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Updated: November 3, 2013 18:44 IST

Words without borders

SOORAJ RAJMOHAN
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Linguistic enabler Sunil Khandbale at INK 2013.
Special arrangement Linguistic enabler Sunil Khandbale at INK 2013.

Sunil Khandbahale did not know how to use a dictionary. He is now the proud creator of digital dictionaries in all 22 vernacular languages

Sunil Khandbahale is a picture of unassuming self-assurance and eager observation. For a man who has garnered much acclaim for creating online and mobile-based dictionaries for all the officially recognised Indian languages, he looks around with some awe at the interiors of the Le Meridien hotel in the city, where he was invited to speak about his work at INK 2013. “This is the first time I have sat in a plane,” he reveals with a smile, “I was more worried about checking in and buckling my seatbelt than the actual talk.”

Sunil, one of three children from a farming family in Mahiravani, near Nashik, says that he is the first in his family to have received complete formal education. “My parents were not financially well off, but they were determined to educate us. I originally wanted to become a painter but because I got good grades I was sent to an engineering college to study instrumentation,” he says.

For Sunil, who had studied in Marathi medium till then, the Government Polytechnic of Ahmednagar was a challenge. He was one among the minority who did not speak English, a factor that prompted some of the other students to leave the course and made Sunil consider the same. “I was on the brink of quitting but I remembered the sacrifices my parents had made to educate me and I could not give up on them. When I approached a professor with my problem, he suggested I get a dictionary. I found it to be a strange word and did not know what to do about it,” Sunil says.

Sunil did eventually learn its meaning and procured a dictionary, spending hours making notes and learning new words. By the time his course ended, Sunil was surprised to learn that he was among the few who had passed. The achievement led him to think that his friends who had left the course would have stood a better chance had they also had access to a dictionary. “The dictionary was my friend, and that friendship had helped me see that day. So I started making photocopies of my dictionary, with all my notes and observations, but the reach was limited. I then considered printing it as a booklet but that raised a lot of new costs I could not bear. This was in 1997, and computers were becoming popular, so I decided a digital dictionary was the way to go,” he reminisces.

After overcoming his lack of software know how (by sitting in a room with a borrowed computer and books for the better part of six months), Sunil finally released an online English-Marathi-English dictionary, the first of its kind. The venture met with much praise and soon Sunil was flooded with requests for more languages, which he promptly obliged, “Though my personal expertise could only be used for Marathi, Hindi and English, I soon reached out to linguists and experts in various fields for help, mostly at universities. When they saw that I wanted to create a linguistic community, they were immediately on board, asking for nothing in return.”

Sunil and his team have now created dictionaries for all vernacular languages to English and vice-versa, with around 22 languages to their credit.

However, he is far from done with his efforts, with his dream being a global linguistic community. “I have a four-stage plan; the first is to create dictionaries for all officially recognised languages, the second to cover all vernacular languages and dialects, because there are so many, in the third stage we plan to include international languages and the final stage is to integrate all this together into a collective where English is not needed as a link and users can directly translate from one language to another.”

And how many of these stages has he completed? “One so far, and it took me 13 years,” he says with a smile, before adding, “but now things should move faster thanks to all the help I am getting.” He says many interesting things as he speaks about his work, but his parting words are perhaps the ones that sum him up best, “The world is full of good people who are ready to help, all you need is a good cause.”

More information and the setup files for his dictionaries can be found at his website khandbahale.com (Android and Java enabled devices). Android users can also do a quick search for ‘Khandbahale’ on the Play Store for a list of all Sunil’s dictionaries.

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