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Multilingual Systems: A brief introduction

  We have used the phrase "Multilingual Systems" to refer to computer programs which permit user interaction with the computer in one or more languages, where the language  can be selected dynamically, either at the time of invocation of the program or subsequently  during its execution.  Typically, a Multilingual System will permit users to interact with  computers in their own mother tongue. Such a system will have far reaching consequences  in our country (India) where English is not spoken  or understood by the majority of the people  living in areas away from urban environments. 

  Over the years, the bulk of software development in India has been carried out primarily through the English language. Knowledge of English is essential for the development of Information Systems since  virtually all development packages rely on English specific input.  Current software development  tools can also be used to develop an application that incorporates little or no English in its user interface. Hence  Multilingual Systems are not only feasible at the level of an application program but can also  present a truly localized environment for a user desiring to interact with computers in regional languages.  This approach has the added advantage of providing uniformity across computer  systems where, regardless of the machine (PC, MAC, Workstation etc.) the user will see  the same interface. 

   Multilingual systems catering only to the display of information are easier to design and  build. The phenomenal growth of the internet has created the need for internationalization of the web where, using the right software tools, one can present information in the form in which it would be received best. However, technical challenges faced in implementing  such Multilingual Systems and the lack of standards have retarded the development, especially in respect of the languages of India. 

   In the past, Multilingual systems in  Indian languages have basically concentrated on data preparation and printing (DTP). The increasing demand for using computers in the vernacular has forced  developers to look at the user interface with seriousness.  The efforts at the Systems Development Laboratory, IIT Madras, reflect the desire on the part of the students of the lab, to provide a quality Multilingual System for the country that is truly Indian in concept, design and implementation. 

  Development of Software to permit user interaction with computers in different languages, was undertaken in the Systems Development Laboratory, Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras during the late eighties and has continued to this day.  In the sections presented below, we share with the readers our experiences in dealing with this interesting but complex problem.

Computing in Indian Languages: A conceptual Framework

General Introduction to Indian Languages and Scripts

Phonetic Nature of Indian languages

Transliteration Principles

Data Entry methods suited for Indian scripts

Peculiarities of  the Scripts and Writing Systems of India

Electronic representation of Text in Indian Languages: A discussion

Existing Standards for Codes in respect of Indian Scripts

Unicode and ISCII: Specific limitations

Fonts for Indian Languages

Technical issues in providing support within Operating Systems
(Language enabling versus Localization)

Limitations seen in word processing or DTP software.

By Multilingual systems we mean computer applications which support user interfaces in different Indian languages and scripts.

Electronic processing of information in Indian languages will require that linguistic aspects be incorporated into the representation of text.

Uniform coding of the aksharas across the different Indian languages will help in developing applications which can work with every language/script.

For many years now, people have tried to design fonts for indian scripts so as to allow complex conjunct letters to be displayed. Fonts designed for Indian scripts are not based on any standards. With multitudes of fonts on the web, even for a single script, one faces serious incompatibilities in text processing.

The software developed at IITMadras is an effort at providing a development environment for efficient text processing in all the Indian languages and thus allow applications to interact with users in their own mother tongue.

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