Eager to preserve language, Indians from Kerala embrace Wikipedia

An active online community of expatriate Keralites has made Malayalam the fastest growing regional language version of Wikipedia.

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NEW DELHI // Eager to preserve their language, Keralites have eagerly responded to Wikipedia's request for submissions in their native language Malayalam.

The campaign to expand Wikipedia offerings in Indian languages is aimed at boosting the website's exposure in India, which, when compared to the rest of the world, remains relatively small.

Of the scores of regional languages in India, Nepali and Hindi speakers have posted the most articles on Wikipedia in these languages. But an active online community of expatriate Keralites has made Malayalam the fastest growing regional language version of Wikipedia.

Keralites are proud of their language and culture. That devotion is driven partly by the Indian government's efforts to promote Hindi, a North Indian language, as the lingua franca of India.

In December last year, there were 90 active editors for the Malayalam-language website. There are now 564. Many joined when Wikipedia launched a campaign dubbed, "Malayalam loves Wikipedia" that solicited articles and photos from Keralites.

Wikipedia hopes the campaign could become a model to garner similar responses from other regional language speakers in India.

Many of these new editors for the Malayalam Wikimedia site came from Gulf countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. More than 15 per cent of all photo and text contributions came from Keralites based in the Gulf, such as Simy Nazarath, a software sales manager in Dubai. "You do it so that the language does not die," he said.

Wikipedia is the fifth most visited site in the world, where content is generated by 90,000 readers from across the world. Despite the global popularity of Wikipedia, the site remains relatively unknown in India. Every month, 400 million people visit the site, but only 14 million are from India.

"The potential in India is enormous," said Hisham Mundol, a consultant for Wikimedia Foundation's India programmes. The Wikimedia Foundation is a non-profit organisation that pays to operate Wikipedia.

Despite India's potential, getting Indians to read or write articles in their native language is difficult. "It is a case of the chicken or the egg," said Mr Mundol. "People don't write because there are not enough readers but people don't read because they think pages in their regional language don't exist."

But Malayalam Wikipedia is bucking the trend. It is the most rapidly growing regional language site in India. That is driven partly by the fact that Kerala has the highest literacy rate in the country — 93.9 per cent, according to the 2011 Census of India. English is the language of instruction in most private schools, while the government school courses are taught primarily in Malayalam.

Mr Nazarath finds the process of creating articles deeply rewarding. "It is quite fulfilling because if you look at it, not even the best of encyclopedias in the Malayalam language available in India has this many articles."

The Kerala government spent the last 20 years working on an encyclopaedia in Malayalam, but has managed to produce only 3,300 articles. In contrast, Malayalam Wikipedia now has more than 20,000. The state government has eagerly embraced the efforts of the Wikipedians, opening its archives to the website's amateur historians.

Mr Nazarath is one of the longest serving editors of Malayalam Wikipedia. He has written more than 400 articles since he began in 2006.

Mr Nazarath's areas of interest is Indian and Keralite history, especially medieval and ancient history. He both translates from English pages and writes new entries from references in Malayalam history books.

Now, Wikimedia is trying to engage India's elderly to preserve mythology or artists to write about folklore or interest groups to contribute more about fabric and craft techniques. "The opportunities are huge, but the question is how do we identify which ones to pursue," said Mr Mundol.

Mr Mundol said that the success of Malayalam Wikipedia could prove to be a benchmark for future efforts by the Wikimedia Foundation in India.

"With the Malayalam projects, the emphasis was on community building, on getting new editors."