What is Local Language Working Group ?

What is Local Language Working Group ?

Regrouping of the Local Language Working (LLWG) Group of ICTA – Introduction

After a three-year-long hiatus, the Local Language Working Group (LLWG) met virtually on the 28th of October 2021. Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) of Sri Lanka spearheaded and paved the way for the regrouping of LLWG under its patronage.  Mr. Wasantha Desapriya, former secretary to the Ministry of Telecommunications and Digital Infrastructure of the previous- Government, chaired the last LLWG meeting before it went into a long hibernation and inactivity after Mr. Despriya’s retirement. The LLWG led the policymaking functions of  Local Languages Development in Sri Lanka for almost fifteen years.

The origin of LLWG runs far back to the Internet Committee of the CINTEC in the latter part of the nineties. In those days, the late Prof. V.K. Samaranyake led the CINTEC as the chairman. The Internet Committee was responsible for the introduction and popularizing Internet in Sri Lanka. The Commercial Internet had come to Sri Lanka in mid-1995, and by 1998, Internet Committee had an interest in expanding Sinhala content on the Internet.

History of the LLWG

In those days, the question arose among the Internet Committee members why the growth of Sinhala content remained sluggish on the Internet.  The Internet Committee included Prof. Gihan Dias, Dr. Ruvan Weerasinghe, and Mr. Harsha Wijayawardhana, who are presently active in the Unicode Development. Having deliberated, the committee concluded that the increase of Sinhala and Tamil content on the Internet could be directly resolved by ironing out the key- issues in Sinhala and Tamil Unicode. The Internet Committee of CINTEC decided to form a Sub-Committee, which the members aptly named as the Font Sub Committee of the Internet Committee of the CINTEC. When the Government set up the Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) to carry out the World Bank-funded e-Sri Lanka project, the Font Sub Committee of the Internet Committee transformed into the Local Language Working Group (LLWG) at the ICTA.

Drafting of SLS 1134 Second Revision and SLS 1326

Although CINTEC took pioneering steps to encode Sinhala Unicode, it was the Internet Committee of the CINTEC that realized that the Sinhala input method and storage sequence in the persistent memory required further standardization. The Font Sub Committee of the Internet Committee and Sri Lanka Standard Institute (SLSI) formed a drafting committee to draft the second revision of SLS 1134, which later became SLS 1134:2004. SLS 1134 second revision standardized how each Unicode code point is stored internally in persistent memory. Also, the second revision adopted and standardized the Wijesekera keyboard —which was originally designed for Sinhala Type Writers— as extended Wijesekera keyboard for the default keyboard for Sinhala input on digital devices. As the ICTA took the leadership in the navigation of ICT Landscape in Sri Lanka from CINTEC, the responsibility of Sinhala and Tamil Unicode development passed onto the newly established LLWG.

It also came to light that the Tamil keyboard, which was standardized by the Government of India, had typing of Tamil Kombuva after consonants during this time. Sri Lankan traditional Tami keyboard (Renganathan) followed the fundamental rule that Tamil input sequence must be based upon how Tamil is written manually. This meant Kombu has to be typed before the consonant, and hence the Tamil input sequence would differ fundamentally from the Tamil keyboard input sequence used in India. Therefore, the Sri Lankan Tamil community requested to standardize Sri Lankan Tamil Keyboard in Sri Lanka based upon the traditional Renganathan keyboard. These requests gave rise to SLS 1326: 2008, standardizing Tamil keyboard in Sri Lanka.

Other Accomplishments

Subsequently, the LLWG gave leadership to many more initiatives, such as the encoding of Sinhala numerals in Unicode, the development of Transliteration standards and tools, the development of font families other than Iskoola pota and pota, Unicode Font-making Workshops, etc.

The Standardization of Sinhala Numerals led to the release of the third revision of SLS 1134, which was carried out by Mr. Harsha Wijayawarhdana, in 2010. When the LLWG went into a very long hibernation, it was in the process of building Optical Character Recognition (OCR), Speech to Text, and Text to Speech tools. The LLWG was also involved in creating Sinhala and Tamil word glossaries for ICT terms since its inception. Sri Lanka became the first country to launch Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs) in Non-Roman letters in Sinhala (Dot Lanka in Sinhala) and Tamil (dot Illangai in Tamil) in 2009. 

International Recognition

Although CINTEC took several steps to encode Sinhala characters in the Unicode charts in the mid-1990s, Sri Lanka remained a Non-Voting member in ISO 10646 Working Group 2 (SC2/WG2) until 2008. Mr. Harsha Wijayawardhana represented Sri Lanka several times at WG2 in 2010, 2012, and 2014, which is held twice a year in different countries. In 2008, Sri Lanka changed its status from Non-Voting to a voting member or participating country, and ISO10646/SC2WG2 was held in Sri Lanka in September 2014. Since then, until the LLWG went into a long hibernation, Sri Lanka participated in the key- decision-making process of ISO 10646 standard.

Future and Importance of the LLWG

During the long hiatus of the LLWG of three years, the Sinhala Unicode chart went through a new addition to its character set. Unicode consortium added Chandrabindu to Sinhala Unicode though it is not used in Sinhala or Sanskrit transliterated text. An Indian scholar based upon two rare books written at the turn of the last century suggested encoding Chandrabindu in the Sinhala Code point chart to use in Sanskrit transliteration in Sinhala. Although many Sri Lankan scholars opposed the addition, ISO/SC2/WG2 voted to include Chandrabindu in the absence of Sri Lanka in the voting process. Sri Lanka came to know the inclusion after it had gone through the process. Due to the long inactivity of the LLWG, Sri Lanka has become non-existent again in the Unicode encoding process.

To address many other long-felt issues in Sinhala and Tamil and, to keep monitoring international standardization issues, most pioneers who led Sinhala and Tamil Unicode development in Sri Lanka felt the need to regroup the LLWG under ICTA. As a result, the LLWG was regrouped with a new set of members, which included Sinhala Unicode pioneers bringing new dawn hopefully of a new era in Sinhala and Tamil Unicode development.