Challenges of Enabling IT in the Sinhala Language
Gihan Dias - ICT Agency

Intended Audience: Software Engineers, Font Designers, Marketers, Technical Writers

Session Level: Beginners

The Sinhala language is spoken by about 12 million people in Sri Lanka. However, even in 2004, most computer operating systems, databases and applications in Sri Lanka ran only in English. Only a handful of Sinhala websites existed.

This paper first examines why this happened, and how it held back the use of IT. It then describes the development of Sinhala computing over the last two years, and the prospects for the future.

In 2002, the Council for Information Technology (CINTEC) set up a committee to initiate Sinhala computing in the country. It identified the reasons for the low use of local-language IT.

One reason was the lack of standards. Although many Sinhala fonts were available, none were standards-based. Sinhala was included in Unicode in 1998, but there were no implementations even by 2002.

One reason for the non-adoption of Unicode was that that the Unicode standard, as published, did not mention of some common symbols and ligatures. Although the corresponding Sri Lanka Standard did explain these, most people were unaware of it. Another issue was the lack of operating system support, especially in Microsoft Windows.

The non-availability of a standard Sinhala keyboard led to the perception that "computers don't work in Sinhala". We were successful in getting manufacturers to produce and distribute Sinhala keyboards, and to specify them in government procurement.

We learned that perception and prioritisation are as important as technical issues. These lessons will be useful to those introducing IT to a new language.