to alter Urdu text in Corel Draw and so on. Even the Urdu typing software present including the famous “Inpage” have countless versions prompting for HASP drivers and registry updates.

All of these have been developed without any underlying computing standard and each has its own character set and code page. Even data between these softwares is not exchangeable. Unlike English, every Urdu software has its own keyboard setting, putting a new user at an ultimate challenge to learn the new layout.

To bring pride in the Urdu we must rush to bring IT revolution into it. Solutions of E-governance and e-commerce must be provided in Urdu for a common man to benefit from. Sufficient research work in this area has not been done because of insufficient copyright laws and their poor implementation. The only serious attempt, Inpage is also doomed because every second newbie can alter its code, can edit the credits and even the software name.

However, we have been successful in lexical development and corpus-based lexical data acquisition at CRULP. But the grammar modeling at CRULP is still absent. Like English, no Urdu software is capable of pointing grammatical mistakes and spelling correction facilities to its users. Speech Recognition and Optical Character Recognition are a far cry. Without it, no one can digitize the Urdu text except for creating JPG E-books, allowing nothing except zoom to their readers. To your surprise, our so called experts are still fighting for the existence of Urdu phonemes like lh, mh, , nh, rh. Our phonological rules are not developed and in their absence, Urdu speech synthesis and recognition application would never come.

Similarly, work in the areas of Morphology, Syntax and Semantics is also limited. This is not only hurting the promotion of Urdu but other regional languages like Punjabi, Sindhi, Balochi, Pashto, Saraiki, Brahvi, Hindko and others which depend heavily on Urdu software development. There is a lack of consensus on the writing styles and even the total number of Urdu characters as well. For Siddiqui & Amrohi (1977) these are fifty-three and Platts (1911) thirty-eight. Kifayat (1993), Siraj (1999), PTBB (2000), BUQ (1999) and KUQ (1999) have 36, 51, 53, 47 and 37 characters respectively.

In so much “sufferings” the development of Urdu as a language of future can only be a dream. Our character order is incomplete even and all applications which depend on sorting and indexing (including computational lexica) cannot be developed unless collation sequence has been standardized for a language. Even the standards for keyboards and fonts are absent.

Another issue in Urdu is “Aerab” (like zabr, zer, pesh, jazm etc.), when included in full, take all total of 128 coding slots and all (27)=256 spaces are already filled. At the governmental level, no one has taken help from the established organizations like EACL, ISCA, EAA, ELRA, ELSNET to make Urdu a language of today.

Urdu is losing the race. Can you come forward?

The article was originally published in More Magazine.



Mobile, Not Electricity; The Habit Analysis


Mobile, not Electricity

The Habit Analysis

by: Waqas A. Khan

By the end of this year, in South Asia, Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East and 40 other countries, more people will have access to a mobile network than to electricity a study by CISCO reveals. The on-net off-grid population of the world will reach 138 million and people who access the internet only through their mobile phones will increase 56 fold from 14 million (2010) to 917 million (2016).

And we are talking about mobile phones in a world where almost half of the world population is living on less than $2.50 per day and 80% of the global population is earning less than $10 a day. The mobile phone market is being flooded with high-end phones advertisements that obsess a buyer’s mind even before he/she enters the market. Facebook, twitter and other famous social media accounts are flooded with Pakistanis and the reports of online fraud, security breaches and cyber crimes are not limited too. And out of our 25 million Facebook users, two third are below 22 years of age.

In this article, we will try to answer these few questions with the help of available research data.

  1. When does the first phone land into the hand of a young guy/kid?

In this and the previous decade, parenting has changed a lot because of the mobile phone era. Once the biggest question in the parent’s mind, “when shall I allow my kid to have car keys?” has now transformed itself to a trickier one, “When shall my kids own a mobile phone?”

However, unlike a car, which has a legal age to start with, the mobile phone ownership neither falls under any law nor norm at all. In our country the common age for a mobile phone ownership varies a lot depending on the income and cultural background of the parents.

In upper and upper middle-class families having a more liberal background, the ownership may start as early as their children reach at 10 years of age while in the remaining majority it can start from the 15th year of the kid. Weinberger’s award winning the internet and mobile safety book “The Boogeyman Exists: And He’s in Your Child’s Back Pocket,” says that it surveyed 70,000 students to claim validity. “On average, fifth graders start sexting, 8 graders attempt to access pornography and its addiction starts at grade 11, the book says.” Dr. Noor-ul-Huda, a practicing psychologist thinks that in our setting the ownership must not start before the 20th birthday. “It is not important to own a mobile phone for a child until there is no compelling need for that.”

