Yamli, Writing Arabic for Dummies

Anyone who has tried to use an Arabic keyboard is familiar with the headaches it can bring – whether you are fluent in written Arabic or not. Because necessity is the mother of invention, Lebanese-American Habib Haddad came up with Yamli, a program that automatically transcribes an Arabic word written out in Roman characters into proper Arabic.

BEIRUT, Jan. 21, 2008 (MENASSAT.COM) – When the 2006 war broke out in Lebanon, Habib Haddad, 27, was at home in the United States. Like so many Lebanese living abroad, he used the Internet to find out what was happening to his  native country. But Haddad, who holds a degree in Computer Sciences and Telecommunications, was soon frustrated.

Without an Arabic keyboard, he found himself unable to browse the Internet in Arabic to look for specific information. All he could do to was to copy Arabic words he found on Arabic news sites, and paste them into a search engine – a halfhearted solution at best.

Out of the frustration, an idea started to grow. "What if we focused on creating a smart program that could recognize the most common and popular words in Arabic, and evolve from there?"

Together with a friend, Imad Jaridini, 37, who holds a Ph.D. in Computer Sciences, started to reserach the problem in early 2007.  Haddad and Jaridini worked on the problem for almost a year – mostly at night and during the weekends –, and on November 15, 2007, Yamli.com was born.

The concept is simple. Yamli takes the English phonetic transcription of an Arabic word and transforms it into Arabic – then, it searches for the Arabic word on the Internet using the Google search engine.

The name "Yamli," Haddad says, is derived from the word "Imla," which means dictation. And that is after all what Yamli does: it is almost as if the user dictated a word in Arabic to his or her computer, which then proceeds to search the Internet for it.

The idea is not wholly original. As Hadda explains, he got his inspiration from the Chinese government, which in 1958 created PinYin as an official method to transcribe Chinese characters into English. The difference between the two programs is that the user of PinYin has to have a prior knowledge of some concepts, whereas for Yamli, it is enough to write the word in Latin letters as it is pronounced without the need to know any concept, then the word appears in Arabic.

The program is now available as an add-on to the Facebook social networking website as well.

"I feel proud of what I did", Haddad says, "With Yamli, the Arabic language is starting to slowly pull the rug from under the English language to break a monopoly that has lasted for many years on the internet."

The U.S. media was excited about his creation, saying Haddad is finally giving Arabs a chance to express themselves in their own language on the Internet. And the site has gained wide popularity with Internet users in countries like Saudi-Arabia and Syria.

But Haddad has his detractors too.

A Lebanese blogger, lebanese nightS, called Yamli "the most stupid website or tool I have ever seen."

"Is it that hard to learn how to type Arabic letters?!?!??!," lebanese nightS raved, "To me it's a pure insult to the Arabic language! [...] If they're accustomed to English keyboards [as Yamli's makers argue on their website,] let them get accustomed to Arabic keyboards too!! They make it sound as if it's mission impossible or something!!"

But, as many commentators pointed out, lebanese nightS was missing the point. Many Arabs living in the West – or even in the Arab world –, simply don't have access to Arabic keyboards. Many Arabs in the diaspora, like Haddad, may speak Arabic fluently but have difficulty with the written language. And then there is the Arabic keyboard itself, which many users experience as very difficult to use, even if they are fluent in written Arabic.

As MauriceBoueri commented, "The beauty in Yamli is that it relieves you from having to learn how to use an Arabic keyboard, but allows you to use the wonderful Arabic language from the comfort of your regular keyboard (I stress on regular because that's what most people in the wide world use). I beg you to let me know which of the following is a better way to read in Arabic, and give me your honest opinion on how many times longer it would have taken you to type the Arabic version using an Arabic keyboard: - ana ra2ye enno hayde fekra sayyi2a jiddan! loghatak lazem tkoun masdar fakhrak msh masdar ellet khasseytak - أنا رأيي إن هيدي فكرة سيئة جدا . لغتك لازم تكون مصدر فخرك مش مصدر قلة خصيتك (By the way, I used Yamli's genius to be able to type this last sentence.)"

Yamli is also a big help for people wanting to learn Arabic, whether they are Arabs or not.

Zeina, a Yamli user of the site, said she was thrilled with Yamli. "I am Lebanese but I grew up in Australia. I've always wanted to learn Arabic. I lived in Australia but I’m Lebanese. The language is very hard, especially in writing. When I found Yamli, I felt I could learn quicker, especially on how to deal with the letters."

Another well-known blogger, The Arabist, made the following observation.

"I suspect that another reason is that with so many young elite Arabs educated in private, Western curricula school, many kids on the net don’t actually master written Arabic that well. On the other hand, they do master the SMS Arabic where 3 is ع and 7 is ح. Some people will think this further erodes the quality of written Arabic, but hats off for innovation."

Haddad dismisses criticism that Yamli will discourage the young generation, who are already using "Internet Arabic" a lot of the time, from learning how to read and write Arabic correctly.

"On the contrary," he says, "those who want to learn Arabic can use Yamli as a help or advisory tool. And for those who speak Arabic but who don’t know how to read or write it, Yamli is  a portal to get Arabic information they could not get otherwise."

The two men are now working to improving the program to work in the opposite way, that is reading the letters in Arabic and transform them into Roman characters, in addition to covering all the grammar and dialects of the Arabic language. They also promise to start workin on other languages once they have perfected the Arabic.

Meanwhile, Haddad hopes that Yamli will help the Arabic language become a full-fledged member of the Internet family – instead of just a distant cousin.