Google is bilingual in India, whether users ask for it or not

File photo of Google logo. Since December 2022, the company has been picking up the region a user is physically located in and processing their search history to provide information in two languages. 
| Photo Credit: Reuters

There’s a reason people in India have been seeing bi-lingual search results on Google. Since December 2022, the company has been picking up the region a user is physically located and processing their search history to provide information in two languages. Users in New Delhi will see results in English and Hindi, and users in Tamil Nadu see results in English and Tamil.

“Using advanced machine learning-based translation models and a cross-language search technology, we’ll serve you high-quality and relevant content in your local language alongside English results, if that’s how you choose to view them,” Google had said in its blog post announcing bilingual results. However, users appear to be getting such result pages without actually choosing to do so.

“Why does Google decide on its own to randomly show me some search results in Hindi or Gujarati,” Mumbai-based communications professional Minari Shah asked on Twitter earlier this month. “I have never ever made those my settings!”

Another user, who said she was Bengali, responded that she was getting results and news suggestions in Kannada and Hindi.

The change appears to be rolling out even to users who never opted to use one of the languages. Take New Delhi, a city where the names of roads are displayed in English, Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu. Users browsing with a device set to English are likely to see results in just English and Hindi, unless their phone is set to a language other than English to begin with.

“At Google in India, our aim is to help everyone benefit from using the internet in their daily lives,” a Google spokesperson said, in an emailed statement. “That means breaking down language barriers through our products and helping people interact with technology just as they would in the real world. It’s not a simple task and our work is far from done, but we remain committed to improving our language experience and building products that are accessible to everyone.”

The company shared that it would work in the future on giving users a choice to opt out of the bilingual search results that it is serving in the country.

For now, though, the way to view results in just English is not straightforward, according to testing done on multiple devices by The Hindu. On the Google app on mobile, going to Settings and changing the language from ‘English (India)’ to any other international variant is not possible: the app refuses to change the English variant. Before that, users need to change their entire device’s language away from ‘English (India)’, and only then will they be able to change the language to a different English variant. And then, the region too has to be changed away from India.

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That’s the only way to change search result languages away from bilingual to English for Indian users. A similarly inconsistent dynamic plays out on YouTube, where the company said on Twitter that it will use certain ‘signals’ based on users’ viewing history and location to decide which language comments in foreign tongues get translated to: even if a user’s set language is English, the streaming app may decide unilaterally that the only output language for translated comments is Hindi. The company further shared that it was working to make language preferences easier to choose.

Google Search has been offered in India in multiple languages soon after it established its offices here in 2004, but the company has pushed forward with bilingual results for English users anyway in recent months, reflecting a tenuous balance between the English-by-default bend of multilingual Indians and the need to have local language content consumed by more people.

In 2017, Divyashree Bhat, a Google India executive who was then heading the company’s local language initiatives, flagged the “input mechanisms in search” as a focus area during a discussion held by the technology policy news website MediaNama. “We’ll probably test out a few apps in Indian languages, consume content occasionally, but we’ll be English-first,” Ms. Bhat had said, referring to the tendency of multilingual users to gravitate towards English content.

“But what about the Indic-first users,” Ms. Bhat asked, referring to speakers who were more at ease in an Indian language other than English. “Are we empowering them with enough input methods?” Five years on, users in India are now increasingly being served with bilingual outputs, no matter the input methods.

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