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Same Language Subtitling
Pattern number within this pattern set:4
Asst. Professor, Indian Institute of Management
Literacy in India: Rising rate, low level
Since the 1950s, India has been making steady progress in literacy (Table 1; NLM, 2000). More recently, the country experienced a spurt in the literacy rate (7+). From 52.5% in 1991 it jumped to 65.4% in 2001, thanks to the Total Literacy Campaigns (TLCs) in around 450 of India's 593 districts, under the aegis of the National Literacy Mission (established in 1988).
Table 1: Decadal literacy growth in India (7+ age group)
Year; Literacy (%); Decadal Growth; Non-literates (millions)
1951; 18.3; --; --
1961; 28.3; 10.0; 249.40
1971; 34.4; 6.1; 283.03
1981; 43.5; 9.1; 305.31
1991; 52.5; 8.7; 328.88
2001; 65.4; 12.9; 268.42
Source: 2001 Census; Extrapolation in NLM (2000)
The TLCs successfully added around 100 million neo-literate people, bringing the early literate population to an estimated 300 million at present. Early literates are defined as people whose literacy skills are at risk of gradual erosion or ultimately relapse into non-literacy. Despite its success, the TLC can be critiqued for not planning adequately for the continued improvement of early literacy skills. The Post-Literacy Campaigns (PLCs) failed to enlist a majority of the neo-literates (NLM, 1994). As necessary as the activities under the recently launched Continuing Education (CE) scheme may be (NLM, 2000), their limitation to enhance the literacy skills of early literates on a national scale and in a sustained manner, needs to be recognized. The challenge in the Indian context is to infuse everyday life with inescapable literacy transactions. That is only possible with the mass media and supreme among them, is television with its reach and power to draw the masses.
Television increasingly commands an overwhelming share of media presence in an average Indian household. According to the 2001 National Readership Survey, TV accounts for 72% of total media consumption, up from 62% in 1995 (Times of India, July 7, 2001). Nearly 500 million people in India already have access to television and this is growing rapidly. Of these, at least 150 million people may be considered to be early literate. Can television -- the most affordable ICT with the maximum penetration -- give reading practice to the masses of India's early literates, spread across 35 states, 640,000 villages, and speaking any (or none) of the 18 official languages? Overstated as it sounds, this is imminently possible with a powerful but extremely simple concept -- Same Language Subtitling (SLS).
Same Language Subtitling is well-suited to any context wherein:
a) there is a passion for watching music videos and/or film songs, folk songs, etc., on TV,
b) song-based programming is already shown, and
c) there is a need for reading skill improvement among viewers.
This is clearly the case all over India, including the high literacy state of Kerala. The idea is also relevant, not just for other developing countries, but also for the developed world. For instance, a recent survey of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2000) measuring the literacy levels in developed countries found that even in 14 of these 20 developed countries surveyed, "at least 15 per cent of all adults have literacy skills at only the most rudimentary level, making it difficult for them to cope with the rising skill demands of the information age."
The context of SLS is thus global.
Same Language Subtitling (SLS)
SLS simply suggests subtitling all song-based programming on television, in the "same" language as the audio (Kothari 1998; Kothari 2000). Subtitles can change color to match the audio track exactly so that even a non-literate person is able to identify the word being sung, at any given time. The insatiable appetite for film-based entertainment, make film songs the ideal bed-fellow for SLS. Chitrahaar, the longest running film-song program on national television (Doordarshan), boasts
a viewership of 140 million people, mainly concentrated in rural areas. Thus, the simple addition of SLS to Chitrahaar would give regular reading practice to a staggering 140 million people, of whom, an estimated 80-100 million may be in need of reading skill enhancement.
Does SLS contribute to skill improvement?
Two research projects have shown that SLS contributes to reading skill improvement. In a controlled experiment with primary school children, greater improvement in reading skills was found in the group that saw subtitled songs as compared to the group that saw songs without subtitles (Kothari et al., 2001a; Kothari and Takeda, 2000). Subsequently, SLS was implemented in a natural setting. Chitrageet, a weekly Gujarati film song program was shown, with SLS, on state television in Gujarat (DDK, Ahmedabad). With a partially literate sample drawn from villages and city slums - not attending formal or non-formal education -- it was found that people who watched the subtitled Chitrageet regularly, showed greater improvement in reading skills than people who saw the program infrequently (Kothari et al., 2001b). The group differences in both the studies were statistically significant, implying consistent improvement across group members in the subtitled group. These results are noteworthy given the short-term exposure to subtitling. They confirm the contribution that SLS can make incrementally to literacy on a mass scale. As a lifelong process, this contribution could be substantial. Qualitative data through post-cards, obtained by the researchers and independently by DDK, were consistent in documenting not only the popularity of subtitled over unsubtitled songs, but also the use of SLS toward edutainment goals.
