Bridging the digital divide with Tamil coding

One of the challenges in introducing computer science concepts at a middle-school level is that programming languages are in English.

Muthiah Annamalai, a Boston-based software engineer originally from Chennai, has developed Ezhil, a Tamil-based interpreted procedural programming language. According to him, Ezhil facilitates coding in Tamil not just by replacing the English keywords with Tamil ones but also with a grammar, and logical sequence similar to the spoken language.

“The primary motivation is that like mathematics, computing is a concept, and can be introduced through any native language. My motivation is toward creating a language to introduce children to computing. Once children know to think in the logical modes (enumeration, recursion, procedural), then writing any program is an aggregation of ideas in some order,” Muthiah said over Skype and email interviews from Boston.

Muthiah is close to publishing a book along with Tamil writer N. Chokkan, titled “Writing Code in Tamil: Ezhil Programming Language”. This will accompany the website

Several sample bits of code will also be published and students can try them out with only an internet connection. This, he hopes, would encourage teachers and students alike to take to the project. He also hopes that Ezhil could be used in the Tamil Nadu government’s Samacheer Kalvi scheme, for students in classes VI to X.

Though Ezhil is now closer to a shape that could be taken to the classrooms, Muthiah has been working on the project since 2007. It has been an open source effort and a few volunteers have helped him with the project.

Ezhil was implemented on Python platform. It was released for developer testing in February 2008 and re-hosted on GitHub in 2013. In the interest of future availability, the developer has released Ezhil as a free software under the terms of GNU-GPL, including the libraries.

Those familiar with developments in Tamil computing say there have been several similar efforts in the past. But most efforts did not go public, and stopped at a ‘proof of concept’ level.

M. Ponavaikko, currently vice-chancellor of Bharath University, points to at least two such projects from several years before — Kanimozhi C and Java (Tamil). “It is surely an important requirement and several other countries like China and Japan have been coding in their own languages for several years now,” he added.

In his paper submitted to the annual conference of the International Forum of Information Technology in Tamil (INFITT), in September in Puducherry, Muthiah noted that one of the inspirations to Ezhil was a student project called ‘Swaram’. The project that was active in 2002 and 2003 was a static-typed programming language with a feature set resembling C-language. The students had submitted a paper on it in the INFITT conference of 2003. But, it did not go beyond the proof of concept stage.

S.G.Ganesh, who worked on Swaram as an Engineering student project in 2003 along with his batchmates G.R.Prakash, K.Ravikumar and Sudhir Sharma, said Muthiah’s persistence was inspiring. “I am glad that someone had the conviction to be at it all these years, and this is a great way to give something back to the community.”

Muthiah says: Ezhil programming system is designed like a procedural language (like BASIC/LOGO), and dynamic typed (declaration free) like Ruby/Python; that is, one can write the program on an interpreter, which is important for students to learn by immediate feedback edit-run­-edit-­run cycle instead of the edit-­compile­-re­edit-­compile­-execute cycle.

Ezhil is expected to make computing easy as its language semantics follow as closely as possible the trends in spoken Tamil.

Students will be able to move over to other mainstream languages like Java, Python, with their knowledge of Ezhil.

Muthiah Annamalai went to school at St. Bedes in in Chennai and did his graduation at National Institute of Technology, Trichy. He then obtained his Ph.D. from University of Texas in electrical engineering in 2011. He currently lives and works in Boston, with his wife, Chala, a medical professional and software usability reviewer.

Muthiah says his parents, Annamalai and Kamala, both fans of writers like Kannadasan, Kalki and classical Tamil devotional literature, fostered a strong spirit of identity and culture in him and his brother Chidambaram, now a theoritical science researcher.

His interests in education and digital Tamil language applications stemmed from his late grandfather, Meiyappan, a professor of Zoology at Alagappa University.

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Printable version | Jun 18, 2021 2:10:56 AM |

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