Ask yourself following few questions and you will get perfect answer for your child’s right age to own a mobile phone.

  • Are my children independent enough?
  • Do I need them to remain in touch for safety or social reasons?
  • How responsible are they?
  • Can I trust them for not texting in the class; bike, travel and that they will use text, photo and video features of the phone responsibly?
  • Do they really need a phone which is their music device, a video game player, camera and internet portal as well?
  • Am I budget ready to spend on their mobile use?

The right answer to these questions is their right age to own a mobile phone.

  1. What are the obsessions of a user?

 When a prospect buyer enters into the mobile market for a purchase decision, he/she has a few predominated obsessions. Multiple types of research in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh reveal that physical attributes of a phone are the first obsession of a user. Muhammad Riaz-ud-Din, a researcher in life sciences has completed a recent survey which says that 37 percent people decide to buy a mobile phone based on its physical appearance. It includes look, color, weight, size, camera strength, Bluetooth speed and other physical features. Pricing is the obsession of 10.49 percent users, 6.62 percent prefer a phone are obsessed with the charging speed and battery timing, 8.40 are obsessed with the recommendations of their relatives, friends and colleagues while only 3.475 make a decision to purchase a mobile phone because of the advertisements being aired on different print, electronic and social media.

  1. What is their social media usage pattern?

Out of 133 million mobile phone users in Pakistan, 3G/4G users in Pakistan are around 35 million. The Facebook Audience Insight tool says that from Pakistan there are a total of 25 million users. 75% of them are male while 25% are female. A two-third majority of these users is below 25 years of age and belongs to a comparatively richer segment of the country. Twitter is the second most popular social media website in Pakistan.

In a recent survey by the Gallup Pakistan, it was revealed that 92% of the internet users in Pakistan use social media. The survey was conducted on a national representative sample of men and women from four provinces who use the internet. As per gender breakdown, 94.2% male internet users also use social media while 87.9% female internet users are using social media. Their specific usage pattern of social media was also revealed in a similar research according to which if we prioritize the reasons due to which people use social media are as follows.

Connecting with friends, read the news, remembering friend’s birthdays, to comment, like, tweet and re-tweet, to seek attention, to watch people secretly, to control boredom, to promote work and business and the least use it to support a social cause. A few of them also identified themselves as a victim of SAD (Social Media Addiction Disorder).

  1. What is their awareness level on various things like cyber crime-related activities, security, abuse, frauds and pinching others etc?

There are only a few who are well aware of cyber-crime-related activities, security breaches and frauds on social media in Pakistan. The awareness on sexual abuse has been raised in previous few years because of the multiple cases of abuse and killings that happened through Facebook and were reported on national media. But the cyber-crime laws and cyber security are no go areas for internet users in Pakistan. Largely because of our social norms and partly for the inefficient criminal justice system, such cases are not reported by most of the victims. The conviction rate is very low and punishments alike.

A recent research by Haroon Baloch for Association for Progressive Communications (APC) concludes that only 15% of internet users are aware of the cyber crimes, internet security and related issues to some extent. In such a situation there is a dire need to include cyber-crime and internet security related chapters in 8th-grade syllabus onward. That is an effective way to teach our younger generation about these subjects ignorance to which will be fatal.

In today’s digital insecurity, the world is fast digitizing itself. No country can ignore to teach its citizens about the risks that are associated with cyberspace. These risks are associated with transactions, breach of privacy through social media, data leaks, emails, intellectual property rights, frauds and others. Pakistan has already passed and enacted a controversial Cyber Crime Law but without awareness, these laws will not contain the crime.

This century is bringing a fundamental change in this world. It is taking physics out of the globe. Yes, Physics!!! How? From people to friendship the substance is getting lost in small palm sized devices called mobile phones which are very smart now. Digitization is killing the pile of files and papers and substituting it with invisible electronic data. Mindless zombies have substituted Baseball, Hockey, Football, Gulli Danda and Hide n Seek. The reality is losing its value to 0 and 1. Celluloid films, cathode ray tubes and music cassettes have become a part of the previous century. But no one is panic about this, as we are welcoming it by addiction. And those few panic, are getting no response and digitization is taking its space forcefully.

Instead of filling the hungry belly, paying the electricity, gas, water supply and children school bill, an easy load, a recharge in the palm-sized device is being preferred. At a speed of 120, when a little error can kill all inside our car and on a motorbike, where life depends on the equilibrium of two finger wide wheels, we can prefer to send and receive text messages. From a monthly salary of Rs. 10,000, after a 5 months saving, he has not opted to buy jewelry for her soon-to-marry daughter, but a mobile phone.

Obsession is occupying nerves, the 21st-century apocalypse is about to happen.