Getting India subtitled

If I were to be given the choice to do just one thing for India’s development, then I would make it compulsory for every TV channel in India adopt same-language subtitling (SLS) for their shows. Live TV can be spared. This idea has compulsively played itself on a loop in my cranial development jukebox for the longest time now. Yes it sounds crazy but its ok. I had myself used SLS to learn French and had raved about its effectiveness on my old blog here. Having personally experienced the benefits of SLS, I have come to conclude that making SLS obligatory for TV channels will help India improve its HDI rank (136 out of 187 countries).

Dr. Brij Kothari, professor at IIM-Ahmedabad and an Ashoka Fellow, is the pioneer of Same Language Subtitling in India. He is the winner of the 1st Internation Literacy Prize of the Library of Congress that was announced last week. SLS was first used on the Gujarati programme Chitrageet in 1999. It immediately caught the fancy of the masses. Doordarshan being a laggard paid heed to Dr. Kothari’s patriotic idea only 4 years later in 2002.

The Problem.

  1. Officially, India is home to 778 million “literates” and 273 million illiterates, however an estimated 389 million “literates” are, at best early-literate.
  2. The results from the Programme for International Student Assessment of 2009 make experts estimate that an Indian class 8 student is at the same level as a …class 2 student from Shanghai when it comes to reading skills.
  3. The Education NGO Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report for 2011 found that in Class 5, 51.8% of the students could not read a Class 2 level text.
  4. Studies conducted at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, confirm that over 50% of ‘literates’ in India cannot read the headline of a newspaper.

See Mr. Kothari inform Mr. Shashi Tharoor about this on Twitter:

So what is functional literacy?

There are varying levels for being literate. Here are the 3 important ones.

  • Baseline literacy: the ability to read and write at a level that enables self-confidence and motivation for further development.
  • Functional literacy: the ability to read and write at a level that enables someone to develop and function in society, at home, in school and at work.
  • Multiple literacy: the ability to use reading and writing skills in order to produce, understand, interpret and critically evaluate texts received through a variety of media and in many forms (print, digital, audiovisual)

Source: http://ec.europa.eu/education/literacy/about/what-is-it/index_en.htm

What does SLS offer?

While watching a subtitled show, the viewer subconsciously associates the spoken word with the words displayed on screen, thus practicing reading in an unobtrusive and hassle-free manner. It involves no extra cost or time investment for the viewer. This method effectively increases literacy levels even with just 30 minutes of exposure to such programs every week. SLS on television shows unobtrusively gets TV viewers to practice reading thus helping viewers who can’t read properly to become functionally literate.

Planet Read – Film Kyun Ho Gaya Na Image copyright: Eros Entertainment

Which sectors will benefit from SLS?

  • Literacy for the sake of literacy.

Nielsen-ORG survey, conducted in 2002 and 2007 to measure the influence of subtitling, showed that only 25% school children could read a simple paragraph in Hindi after 5 years of education. However, this touched 56% if they also watched subtitled songs for 30 minutes a week on Rangoli. Subtitles can even help children acquire reading skills before they start school. The Freakonomics reports that “In Finland, whose education system has been ranked the world’s best, most children do not begin school until age seven but have often learned to read on their own by watching American television with Finnish subtitles.” (What Makes a Perfect Parent? Freakonomics) Trust the Scandinavians to pull off something like this! 148 million of the 231 million households in Indian (2012 TAM data) stand to gain from SLS. Out of these, 79 million households are in rural India. During my stint in rural Madhya Pradesh (Indian state with the most severe level of hunger), I noticed that rural folks do not have the time to follow TV soaps due to the agrarian nature of their work. What they do watch on TV when they have time are channels that broadcast films, songs and of course satsaangs. So if we leave out the general entertainment segment and if only movie, music, children’s and religious channels were to start subtitling their shows, the benefits would still be enormous. Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Reports will finally start recording huge improvements instead of the status quo.

