Changing the world one word at a time: An interview with Sunil...

Changing the world one word at a time: An interview with Sunil Khandbahale.


Coming from a strictly Marathi-medium school in a small village near Nashik, Sunil Khandbahale started off as a young engineering student who struggled with the English language like most of his  class-mates. While all of them packed their bags and left, unable to overcome the language divide, he stayed behind and decided to create something that would change the way languages created a hurdle in an individual’s growth in the coming years.

With his resolution of never letting a student abandon his education due to rural inferiority complex and linguistic divide, Sunil went on to develop digital dictionaries for mobile phones and computers with a repository of 9.6 million audio and textual words in 16 domains, like Legal, Agriculture and Pharmacy, in 22 different Indian languages.

Still grounded to his roots and continuing his work of bridging the ‘language’ divide, we caught up with Sunil in a brief chat about his journey from being introduced to the dictionary for the first time to developing a free platform for people to learn English and many other languages.

Q) From a Marathi School to creating digital dictionaries in 22 languages. How do you see your journey of overcoming the linguistic divide yourself and then helping people all over the world to achieve the same?

A) Personally, I think, I have done nothing great. As the famous quote goes, ‘Necessity is the mother of Invention’, overcoming the language barrier was sort of a necessity for me at that time. I chose to respond to it positively which eventually bore me the sweet fruits of success, achievement and self-confidence. The only thing that I did differently perhaps is that I shared my secret of success with everyone and still continue to do so.

I would say it was a wonderful journey. With every step it became more challenging, enjoyable and a full-fledged learning experience like no other. I firmly believe that the world is full of people who are ready to help. All you need is to give them is a good cause. A lot of people helped, encouraged and motivated me through the course of my journey which kept me going as I continued to do my best at everything I took up. I am a non-IT guy. Not a linguist either. I approached many linguist and subject experts and asked for their help. They contributed happily without asking me for anything in return. Isn’t it generosity? What I did was nothing but carry that generosity forward. Together we created a huge network of linguists and domain experts to form a community for lingual fraternity. Our main aim was to build a lingual repository and make it open and accessible to all. Here, I would like to mention two things. One is – how you look at the problem at micro level and second is- how you take initiative to solve it at macro level.

Q) You came from a non-English background yourself. At what particular point in your life did you decide to make a difference in the lives of people like you who suffered with a language barrier?

A) Sometimes, I feel I must thank God that I came from a non-English background otherwise; I would have not encountered the language barrier situation and all the difficulties it poses.

After school I got accepted into an engineering course that was only available in English. I did not know English at all then, and hence everything that was taught went right over my head. I was terrified. Meanwhile, a couple of students facing the same problem ran away. Even I decided to quit and pack my bags but then something stopped me. It was the innocent faces of my parents who dreamt that their son will become an Engineer soon. This made me think. They sent me here with so many expectations and here I was – running away. I decided to stay and fight instead. I approached a professor in my college regarding this and he told me to get a dictionary. That was the first time I had even heard the strange word called ‘dictionary’. Anyway, I got a dictionary and taught myself how to use it. I started jotting down the words professors wrote on the blackboard, in my notebook. After returning to my room, I would turn the dictionary inside-out, struggling to understand what was happening in the class. No matter how much it bugged me at the time and how cumbersome it was, I followed this practice sincerely. At the end of the year when the results were out, only four out of the sixty students had passed in all the subjects. I almost lost all hopes of completing my studies and becoming an engineer as I was sure I was not one of those six students who had made it. To everyone’s surprise and most importantly my own I had topped the class! It was at that moment I understood how strongly my success was connected to my friend-ship with the Dictionary.

This wasn’t enough. I thought about all of my class-mates who had run away. They certainly would have become engineers. The dictionary worked for me. So I thought, ”Why not for others?” There are millions who are aware of opportunities, but they don’t have the right tools, like language in my case. At that particular point of time, I felt it like it’s my duty to help them, to show them the way I had found and so I decided to help those with language difficulties.

Q) Your digital dictionaries currently have around 9.6 million audio and textual words in 16 domains. What challenges did you face in creating something so huge?

A) When I decided to do what I did, I had no idea how to go about it. So, I started distributing Xerox copies of my own compiled dictionaries but then how many copies I could practically distribute? A booklet dictionary wasn’t a feasible option either. Slowly, I understood that a ‘Digital Dictionary’ could be the right answer but as I mentioned before, I did not even know the ABC of computers. So, I decided to learn programming.

With reference to a paper advertisement, I prepared for the entrance exam of one of the renowned computer institute. I was qualified too but, I was thrown out because, I had no money to pay their fees. I literally begged them. I told them that I was ready to take up even the sweeper’s job but they didn’t listen. I took this as a challenge. I left my home, locked myself in 10 by 10 rooms with a borrowed computer & books and started self learning. I’d do this for 18-20 hours a day. At one point I had to undergo a surgery because of my continuous seating practice. After 6 months however, I had learnt almost all the programming languages.

