A recent study conducted by the American University in Cairo found that 78 per cent of Arab internet users have never typed in Arabic. I have to admit that I used to be one of them.
Just a few months ago one of my entrepreneurship students at Dubai Men’s College sent me an e-mail inquiring about his future career path. The e-mail was sent in Arabic and I thought it was only appropriate for me to reply in the same language.
Simple? Not so. Although I have come to view the keyboard as an extension of my hands, I started typing my five-line reply at about 11pm and didn’t finish until 1am.
The reason for the slow pace was that, after years typing with the M and N letter keys in the bottom righthand corner of the keyboard, I could not with a click of the mouse switch to Arabic and adjust to the fact that both keys move up and to the right. Or the fact that there are three keys for the letter A in Arabic.
Frankly, for many people, most of the time spent “typing” in Arabic isn’t typing at all. It’s hovering over the keyboard pecking around for the correct keys. And, as if getting used to one Arabic keyboard adopted by the personal computing industry was not enough, in comes Apple with its own version; the English keyboard’s Latin B turns into an Arabic L on a PC, but transforms into “th” on the Mac. You get the point.
According to Google, Arab internet users constitute 5 per cent of internet traffic but only contribute one per cent of internet content. Also, much of the content generated by Arabic speakers is in other languages such as English or French, or relies on an innovative numerical system. In the past decade young Arabs created their own reality in cyberspace by adopting Arabic numerals that look similar to Latin letters to denote specific consonants for proper Arabic pronunciation. For instance, Ahmad could also be spelt A7mad and Abeer becomes 3abeer.
A senior official at a global IT search engine firm based in Dubai told me that much of the content being created in Arabic was in the form of social chatter. Arab boys and girls use this numerical system to flirt with each other. While that is not a surprise, traffic should now be directed at creating more appropriate content in Arabic.
This is where Yamli comes in. According to its website, the idea of Yamli was born in the summer of 2006 during the Israeli war in Lebanon, when much of the up-to-date information was available in the Arabic news portals and blogs. Imad Jureidini and Habib Haddad, the founders of Yamli, decided to bridge the language gap that was staring us all in the face by creating software that interprets Ahmad or A7mad and transforms it into Arabic script.
Yamli, which means to dictate, has an inspirational story to tell. It is a local brand that was created by Arabs in the context of conflicts that are so often endured. This made me wonder how much the potential of the region’s youth is hidden by the realities on the ground.
The Arabian Gulf states, led by the UAE, are the best at adapting technology in the region, according to a study by the Arab Advisors Group. It is safe to assume that a large number of internet users have learnt to use standard Qwerty keyboards.
Yamli has opened the eyes of this section of the Arab world to a new-found ability to type in classical or local dialects of Arabic, which will catapult the amount of Arabic words and pages available on the internet. The website, which features an Arabic 2search engine, also opens the Arabic cyber-world to millions of Arabs living in the diaspora in Europe, North America and Australia where access to Arabic keyboards is very limited. In fact, a friend of mine commented about how much he is looking forward to a BlackBerry version of Yamli so he can chat with his friends in Arabic script.
There is no doubt that internet giants like Microsoft, Google, Wikipedia and Yahoo have played a large part in the spread of Arabic online but, no matter how many services these firms offer, a large number of educated and opinionated Arabs would not be able to share their thoughts in the Arabic language – in reporting, blogging or other contributions – if it weren’t for Yamli. This simple website’s effect to preserve Arabic in the cyber-world cannot be measured. Yamli has been so successful that Microsoft recently launched a clone programme called Maren that works with Windows applications.
Now that Yamli has tackled the quantity of Arabic content on cyberspace, one can only hope that Arab governments finally reform their educational systems so that the quality of Arabic content on cyberspace can also improve.
*This article first appeared in The National on Sunday 20 September 2009