  • Improved public health

A study conducted by the Department of Sociology of the University of Cambridge had found that the average income level is only a statistical red herring as an indicator of the state of public health. The literacy rate of a district was the truer indicator. Districts with lower average incomes but good levels of literacy tend to enjoy good health as compared to those with lower levels of literacy. The most significant impact of literacy is has been observed on the infant mortality rate (IMR). It is estimated that for a ‘typical’ Indian district in the early 2000s, a reduction of 25% in the poverty gap would have led  to the saving of 1 child per 1000 live births. The same effect could also have been achieved with only 4% increase in literacy rate! Even if one Hindi general entertainment channel (GEC) was to start SLS for its shows, it will lead to great improvements in functional literacy rates in the states of Rajasthan, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Punjab, Haryana & Himachal Pradesh which in turn can lead to a dip in the IMR of these states along with improvements on other indicators of public health as well. It must also be understood that SLS is not a panacea. IMR cannot touch a low of 2 per 1000 live births (Scandinavia, where else?) without significant investment and upgradation of neo-natal healthcare facilities across India and strong political will for the strict enforcement of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006. SLS will lead to higher levels of functional literacy, which in turn will lead to better public health. What more can we ask for? Apparently a lot more.

  • Easier TV viewing for the hard-of-hearing

The estimated 60 million hearing impaired people in India will without a doubt welcome this move (well those who have TVs at home) as already experienced by Zee Studios. The Zee folks received a letter from students of an institute for the deaf-mute thanking them for the subtitles as they don’t have to lip-read now. 

  • Crime fighting

This one can convince the reader that optimism has taken pathological proportions within the author’s head. I assure you, madness is my middle name. Jessica Aptman of the Melissa Institute for Violence Prevention and Treatment writes on Good that “up to 80 percent of incarcerated individuals are functionally illiterate; studies show that if a child reads on grade level by the end of 3rd grade, there is a 99 percent certainty that child will never be incarcerated”. Thanks to Ms. Aptman’s article I did some cyber snooping on the link between functional literacy and crime and here is what Wikipedia served me:

According to the paper ‘The Health Literacy of America’s Adults‘ of the National Center for Educational Statistics in the United States:

  • Over 60% of adults in the US prison system read at or below the fourth grade level
  • 85% of US juvenile inmates are functionally illiterate
  • 43% of adults at the lowest level of literacy lived below the poverty line, as opposed to 4% of those with the highest levels of literacy.

According to ‘Literacy Statistics’ page of begintoread.com:

  • Two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare.
  • Low literary costs $73 million per year in terms of direct health care costs. Pfizer puts the cost much higher.
  • 16-to-19-year-old girls at the poverty line and below with below-average reading skills are 6 times more likely to have out-of-wedlock children than their more literate counterparts.

This data is based on the United States of America so may be the US can also benefit if more of its citizens watch TV with the sub-titles for the hearing imparied turned on when the children are around. What needs to be studied however is whether there exists a causal relationship between low levels of literacy and crime rates in India. In all probability it does. I shall leave this to the experts. If funtional literacy can indeed help prevent crime, then SLS can also make society safer by turning TV viewers into TV readers.

  • More revenues for channels

A conversation regarding the introduction of Hindi subtitles on a popular Hindi GEC with a TV executive of that channel had him asking, “It’s good for deaf people but what’s in it for us?” Well, more viewership. Almost every English language channel that airs in India has English subtitles. Viewership of  Star Movies saw a 12% increase after the channel started airing English movies with English subtitles. One might argue that an English language channel is bound to gain in India as English is not the mother tongue of most Indians. However, even Hindi music shows Chitrahaar and Rangoli on Doordarshan saw a jump of 10 to 15%.  Since the subtitles garner more eyeballs, it is bound to make the whole triad – audiences, advertisers and broadcasters – happier.

Can there still be inhibitions for implementing SLS?

Some people in the TV business might still harbour multiple reservations regarding the adoption of SLS. Some might say that it is not their job to make up for poor quality of education in public schools. Some viewers might themselves consider SLS to be an ‘insult to their intelligence‘. Subtitling takes time and this can prove to be a hindrance for daily soaps and others might simply complain that this will hurt their bottomline. More importantly, only people who have access to televisions stand to benefit.