Once I was done, I wrote a dictionary program that I wanted – a software which was world’s first ever search engine made in Marathi. It went viral in no time. I started copying and sharing it on CDs but then again, how many CDs? So I decided to set-up a website where the software could be downloaded for free and it became popular. Soon I realized there was also a huge internet divide and as a solution to that the tiny mobile phones in every body’s hands caught my eyes. I learnt mobile programming and developed multilingual dictionaries on different platforms but this was not enough. Over 93% of mobile phones in India were just basic phones with no capability to run any kind of application. then, I figured out the common denominator – SMS. I set-up a SMS service called ‘Dictionary on SMS’ – which I call my inclusive innovation.

Q) How big did you see this thing becoming when you started working on it all those years ago? Are you satisfied with how it has turned out and is progressing?

A) I had never thought that my small effort will get so much of acceptance and appreciation.  Dominance of a common universal language such as English on Internet, signage and the majority of published texts is the main hurdle in education, career & communication for native language speakers. All these factors contribute to the serious problem of Digital Divide. Travelling & migration are part & parcel of life in globalization era. Language connections are inevitable. There are millions who are aware of opportunities and have talent but do not have right words to understand and express themselves. Very often they drop out of schools, and even if they manage to learn somehow, they struggle to progress in their career or business.

Since 1998, in collaborative efforts with linguist and domain experts from renowned universities, I developed tools for learning and teaching experiences in 23 languages on different platforms and devices like computer, mobile, tablets, web, on SMS that have reached a user base of over 100 million across 150 countries. It may seem awesome, but we are living in a world where ‘Digital Divide’ is huge. Although my technology has been widely recognized and won awards but I realize that, it is only in hands of few. I want to give it to those who can benefit the most from it. I am finding my way to rural villages, remote areas and places where most technology has not yet reached. I am providing people in these areas with dictionary opportunities, language awareness and maybe most importantly – a window to self-confidence and hope.

To give you an example, I distributed dictionary apps to few school dropouts of few villages. And I saw, after a month, that their vocabulary is considerably improved! While farming, grazing and feeding the cattle I watched them play around with words like cow, water, farm, goat etc. Now, my mission is to repeat this success story across the hundreds & thousands of villages.

Q) What more do you see yourself doing in the future in this or other fields?

A) I also run a social organization called GlobalProsperityFoundation.Org that was set-up to encourage rural education and development. Since it was education that transformed my life I want to give gift of the same to the underprivileged children. My brother and colleague help me in my venture. My core focus is language as it s a huge domain. I have created as a free multilingual dictionary and as a lingual fraternity to work on different language related projects. I plan to create seamless, real-time translation platform for all the languages in the world using which a speaker can speak in his own mother tongue and listener will automatically listen to it in his own mother tongue. No linking language required. This project is my main focus but there are many valuable aspects to it which I must mention.

Language extinction is an immediate & alarming issue at world level. In the age of the Anthropocene, language extinction is happening faster than species extinction. Various efforts to save endangered languages can be seen at different levels. However, looking at the pace of language extinction, the efforts are insufficient to preserve even a tiny fraction of those languages facing immediate peril. Our project is helping to safeguard linguistic diversity with ‘Language Preservation & Promotion’ at collaborative & collective level with technological approach.

Secondly, ’Global Warming & Climate Change’ is a hot issue for all world leaders. Various efforts at world level can be seen to safeguard the ecosystem by conducting different programs by social organizations & governments. However, high consumption of natural resources and rapid industrialization causes serious environmental imbalances are so vast and widespread that conservation efforts struggle to keep pace with the damage. It may not be possible to everyone to plant & grow trees, but definitely each one of us can minimize usage of paper. Our language digitization project is a substantial initiative to ‘Save Paper, Save Tree’ by promoting green practices in daily life.

Thirdly, the question of ‘International Integration’ is always a burning issue at every international summit conference. In the era of ‘Globalization’, world has come closer. The concept of “Global Village’ has evolved into reality but, the need of ‘International Integration’ has emerged like never before. Diplomats are trying their best however, the efforts have not adequately addressed the issue. Our project addresses the issue of ‘Universal Integration’ with special attention to ‘Cultural Exchange’. To sum up, it’s not about technology. It’s about people. I am just using my skill and knowledge to make their life easy and at the same time living for self-satisfaction myself.

Sunil Khandbahale is a 2013 INK Fellow. Every year, INK identifies a fresh batch of multidisciplinary young trailblazers who they believe will be the change-makers of tomorrow. You can listen to Sunil’s INKtalk here.




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