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The way of Bengal

John Galloway tries his hand at Bengali with a new Asian word processor, Banglaword

On your average Bengali word processing package, characters are mapped on to the standard QWERTY keyboard with helpful booklets, stickers - the English keyboard is adapted to a different script and language. Banglaword only uses the western keyboard and English as its starting point.

Developed by four young Bangladeshi IT graduates this program was a commercial project that has become a free internet download. It takes as its starting point English phonics which are then used to locate Bengali characters. I very quickly found that I could produce the names of friends and colleagues in Bengali script by writing them with English phonemes. I got quite a buzz from writing Shamsun's name in her language despite having no knowledge of Bengali.

The software is still relatively new and not 100 per cent accurate on phonics alone because the phonemes of the two languages cannot be matched exactly. Bengali literate colleagues I have shown it to reckon it is 90-95 per cent accurate, with very useful help files that fill in the gaps. These provide a complete character map of the keyboard.

So what's the point of using knowledge of English to write Bengali? At first the developers saw their market as the businesses of Banglatown in the East End. However, they soon realised the people who really wanted to use it were the local population who have computers to keep in touch with each other and with relatives in Bangladesh. In some cases they couldn't afford the commercial products. In others they have sufficient knowledge to read Bengali, but not to write it, as 15-year-old Shanaz demonstrated to me.

She was born in this country and has studied Bengali at home and at school, although she is not a confident writer of the script. With her knowledge of English phonics and her ability to read Bengali, she used Banglaword to produce texts quickly and accurately in a way that she has not been able to before. This is software that exploits the bilingualism of its users.

Even for those of us who are not so gifted, it offers the chance to produce language resources quickly, to support those at an early stage of learning English or to celebrate the diversity of language in the classroom.

Banglaword can be downloaded from www.banglasoftware.com

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