Benefits of SLS
The simplicity of SLS can be deceptive in terms of the plethora of benefits that it packs. SLS does the following:
· Raises the literacy skills of all early literates on a mass scale, through lifelong practice.
· Increases the frequency of literacy practices among: a) early literates not in school (children and adults), and ii) emergent literates in schools or literacy centers.
· Motivates non-literates toward literacy, through entertainment and popular culture.
· Makes reading an automatic and reflex phenomenon in everyday life.
· Creates a reading culture and an environment for reading.
· Increases the entire population's exposure to print (especially critical for pre-reading children).
· A specific format in SLS programming can inform people about important social issues and generate thinking around these.
· SLS also helps the deaf and hard of hearing by making television programming more accessible.
· Meets the above objectives at an extremely low per person cost and can be economically sustainable approach.
How expensive is SLS?
Kothari (1999) argues that SLS is indeed a low cost solution. To illustrate, SLS of one Hindi film song program shown nationally on prime time, is expected to give 30 minutes of weekly reading practice to around 100 million partially literate people, at a cost of US$ 0.0065 per person per year. The basis for calculation is as follows:
52 episodes x $12,500 per episode / 100,000,000 viewers, assuming that at least 100 million early literates in India have access to TV. The direct benefits to the hearing disadvantaged and the motivational impact on nearly 300 non-literates, further strengthen the already high return on investment.
Film to folk, reading to knowledge
A pilot project is underway on DDK, Ahmedabad with some key differences from earlier efforts. SLS is added to a weekly folk song program (instead of film songs), called, Geet Tamara, Bol Amara (Your Songs, Our Lyrics). A competition is also conducted on the program. Two questions are asked on every episode, one based on the lyrics of any given song (to persuade people to read carefully) and a general question on an issue of social significance, such as, "What is the minimum age of marriage, for girls?" A winner is chosen by lottery from the correct responses received (by post) and a two-in-one player given away on every episode. All correct respondents receive a song lyrics poster of the episode. Preliminary assessments from a survey and content analysis of the post-cards strongly suggest that the first question does indeed encourage reading of the subtitles. More importantly, the second question is contributing to general thinking, awareness and discussion around the social issue sparked. The posters are being put in homes and public places. There are reports of school children using the posters as resource material for cultural programs and women taking them along to their bhajan mandalis or group singing sessions.
Why SLS works
That SLS has the potential to enhance literacy among early literates is echoed in several studies on the use of closed-captioning in second language learning and deaf education (e.g., Koskinen et al. 1986, Koskinen et. al 1985, Neuman and Koskinen 1992, Borras and Lafayette 1994, Carney and Verlinde 1987, Froehlich 1988, Lambert 1986, Bean and Wilson 1989, Holobow et al. 1984, Vanderplank 1988 and 1990). Generally it is reported that closed-captioning contributes to second-language acquisition, reading improvement, listening comprehension development, vocabulary enrichment, and even speaking performance. However, these studies were conducted with fully literate people and that is one of the reasons why, SLS is a concept in virgin territory. The idea has never been tried in popular culture, for first language literacy, in a non-Roman script, on such a mass scale.
The reasons for the effectiveness of SLS lie in the following:
· SLS makes reading inescapable (d'Ydewalle et al., 1991 have proven this point through sophisticated eye-ball tracking); creates automatic and reflex reading in everyday entertainment.
· The idea builds on people's existing knowledge of lyrics, enabling early literates to anticipate the subtitles and read along
· The inherent repetition in songs makes them ideal for practice.
· SLS enhances the entertainment value of song-based programs, it is a win-win solution for entertainment and education. Literate people enjoy because they get to know/clarify the lyrics.
· SLS is simple to implement given the existing and ever-growing resource of film songs.
· SLS leverages film songs, a genre of programming already consumed in abundance on television.
· A unique subtitling method has been developed, specifically for literacy improvement among early literates while also enhancing entertainment for all.
· SLS offers a financially sustainable model for lifelong literacy skill improvement.
· The scope for replicability in India with different languages is enormous.
The power of SLS lies in its leveraging of popular culture to make a nation the size of India, read. SLS also has relevance anywhere in the world where music-videos are enjoyed on TV and literacy skills are low, including pockets in the developed world.
(In this case, it is difficult to separate the solution from the discussion.)
SLS simply suggests subtitling all song-based programming on television, in the "same" language as the audio (Kothari 1998; Kothari 2000). Subtitles can change color to match the audio track exactly so that even a non-literate person is able to identify the word being sung, at any given time. The insatiable appetite for film-based entertainment, make film songs the ideal bed-fellow for SLS. Chitrahaar, the longest running film-song program on national television (Doordarshan), boasts a viewership of 140 million people, mainly concentrated in rural areas. Thus, the simple addition of SLS to Chitrahaar would give regular reading practice to a staggering 140 million people, of whom, an estimated 80-100 million may be in need of reading skill enhancement.