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Unicode opens door for Khmer computing

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4-Khmer-Unicode-240408B-Use.jpg

SEBASTIAN STRANGIO

The development of a Khmer Unicode system has helped eliminate competing digital Khmer scripts, meaning Cambodians can more easily write to one another in their native language, wherever they are.

Common language to help transform industry

English speakers might not know it, but in three short years the Cambodian computing industry has undergone a quiet revolution.

 

Whereas English skills were once a prerequisite for computer literacy, it is now possible for Cambodians to send and receive email, perform web searches and compile complex accounting spreadsheets – all in Khmer.

 

The development of the Khmer Unicode script reproduction system has opened the door on the local software industry and is set to carry the benefits of ICT into the Kingdom’s most outlying regions.

 

Pan Sorasak, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Commerce, has spearheaded government efforts to establish an internationally recognized Unicode for the Khmer language.

 

“It was important for us to develop a Khmer Unicode that was standard across the world, standard across the universe,” said Sorasak.

 

In 2001, Sorasak, in cooperation with the International Development Research Center (IDRC), a Canadian development agency, began working on the Unicode that is now standard on Cambodian computer systems.

 

“You could send Khmer Unicode to the moon in the future and you would still read Khmer,” he said.

 

Prior to Unicode there were about 30 competing formats of Khmer script – the “legacy fonts” – which simply “painted” Khmer letters over existing Roman alphabet characters. Now, international standardization via Unicode has facilitated the transferability of Khmer text across systems and platforms, heralding a new wave of local software development and expanding access to computer technology.

 

Currently in the test phase is what Sorasak terms a “mirroring program” that, with a single click, will be able to translate English websites instantly into Khmer.

 

The new software, which will be offered free of charge upon its completion, will allow “direct translation on the fly … allowing Cambodian non-English-speaking readers to understand at least the meaning of websites,” Sorasak said.

 

What is Unicode?

Unicode is the technology currently used to reproduce the Khmer writing system on computers. Prior to 2001, Khmer had no Unicode standard and instead relied on 30 incompatible systems, the so-called “legacy fonts.” Today’s Unicode system means every Khmer character and symbol is assigned a unique hexadecimal code, which is standardized and approved by the Unicode Consortium in California. As a result, anything written using Khmer Unicode is readable on any computer with Khmer Unicode installed.

 

Unicode easier to use

Mork Rahksmey Ridd, a second-year business student at Build Bright University, said Khmer Unicode software is much easier to use than older programs.

 

“I know just a little bit of English, so it was difficult to learn to use a computer,” he said. “But now, with the Khmer software, my computer knowledge has improved.”

 

Conical Hat Software, a Phnom Penh-based firm, is leading the local software industry with its suites of Khmer-language accounting software, which are now used widely in both the public and private sectors.

 

“When we came in three-and-a-half years ago, everybody was telling us that the Khmers will have to learn English,” said Ted Perrein, managing director of Conical Hat. “Now it’s switched; people know they can expect systems in the Khmer language.”

 

Non-government organizations are also taking advantage of Unicode to broaden access to computing in Cambodia.

 

Since 2004, the Open Institute (OI) has been working to develop Khmer-language versions of free open-source programs, including Open Office and Open Fuse, as well as web browsers, email clients, games and publishing software, according to Khoem Sokhem, an open-source engineer at the Institute.

 

Through its Open Schools program, supported by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, OI is also seeking to increase educational access to computing through the medium of Khmer-language software.

 

“The whole education system is changing,” said Javier Solá, coordinator of the KhmerOS Project at the Institute.

 

“In January, our program was able to change over the whole education system to Khmer-language software,” he said.

Looking ahead

According to Solá, OI and the ministry have set three goals for reforming Cambodian education through ICT: ensuring children graduate with basic computer literacy; using ICT technologies to improve the quality of education; and using technology to aid in the administration of schools.

 

All of these goals have been aided immeasurably by the development of a Khmer Unicode system and software in the local language.

 

“The use of local language facilitates the acquisition of knowledge,” said Solá, noting that teaching computer skills in English gives students a complex and unwieldy vocabulary of technical terms.

 

“Once you separate English from computing, it’s easier to learn to use computers, and it’s easier to learn English,” he said.

 

A program called iReach, an initiative of the Ministry of Commerce and the IDRC, has been designed to bring the benefits of ICT to remote rural communities.

 

Through two pilot programs in Kep municipality and Prey Veng province, iReach is attempting to “build up Khmer localization, promote literacy, entrepreneurship, e-commerce, distant education, health and information,” according to Sorasak.

 

He said extending ICT into rural areas will provide a firm basis for economic growth, providing farmers with vital weather information and access to information about new farming techniques, as well as the knowledge to maintain the systems established by iReach.

 

“We are encouraging people to take care of their machines, their networks, so we can promote self-governance.

 

“When the projects are finished, they will be sustainable,” Sorasak said.

 

Solá agrees that the development of Khmer-language ICT is a vital step in Cambodia’s development.

 

“Economic development only happens when you have widespread use of technology,” he said.

 

“And widespread use of technology only happens when you have technology in the local language. If you don’t have local language technology, only the elite has access.”

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