How can politicians take an interest in this?

SLS needs political support for widespread adoption and important policy directives can benefit from the implementation of SLS. The Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh, had stated in 2009 that literacy, especially female literacy,  was crucial for the successful implementation for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the National Rural Health Mission and the Right to Information Act that he had flagged off back then. In 2009, the UPA had aimed at achieving 100%literacy by the end of 2013. We stood at 73% according to census 2011 data and we plan to touch 80% by 2015. According to the 11th Five Year Plan, the literacy rate for persons of age 7 years or more was to have touched 85% by 2011-12.  However, this can change dramatically, even in a span of 6 months, if major GECs start subtitling all their shows or are made to adopt SLS.

The Human Resources Development Minister M M Pallam Raju has stated that India plans to achieve 80% literacy rate in the period between 2013 to 2015. In order to touch 80% literacy in 2 years, the HRD ministry is also willing to  undertake requisite administrative and if required legislative measures to integrate formal, non-formal and informal learning and to formally recognize forms of education other than formal. The HRD Ministry is presently developing a Core Curriculum Framework for adult education and is willing to adopt ICTs as a medium of instruction. SLS definitely fits in with this measure.

Politicians can definitely choose to make SLS a part of public policy as they help fasten the race to meet many of the MDGs for 2015. Infact, the Ministry of Human Resource Development, the Ministry of Rural Development, the Ministry of Women and Child Development and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare ought to endore the implementation of SLS on Indian television. There really isn’t a need for endorsement from either Mr. Amitabh Bachhan or Mr. Shah Rukh Khan to popularize this as Mr. Kothari himself has regretted. 

Where will the money come from?

SLS is in itself a TRP boosting move and hence makes sense for the TV channel to invest in it. To make things easy, SLS can be woven in to the company’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policy. The new Companies Bill recommends that companies with revenues exceeding INR 1,000 crore (roughly 117,658,130 Euros) spend up to 2 percent of their average net profits on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and the funds spent on CSR are to be mandatorily reported in company balance sheets.  I do not know if it is legally acceptable to use CSR funds for an activity that will also lead to profits for the company. This suggestion is open for debate.

Implementing SLS across all channels will be in tune with the 12th target for achieving the Millenium Development Goals for 2015. It is “to make available the benefits of new technologies, especially information and communication, in cooperation with the private sector.” India is already on track for the achievement of this track. This move will only strengthen the current efforts.

Smaller channels can be given the option of accessing government funds if necessary. A part of the yearly allocation for capacity building and job-led education can be set aside for the implementation of SLS. For the financial year 2013-14, Rs.65,869 crores were earmarked for this sector.  The SLS is very cheap investment since PlanetRead.com reports that every US dollar spent on subtitling a nationally telecast program (Chitrahaar) of Hindi film songs, gives 30 minutes of weekly reading practice to 10,000 people, for a whole year which is the equivalent of one paisa per person per year in India. In specific states or languages, it would range from 5-20 paisa per person per year. Implementing sub-titles across most Indian TV channels will provide a great boost to the subtitling business which is estimated to be a Rs 100-crore industry in India.

What can we do?

Television addles our brains in many different ways but Professor Emily Oster found out that Ekta Kapoor turned the TV into the Empowerment Box for rural India. Implementing SLS on all Indian TV channels will fire up the television driven progress of Indian society. Write or Tweet to your favorite TV channel to subtitle your favorite shows if you agree. Cheers to armchair development practice and more power to Dr. Brij Kothari!

Clarification – added on December 3, 2013

Some readers asked me if I meant all shows should have subtitles in Hindi or in English. What I meant is that the subtitles should be in the same language as the speech. For example, Marathi television channels should have subtitles in Marathi, Gujarati channels in Gujarati, Kannada channels in Kannada and so on.

