Preserving languages and cultures in India: The birth of the Tulu Wikipedia

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After eight years of effort and outreach, the Tulu language Wikipedia has gone live. Wikimedia contributors play a key role in preserving languages and cultures, and tools like the Wikimedia Incubator help new projects like the Tulu Wikipedia get started.

Tulu is a language spoken by three to five million people in the states of Karnataka and Kerala in the southwest and south India respectively, and by some people in the US and in Gulf countries. Tulu Wikipedia is the 294th Wikipedia and the 23rd South Asian language Wikipedia.

The Tulu Wikipedia grew in the Wikimedia Incubator for about eight years before going online. So far, 198 editors have contributed 1285 articles, and the active editors that have more than 5 edits per month in the project number between 5-10 on average.

Tulu Wikipedia started back in 2008 with just one or two editors. But neither the project nor the community remained active except for sporadic edits. Without any meetups or outreach it was difficult for those editors to work as a community to bring the project live. The Centre for Internet and Society—Access to Knowledge (CIS-A2K) program, a catalytic program funded by the Wikimedia Foundation to support and grow the Indian language Wikipedias and Wikimedia projects in the Indian subcontinent, started work on building a community for Tulu in 2014. It all started with an informal meetup, and then more community meetups started happening. The community also conducted Wikipedia editing training workshops, and St. Aloysius College came forward to help grow the community and the project.

St. Aloysius College introduced the Wikipedia Education Program where students started editing Wikipedia as part of their syllabus. Vishwanatha Badikana, assistant professor of the Kannada language department at St. Aloysius, became an active Tulu Wikipedia editor himself and led the outreach activities in the institution. Similarly, many students from St. Aloysius College also contributed articles of diverse subject areas.

However, the community is still fairly small and has to grow outside of St. Aloysius College. "A series of eight how-to video tutorials have been created to help editors to learn about Wikipedia policies and guidelines, manual of style and overall editing. Many students have contributed in creating these tutorials", says Dr. Badikana. The current set of editors are doing their best in spreading the word about the project while safeguarding the core values of Wikipedia. In an interview to media portal Daijiworld, Bharathesha Alasandemajalu, an active editor based in Oman said, "Anyone can write or edit articles on Wikipedia Tulu, but it should not be plagiarised. The photos should be one's own or uploaded with valid permission from the owner. This will help the future generation to know more about the language and act as a source of information on Tulu language and culture."

One of the biggest challenges, apart from the limitations in attracting new contributors, is the lack of Unicode support. Unicode is a global standard for scripts, and the Tigalari script that is used to write in Tulu is not encoded in Unicode. At the moment, all the articles in the Tulu Wikipedia are written in the Kannada script as the speakers are mostly based in the state of Karnataka, and speak Kannada as a second language.

With its great and long linguistic heritage, Tulu is still struggling to be widely used, especially in its native script. The lack of promotion is also evident as the official body, the Karnataka Tulu Sahitya Academy, that is set up by the Karnataka government uses Kannada and English in the official portal. However, Dr. Badikana shared in an interview to the author that he is hopeful to see more Tulu speakers contributing to Tulu Wikipedia, as he feels that growing language content online would be the best thing to do along with working in a conventional classroom.

Somewhere in Mumbai in a moving local train.
Subhashish Panigrahi (@subhapa) is the founder of OpenSpeaks, an award winning project that helps grow open resources to digitally-document marginalized languages. He co-founded O Foundation (OFDN), a nonprofit that works towards addressing issues that lie in the cusp of people, culture, and technology with Openness in its core.

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