Reading for a Billion, with Bollywood: Brij Kothari at TEDxCERN (Transcript)

Imagine you woke up this morning and found yourself to be completely illiterate. Perhaps it feels like you are here. Or maybe here. You can’t read a thing, maybe a few letters, but you can’t really string them together to make sense. How would that impact your life? You wouldn’t be here at a TEDx talk if you were illiterate.

In fact, you wouldn’t be able to use your cell phones. No email, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Google maps. And maybe one good thing: no texting while driving. That was a theoretical exercise for us, but for this mother and child it’s a daily disadvantage.

Imagine he is sick and she needs to take him to a doctor in the city. She’ll get to the bus stop and not be able to read the signs and not know when and where the buses are leaving. At the hospital, it’ll be difficult to navigate the lines, deal with all the information and forms, and then, the doctor might write a prescription in, of course, doctors’ beautiful handwriting. How dependent is her life?

But look, in her hand is a miracle of digital revolution: a cell phone. She has the potential to access all the information in the world and reap all its benefits, but illiteracy will prevent her from doing that. Officially, 74% in India are literate, but we all know that the majority of the literate, so-called literate, actually can not read even the headline of a newspaper. In fact, the problem starts early.

Most children today in India are in school but learning very poorly. In fact, so poorly that in class five, only one out of two children are able to read a class-two text. So the literacy pie actually looks something like this: only 30% of Indians can actually read a newspaper. The remaining 70% are either completely illiterate – in red – or a big number: 467 million – in yellow – weak literates. They have some alphabetic familiarity, but they really can’t read anything, a simple text even. Together, the ones in red and yellow, are 740 million people who can not read in India. OK, that’s the population of 100 Switzerlands where nobody can read, imagine that.

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Most programs in education do somewhat of a job of transitioning people from the red zone to the yellow zone. We have a simple solution to transition people from the yellow zone, which is the largest zone of 450 million and more, to the green zone.

Twenty years ago I happened to be watching a Spanish film called, “Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown.” It’s a hilarious film. In fact, you might have seen the sequel, “Women on the verge of a presidency,” starring Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. It’s hilarious. Anyway; this Spanish movie had English subtitles, and I wished the subtitles were in Spanish, because I was a student of Spanish, and I wanted to catch the dialogue. Then I made a casual comment to my friends, “Why not subtitle Hindi film songs in Hindi and so on, and all the 22 official languages of India, and perhaps India would become literate?”

So my idea was to subtitle Bollywood film songs, and I call this idea Same Language Subtitling or SLS, which essentially means literally reading along to what you are hearing. Indians love Bollywood. Bollywood moves the passion of millions of people. This guy is actually known as Big B in India. Here is a sample.

(Video clip) (Singing in a Bollywood movie)

So my question to you is, “Were you reading along towards the end of the song?” Anyone reading along? Many of you. Why were you reading along? This is in Hindi. This is you and a billion people reading along, because television is watched by 900 million people for three hours a day. So when you subtitle all the songs on television, it gives inexpensive and fun reading practice to a billion people. But you are all literate so you were reading along. Would a weak reader also read along?

So the next video I am going to show you is of a weak reader reading along to a song with, and without subtitles, and you can see the eye tracking of that.

(Video clip)

Is she reading? Maybe. Is she engaging with the text? Almost definitely.

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(Video ends) Did that lead to reading improvement? There are several studies, and I will just show you one here. You can see that exposure to subtitling at home, along with schooling, more than double the green zone as compared to children who only went to school. This is over five years. Bill Clinton called this a small change that has a staggering impact on people’s lives. Sonaben Solanki studied till class four, she got married at 16, had children soon thereafter, and when her children went to a local crèche, she had the urge to become a good reader to help her children. But she didn’t know where to get the text, so she turned to TV, and on TV, the random text that came was not really easy to read; but then she discovered Gujarati film songs with the matching Gujarati lyrics, and that allowed her dormant reading skills to get practiced.

Today, she is a prominent member of a women’s collective. In fact, she keeps the accounts there, she helps all the women to fill out forms, she looks government officials in the eye, so you can see a transformational impact on somebody like Sonaben from being somebody who married very early to actually becoming a women’s leader simply because she became a good reader.

Mahotji Thakur – another example. He studied till class three. He wanted to study more, but then farming took over. After a few years of getting this subtitle exposure on TV, he became a good newspaper reader. In the newspapers, he finds the prices of crops, so when he goes to the market he can’t be ripped off. How much does it all cost? We are subtitling existing songs, remember, so the cost is not that much; one dollar really gives a lifetime of reading to a person. In fact, to scale up same language subtitling nationally would cost us only a million dollars a year, and in five years, we would basically transition five hundred million weak readers from not being able to read a newspaper to actually being able to read it.

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