Satdeep Gill on online Punjabi culture Global Voices

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Satdeep Gill, January 2020. Image via Wikimedia by Myleen Hollero. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Editor’s note: From April 26 to May 2, 2022, Satdeep Gill will host the @AsiaLangsOnline rotating Twitter account, which explores how technology can be used to revitalize Asian languages. Learn more about the campaign here.

Satdeep Gill is a free knowledge enthusiast based in Patiala, in the northwestern state of Punjab in India. Since 2011, he has contributed to the development and growth of the online Punjabi Wikipedia space; he also spearheaded the launch of the Global Voices Punjabi lingua project in 2017.

Gill joined the Wikimedia Foundation in 2017 to support community conversations related to the Wikimedia movement’s 2030 strategy. Since November 2018, he has been a program manager in the GLAM & Culture team (GLAM = Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) at the Wikimedia Foundation and supports projects related to digitization, linguistic documentation and language revitalization .

One of the recent projects supported by Gill was a capacity building workshop in partnership with UNESCO and the Bophana Center in Cambodia. He focused on training indigenous youth to help them document their languages ​​and cultures. He also supported the creation of Balinese Wikisource which allows the Balinese community to transcribe their literary heritage, from palm leaf manuscripts, to the internet.

Gill also contributes to Wikimedia Commons by photographing the birds of Punjab and surrounding states.

Bluethroat near Jalalpur, Patiala.  Image via Wikipedia by Satdeep Gill.  CC BY-SA 4.0.

Bluethroat near Jalalpur, Patiala. Image via Wikipedia by Satdeep Gill. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Rising Voices interviewed Satdeep Gill via email. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Rising Voices (RV): Tell us about yourself and your language skills.

Satdeep Gill (SG): I have always lived in the city of Patiala. I studied math and science in high school but focused on Punjabi language and literature from my undergraduate degree.

I love learning languages. Besides my native Punjabi (Gurmukhi and Shahmukhi scripts), I am fluent in English, Hindi and Urdu. I have touched Spanish and French for many years and I know that I can thrive in Spanish or French speaking countries. These days, I really enjoy learning Farsi online at Shahid Chamran University in Ahvaz, Iran.

RV: Tell us about your involvement with the Punjabi Wikipedia and your accolades.

OS: It is important to note that the Punjabi language is written in two scripts, Gurmukhi, written from left to right and mainly used in India, and Shahmukhi, written from right to left and used in Pakistan. Although the spoken language is quite similar, there are major differences in the writing, which has led to the creation of two different Wikipedias for the language. Punjabi Wikipedia (for Gurmukhi script) and Western Punjabi Wikipedia (for Shahmukhi script).

When I discovered Punjabi Wikipedia in the early 2010s, it had a very small number of articles, most of them. My father joined me and together we started building the Punjabi Wikipedia.

In 2011, I started my undergraduate degree at Punjabi University, Patiala and started involving my peers in contributing to the Punjabi version of Wikipedia. Our efforts have helped create a vibrant community of Punjabi Wikipedians meeting regularly and engaging in various national and international activities.

In 2015, I was the first Punjabi Wikipedian to be invited to Wikimania (the biggest event dedicated to Wikipedia and its sister projects) in Mexico. There, I received an honorable mention from Jimmy Wales for our efforts to make the Punjabi Wikipedia one of the fastest growing Indian Wikipedias.

RV: What is the current state of the Punjabi language, online and offline?

OS: Punjabi is the official language of Punjab state in India and Punjabi music is quite famous all over the world. Despite its official status and status in popular culture, most private schools in the state do not encourage speaking Punjabi – in fact, students are punished for speaking in their native language. I was also educated in a school where speaking English was compulsory and if we wanted to change the language we were advised to use Hindi instead of Punjabi.

The Punjabi enjoys no patronage in Pakistan, where the Punjabis form the largest ethnic group with around 40% of the population. The national language of Pakistan is Urdu and Punjabi is not even taught at school level.

On the other hand, the increase in migration from the region over the past century, particularly in recent decades, has meant that Punjabis form significant communities in the UK, Canada, USA and Australia, among others. 2011 census data released by the Office of National Statistics in the UK indicated that Punjabi was the third most widely spoken language in the UK, and it is taught at GCSE and A levels in the country.

On online platforms, Punjabi seems to have grown a lot over the past decade – Punjabi Wikipedia has grown more than tenfold. As of December 2013, the Punjabi language in the Gurmukhi script is supported by Google Translate, and its quality has since improved. High-quality optical character recognition tools are also available in the language. In 2017, the BBC also launched its Punjabi language service.

All of this means that, despite its own challenges and obstacles, Punjabi still enjoys many privileges and access to many mainstream sources.

RV: Describe some of the challenges your language faces today.

OS: One of the main challenges for the Punjabi community is not having a single script or a policy for them to learn both scripts.

I strongly believe that both Punjabi scripts should be compulsory, at least for Punjabi students at university level. With the advent of the internet, online communities of Punjabis all over the world have formed over the past few decades, where the Latin script has become the simplest writing system for many Punjabis, especially when they have conversations across borders. The Punjabi University of Patiala developed a script conversion tool called Sangam (meaning “union”) a few years ago, which helps fill in some of these gaps.

Another major challenge is that the spelling is non-standard for the vast majority of words in Punjabi.

RV: Tell us about your role in Global Voices’ Punjabi Lingua. Did you encounter any challenges?

OS: I love Global Voices’ citizen media model and in 2017 I was motivated to help start GV in Punjabi. I was able to rally some of my Wikimedian friends and colleagues to join the GV Punjabi team. We mainly focused on translating stories from different parts of the world that are rarely heard about or talked about in national media.

We haven’t been very cohesive since the start of the pandemic as it has drained all of our energy, but I hope to get the team back on track and start working regularly on GV again.

RV: What motivational words do you have for young and old Punjabi speakers to get involved in projects like Punjabi Wikipedia or Punjabi Lingua? How can voluntary participation enrich your language?

OS: I would like to remind everyone that the Internet is what we make of it. Projects like Wikipedia or Global Voices are among the participatory and citizen projects that show us how powerful it can be for people passionate about knowledge to come together and build the digital society of our dreams.

Punjabi Wikipedia has received an average of 750,000 page views per month over the past year. This tells us how important this platform is for Punjabi internet users. Currently, there are only about 20 to 25 editors on the Punjabi Wikipedia, and the more that number grows, the better the quality and quantity of content it hosts.

There are also other Wikipedia sister projects such as Wikisource which plays a very crucial role especially for some of the underrepresented languages ​​in the world. Punjabi Wikisource is the only transcription platform (which helps to create copyable digital formats from digitized books) for the Punjabi language. This is one of the few places on the internet where I can download Punjabi books for my Kindle.

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