Petition for Subtitles:

Do sign this petition created for implementing subtitles on Indian TV:

The Government of India: Implement Same Language Subtitling on Music shows in India for higher functional literacy

https://www.change.org/petitions/the-government-of-india-implement-same-language-subtitling-on-music-shows-in-india-for-higher-functional-literacy#supporters

21 thoughts on “Getting India subtitled

  1. This is a fascinating way to drive literacy. It might take time. But it will work. I now know rudimentary Spanish, just because several korean movies I watch have hard-coded spanish subtitles along with English ones. despedida!

  2. I think your article is absolutely fantastic. I am very interested in Indian culture because we have a large Indian population in South Africa, where I live. I used to teach speech and drama and do a lot of theatre work in the Indian community. However, the idea of subtitles across the board for all ages is just amazing. More countries should be doing it.

    • Thank you for your feedback and for your appreciation of our culture. I shall let you know if I find something that might interest you. I seriously do hope that SLS is adopted in many more countries and that the Indian government makes it a part of the education policy. Cheers!

  3. Well back in college in one seminar I did come across some NGO promoting literacy through subtitles on song videos. And felt yeah its a good way to do it. But compulsory SLS on everyday programming by TV channels seems a bit of a day dream today. I see a positive in a new job field exploding into the scene, but wonder whether TV channels which work on a tight budget will ever indulge in one.

    One way I see is some NGO taking up the task, like the donations based website ‘addic7ed.com’, where multiple sources subtitle the latest episode of each and every american tv programme in multiple languages. Its an international community, if only we could have an Indian community working for free. With digital broadcasting a norm in India today, for an irritated viewer, a flick of remote is enough to switch off subtitles.

    Lastly since almost all movie dvd released today have an English subtitle, a SLS will only be a tiny effort from the film makers.

    • Hi Sujith,
      TV channels definitely do not lack the budget to subtitle their own shows. I do not see why they should reap the benefit of higher TRPs due to subtitles by getting the subtitling done for free. I need to check DVDs of Indian movies. If they have subtitles only in English, then I understand that this is a great disservice to the hard-of-hearing.

      I think that SLS should be made compulsory for all movie and song based programmes at the least. Given that India does not take into consideration the needs of hearing impaired people right now, this move will greatly benefit such people apart from increasing literacy. The option to keep subtitles on or off can be introduced later.

      This tiny effort will make a helluva of a difference.

  4. Excellent Article Natalia P Hule
    Clearly articulated difference between officially literate and actually literate…
    What is worth pondering over is the impact informal daily life education can have on individuals..For years, informal education is a concept that is alien in our country..People who attempt to do so are practically outcasts…But what if this concept is widespread using the most obvious medium and also leads to profits in return for the businesses which work-for-profit? A concept worth considering! Easy to implement, win-win scenario!

  5. Very nice article. It surely will change things in India. I would prefer bilingual subtitles, local language as well as English. You might like to view this small 3 minute video clip to show how literate our ‘teachers’ are. It is an eye opener. Forget language, even general knowledge is far from what is desirable.

    • Subtitles in two languages will make the screen appear crowded and unaesthetic like news channel screens. Thanks for sharing this video. We have a really long list of problems to tackle in our education sector.

  6. A well researched article on how subtitles in a particular language as is the language of entertainment can boost literacy. You have made a complicated issue really effective. Technical but we need patience in brainstorming such important issue. I am sharing your article. Best, Manmohan.

    • Thank you for your kind words. I truly wanted to explain this concept to the maximum possible people in a very simple and get them to support this idea. Thanks for sharing. I hope SLS becomes the norm for all movie and song based programmes in India.

  7. Excellent article and well researched! My nephew, now 8, started watching movies on STAR and HBO a couple of years ago and his grasp on English as a language developed greatly because of the subtitles. I didn’t think of the far reaching effects of the simple exercise at that time but now it seems that this could really make a difference!

    • Thank you for your compliments. I am glad to know that I could share with you how much subtitles really help. All young Indian children with parents who watch English channels are going to learn English really fast. I so wish this also takes place with regional languages.

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