Read ezine online
|by Dick Hobbs
Issue 79 - July 2013
|I have a new hero.
His name is Dr Brij
Kothari. Hes the
guy on the left of the
picture. Yes, I know
that his achievements will be well
known to many of you, but I have just
discovered his impact so humour me
and let me tell you about him.
Kothari was born in Nanded in India,
in 1964. His parents encouraged his
academic interests, and after a first
degree in his home country he won
a place at Cornell in the States for a
doctorate in linguistics. As part of his
studies he set out to learn Spanish.
He found local independent cinemas
in the area showing films from Spain,
but they were always screened with
English subtitles and, as hard as
he tried, he could not ignore the
words on the screen. We have all
experienced the same phenomenon. If
we see a subtitled television in a noisy
environment like a railway station (or a
bar), the captions become hypnotic:
we cannot stop reading them.
Reading words in English was not
helping Kothari improve his colloquial
Spanish, though. Because he was
a PhD candidate and thus capable
of clear thought, he reasoned that it
would work if the captions were in
Spanish, reinforcing the sounds.
His initial thought was that reading
the words would help him learn the
sounds of the language. The real jump
in logic came when he considered
whether it would work the other
way around: if you were familiar with
the sounds of the language, would
seeing the words on screen help with
And yes, it turned out that it would.
So a trend now known as samelanguage
subtitling (SLS) was born.
His first experiment, in 1999, was
a Gujarati show called Chitrageet,
and in 2002 Doordarshan, the Indian
national broadcaster, started subtitling the national programme Chitrahaar. The subtitling was promoted as part of a
concerted effort to boost literacy.
Subtitles on any content helps to associate the written word with spoken
language, but another important discovery is that it works really well with songs.
They have built-in repetition which reinforces the learning, the language is
relatively simple and easy to learn, and most important it is content that people
actively want to watch.
|Today one of the most effective uses of SLS in India is a Sunday night
singalong. Vast audiences over 200 million viewers a week join in this
karaoke-for-literacy. Not only are they learning as they go, researchers have
found that young people like to copy down the words so they can sing the
songs with friends later. It seems like a perfect solution: you learn while having
This approach obviously cannot teach reading from scratch. You have to have
some idea of what the shapes mean, so you need to learn the basics of the
alphabet. But a surprising number of people master this yet fail to move on
to what scientists call functional literacy, the state of being able to read real
content, of being comfortable with written material.
Given that caveat, it certainly seems to work. Functional literacy in the areas
covered by the SLS project has more than doubled. A researcher focussing on
a typical town Khodi in Gujarat found that the reading of newspapers has
risen by more than 50%. And that is where it starts to be important.
A population that is not comfortable reading newspapers is ill-informed to
take any part in democracy. Boosting functional literacy is good for the basic
fundamentals of a fair society. So, too, is the ability to read a bus timetable,
for example. It means people are more mobile so can get to jobs and to social
Which is incredibly important in rapidly developing countries like India. But
functional literacy is a challenge right across the world. According to the World
Literacy Foundation, one in five adults in the UK struggles with basic reading.
Three out of five Americans in jail cannot read. There could be as many as 50
million functionally illiterate citizens of the USA.
So this really is a global problem. Being well informed is as critical a step in
taking your place in society in the richest countries of the west as it is anywhere
else. And Dr Kotharis solution seems to me to be so simple.
We already have same-language subtitles prepared for a lot of our television
content. We provide it for those who have impaired hearing. Providing it for all
content for all the songs on all the MTV channels, for instance would be a
relatively trivial exercise.
Couple it with a campaign so that those who would most benefit are
encouraged to turn the subtitles on. That needs a bit of imagination: telling
people that if they sing along to Daft Punk they will be able to read the Times
Literary Supplement next week is probably not going to be the best approach.
But it has got to be worth a try. It would be good if the unsung heroes of the
subtitling industry get recognised for helping a worthwhile social advance.
| dick hobbs
| Dr Brij Kothari
| independent cinemas
| Dick Hobbs.
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