The new Ministry of Telecom and IT has published newspaper advertisements requesting ideas on how ICT may be advanced in Sri Lanka. LIRNEasia promptly responded, submitting a selection of policy briefs developed last year. We encourage others to respond as well.
I sent this mail to the Ministry and publishing for your perusal
Let us change the standard
Development through Language links to IT
– Beyond the UNICODE-
With the end of a long drawn armed conflict, and a beginning of a new political era, we Sri Lankans have begun to look towards the future with much optimism. We speak of an “IT” enabled society, English for all, Education excellence, Regional Commercial hub, infrastructure and rural development and economic stability among other things. Now, the question is, should we either wait for things to happen or work to make it happen.
Communication, Information Technology and Education have become key components in driving progressive nations towards economic growth and political stability. However, for Sri Lanka, imitating the West or other Asian growth recipes may not be a path or solution that would fit us as a nation. We need to look for recipes and solutions to suit our own systems, cultures, expectations and unique opportunities.
The lack of fluency in English is considered as a weakness and obstacle to our progress, with only 6% of our population fluent in English. Yet, instead of looking for weakness, let us consider how we could build on our strengths. We have a 92% literacy through our native languages, Sinhala and Tamil. But the main obstacle in using Sinhala and Tamil is its links to IT due to the lack of a Unicode that links us to other world languages as well as to each other.
To take an example, one can use Japanese, Chinese, German, French, English or any of the other major languages, in any type of letter font and send it over the internet or any other telecommunication system, where it would be legible for the recipient to be able to read. You can send an SMS in any of these languages and the recipient will could read it. Yet, not so in Sinhala or Tamil. We cannot send an SMS in Sinhala or Tamil to any other mobile phone user regardless of the network. We cannot send an e-mail or access the net in Sinhala or Tamil without any restrictions and limitations. Many websites, written in Sinhala of Tamil appear garbled due to this short coming.
Software for translations between Sinhala and Tamil or any other language cannot be developed due to this lack of proper registration (utf values) of all Sinhala and Tamil characters in UNICODE.
With the development of IT, language is no longer a barrier for communication. Bringing in English as a link language to make us IT enabled is simply not the solution. It is unproductive, and non-starter. In IT terms, without a common code to link, English cannot be made a link language. Even with a population of over 60millionTamil speaking people, and with 22 different main languages, Tamil is not a priority for India. But for Sri Lanka, using IT to bridge the digital divide between our two main languages and with others must be made a priority.
Unfortunately, due to a lack of knowledge and foresight of the Unicode, we have missed the UNICODE “bus”. However, what I have done is to arrange, as it were a special “bus” to get us back on the road. I holds a patent for this unique system and is looking for the public sector to help me to produce it for open use.(patent No: 13120)
Some of the many benefits of linking Sinhalese and Tamil through the “Beyond the UNICODE” System are:
Distant Education in Sinhala and Tamil
Sinhala and Tamil translators to other languages including Chinese, Russian, German or any other
OCR (Scan document for editable text across any platform / Operating System)
Voice to text/text to voice (for visual and hearing impaired)
Sinhala & Tamil SMS
Digital school book publishing
Language education through the Net (teaching English or other as a second language)
Digital music compositions, electronic book publishing among many others.
Among other indirect benefits for public services are efficient Land registrations, Court proceedings, Public transport administration, GPS, crop management, where, when carried out in Sinhala and Tamil, leading to greater productivity and with over 500,000 estimated new job opportunities among many others.
I believe that one of the greatest opportunities that this system offers is the breaking down of the age old language barrier between Sinhala and Tamil. There would be no more excuses for not understanding each other.
If we are to describe American, Canadian and Australian cultures, we think of the Native Americans or the Aborigine as a reference to a language of their own. When Lee Kwan Yu had to bring people of three different ethnicities in together in Singapore, he had no choice then, but to make English the working language. We now have the technology and the opportunity to have our own sustainable solution while preserving our valuable cultural heritage as well as for economic and social progress.
I am in no way trying to argue to deprive the rural masses of the opportunity to learn English and progress. But what we need to look at is why, after so many years trying to teach English to the masses, we have not succeeded.
In summary, root cause to the major hurdles and obstacles that prevents over 92% of our population benefiting from the new opportunities that technology offers is no longer the lack of English knowledge. It is the lack of commitment to get Sinhala and Tamil linked to the world.
Let us hope that the relevant government authorities take note and give me the required assistance to get this “Beyond the Unicode” bus off the ground and get Sri Lanka back on track to join the world. I can be contacted by e-mail on email@example.com.
Let us change the standard