Search Engine Helps Users Connect In Arabic

Arab woman using a laptop i i

With Yamli, users can type in Arabic by spelling out words phonetically. iStockphoto.com hide caption

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Arab woman using a laptop

With Yamli, users can type in Arabic by spelling words out phonetically.

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In the Arabic-speaking world, 48 million people connect via the Web. Yet very little content is written in Arabic. Now, there's new technology that is revolutionizing the way Arabic-speaking people use the Internet, while also improving cross-cultural communication with the West.

Rasha Abdullah, a professor of mass communication at American University in Cairo, has written two books on the subject of Arabic content on the Internet.

"That's something that we're suffering severely from," Abdullah says. "The Arabic content on the Internet now is less than 1 percent. And it's obviously very dismal."

Abdullah says that of her 500 Egyptian students, 78 percent have never typed in Arabic online, a fact that greatly disturbed Habib Haddad, a Boston-based software engineer originally from Lebanon.

"I mean imagine [if] 78 percent of French people don't type French," Haddad says. "Imagine how destructive that is online."

And that's why Haddad, while a student at the University of Southern California, began working on Yamli.

Arabic Without An Arabic Keyboard

"Yamli is inspired from the word yoom-li, which means dictate — to dictate your words," Haddad says.

Yamli co-developer Imad Jureidini explains how it works:

"The idea is, if you don't have an Arabic keyboard, you can type Arabic by spelling your words out phonetically," Jureidini says. "For example ... when you're writing the word 'falafel,' Yamli will convert that to Arabic in your Web browser. We will go and search not only the Arabic script version of that search query, but also for all the Western variations of that keyword."

Jureidini, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained software engineer of American-Lebanese descent, says in addition to providing the ability for native Arabic speakers to search and write in their own language, Yamli can also be used to teach Arabic to non-Arabic speakers. That's how Naseem Khalid, a teaching fellow at Harvard University, is using the technology.

"Well, typically an intermediate student — they can write in Arabic by hand but they have no idea how to type in Arabic," Khalid says. "So we were writing one-act plays a few weeks ago, and I sent them all a link to Yamli so they would be able to type quickly and easily."

The Word Is Getting Out

At a recent "new" technology forum at MIT, Yamli went on to win best of show — a development that did not escape the attention of Google, which recently developed its own search and transliteration engine.

"I guess Google recognizes a good idea when it sees it," Jureidini says.

He adds, "And the way we counter it is by being better. We live and breathe Yamli every day, and we're constantly in the process of improving how people can use it."

Experts in Arabic Web content say that since its release a year ago, Yamli has helped increase Arabic content on the Internet just by its use. They say that bodes well for the Arabic Web and for communication between the Arab and Western worlds.

Phillip Martin is a freelancer based in Boston.

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