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  • TV turns teacher

    Thanks to same-language subtitling, people can improve their reading skills even as they watch their favourite programmes on television

    Can music videos on television herald a revolution in literacy? Yes, says Dr Brij Kothari, associate professor at the Indian Institute of Management - Ahmedabad’s Ravi J Matthai Centre for Educational Innovation, who, after years of struggle, is finally getting a chance to take his ideas forward.

    Kothari’s innovative approach aims at getting neo-literates to read, and deepen their skills, even as they are glued to the ‘idiot box’ watching film-related programmes. This, says Kothari, can be done by subtitling the lyrics of existing songs-based TV programming in the same language as the audio.

    Although India’s literacy rate is slowly rising, it is a well-known fact that the country’s literacy skills remain low even among those people whom the census considers literate. In other words, while one-third of India’s population is fully literate, one-third is non-literate and one-third falls in the early stages of literacy (they are not functionally literate).

    Says Kothari: “The main objective of the SLS (same-language subtitling) project is to weave reading transactions into everyday popular entertainment so that reading skill improvement can become a by-product of what people already do, watch TV! What we are finding is that SLS actually enhances the entertainment value of song-based programming whilst also creating a context in which the reading and writing practice is encouraged.”

    In August 2002, Kothari and his team decided to go ahead with ‘Independence from Illiteracy through TV’, by putting “an old ICT (information and communication technology) to new ends”. According to Kothari, on the eve of India’s Independence Day — August 15, 2002 — an experiment by Doordarshan and the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad got underway to contribute to making every Indian independently literate. This most ambitious of goals is being approached with the simplest of ideas, under a grant won in Development Marketplace 2002 (the World Bank’s global innovation competition).

    Conventional subtitling involves transcribing and translating dialogue into a language different from the original. This is done to help the audience understand a different-language programme. In the case of same-language subtitling, the subtitling is done in the same language as that being spoken on the screen. So, the lyrics of a Hindi song appear in Hindi, Tamil songs in Tamil, and so on. The synchronisation of audio and text is created through colour changes in the subtitles, identifying each word as it is being sung.

    Thanks to the subtitling, neo-literates watching the songs on television are also subconsciously following the text and singing along. This strengthens their reading skills even as they enjoy the music. Same-language subtitling is shown to strengthen grapheme-phoneme associations which are weak in ‘early literate people’.

    The film-music-based programme ‘Chitrahaar’ is the longest-running film-based programme in the history of Indian television. It is especially popular in the villages. Kothari hopes to transform such “staple entertainment into edutainment that is ‘more’ entertaining”.

    Such counter-intuitive use of the TV was first proposed six years ago. Research has since been conducted in three separate experiments at the classroom, village (on local cable) and state (in Gujarat) levels. Educationists say the findings have been consistent: that reading ability improves steadily as a result of viewing film and folksong-based content with the addition of same-language subtitling.

    “What is perhaps more relevant to network acceptance of the idea is that surveys have found that over 99 per cent of viewers, semi-literate and literate alike, actually prefer song programming with SLS than without it,” says Kothari.

    Why so? Viewers have been videotaped in villages and slums trying to sing along through lip-synching. Same-language subtitling enables viewers to know the song’s lyrics, hear the words better (useful not just for those who can hear but also the hearing-impaired or deaf), and write down the lyrics.

    Ironically, it costs very little to implement the SLS scheme. Experiments in the western Indian state of Gujarat have shown that it costs just a few paise per person, when done over a large area. Same-language subtitling integrates everyday reading-writing transactions into the lives of 500 million TV viewers in India at a cost of three paise (US$0.0065) per person per year, Kothari claims.

    The SLS project has been financed by different agencies at various stages. Major funders in the past include the Indian government’s HRD ministry (department of education), DECU-Indian Space Research Organisation in Ahmedabad, and the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. UNESCO (Delhi) too made a contribution at the start of the project.

    “The idea is so beautifully simple and cost-effective that it may well be a breakthrough,” says Gianni Giacomelli, an Italian interested in the idea. “We used SLS in the West for a few years for the deaf, and as a learning tool for foreign students, but Indian application for adult literacy is a quantum leap.”

    Besides being a winner in Development Marketplace, the World Bank’s global innovation competition, the SLS concept was also awarded Best Social Innovation for the year 2000 from the Institute for Social Inventions, London (UK).

    Contact: Dr Brij Kothari E-mail: -- By Frederick Noronha Third World Network Features September 2002


    23rd October,2002

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