In conversation with Sanjay Gupta, CEO, English Helper

Sanjay Gupta, the Chief Executive Officer of EnglishHelper, is committed to the democratic vision for education. A prolific writer, he is a Trustee at Udayan Care, on the Board of the School of Inspired Leadership, an Advisor for Acumen India and one of the prominent Indian leaders of the Social Sector. Sanjay is also a guest faculty at Duke University’s Executive Education Program.

Vagish K. Jha: Learning the English language has been perceived as a gateway to success in education and career options. Has the emergence of digital technology and virtual platforms brought about a fundamental shift in this field of learning the English language?

Sanjay Gupta: Technology is helping make a massive shift towards the ability to acquire the skill of English language. Two factors play a role in the acquisition of English ability. One is the major challenge that learners have here is that they never hear or speak English in their everyday lives. They don’t have access to an environment for easily learning the English language, so to say. The second is the lack of qualified and capable English teachers. People are hungry for good English teachers.

What technology does is to address these two issues frontally. Today, you can experience flying an aeroplane without taking off from the ground with the use of simulators. Similarly, technology effectively substitutes lack of English language skills by simulating an environment filled with English letters, words, phrases and sentences. Also, teachers are no longer constrained by physicality. Leveraging technology to bridge the distance is now possible. A teacher may be based in Delhi and the learner in Assam, but there is no reason why the two of them cannot connect. So, I think technology is helping make a big shift because it is available for anyone, from everywhere. So, the numbers of people who are actively learning English are going up and the shift from offline brick and mortar learning to digital learning is also evident.

VKJ: There is a  classic  debate  between  the effectiveness of human agency vis-a-vis virtual platforms in learning the language. In what ways has technological innovation made such a dichotomy less and less challenging for a linguistically diverse country like India?

SG: I am a strong proponent of the glocalisation (global+ local) of the English Language. For a language to become glocal, it must adapt to local nuances.Thewaywespeak,the banality with which we articulate our words and phrases, the pronunciations we use and even spellings we follow can be confusing. It is either American English or British English; American spelling or British spelling. I think it is time to move away from that and say it is Bihari English, Singaporean English and so on by adapting the flavour appropriate to the context of those cultures. People must also have a choice today. It’s okay for someone to choose to spell in a particular way or say schedule as’skedule’. Language must democratise itself.

What does it mean technologically? First, let’s be clear about how languages are learned. Languages are arbitrary human creations. We decided A is A, B is B; somebody could have easily decided B should be A and A should be B. And our brains need to deal with this arbitrary system of communication. To do so, the brain needs to create special neural pathways. Research shows that the neural pathways and learning of the language are best supported by two things:

1.Multi-sensory exposure: When children learn a language as parents speak to them , they have multi -senso ry exposure to the language. Multi-sensory exposure to language learning means sound, sight, voice, hearing all together help the brain assimilate the language.

2.Cognitive association:The content should be contextually cognitive and culturally aligned. In other words, it is important to ensure that technologically you are supporting the cognitive recall through culturally sensitive and culturally aligned material.

Also, learning material needs to reflect the learn er’s current proficiency. They may only know the alphabet. Or, they may know a few words. Or they may know more than a few words. Or they may know more than a few words but may be struggling with parts of speech. The issue is how do you understand that and align that with the learner ‘s abilit y.

VKJ: Reading and comprehension skills are some of the core skills for language learning . It also needs to be aligned cognitively to the needs of the learners . You have two interesting products for language learning – EnglishBolo (EB) and ReadToMe (RTM). How are these doing as simple and effective solutions to address these challenges?

SG: When it comes to self-learning, we have a solution called ReadToMe. There is a gamification element built in it naturally. A period has 40 minutes of time, and especially children who are first-generation literates, have’no time for learning’ outside class or school. It is just too difficult for these children to learn English the way it is currently taught . So, what we have done is simple – with the help of ReadToMe, the multi-sensory software, the same book you read is projected on a screen. The children love this form of reading. The teacher likes it because the syllabus is covered, no extra class is required, and the children are engaged. Teachers love a class that is attentive! Frankly, it is good for the state too – ReadToMe can be installed on existing computers, K-Yans, ICT labs i.e. no extra outlay is needed for IT equipment.

In this, we are following the path of least resistance. The first port of call is to solve the English Language Literacy problem in schools because that is a ubiquitous problem. In partnership with Schoolnet, we are spreading across India and also beyond

e.g. in Nigeria. We are also in Sri Lanka and in Nepal. In every location , we are contextually using their textbooks, the voice or accent suited for that place; Spanish in Guatemala, Meiti in Manipur , Sinhalese and Tamil in Sri Lanka. So, it is a solution that allows us to scale without constraints of a boundary.

As for EnglishBolo, the approach is to map our segment. About a hundred million people are learning English in this country; the learning age group is from 16-30 years. We built EnglishBolo for low-income youth. If some learning has happened for an hour then you have an academic history of it. If you have not developed that kind of rigour and you are given a solution where you have to spend 2 hours, most likely you won’t do it. So does it give you the kind of intervention that matched your profile and habits of learning? Does it give you enough flexibility? These are key que stions . Designing the scheduling system – the day you want is the day you get; in a way we are saying horses for courses. In addition, in EnglishBolo we have brought in an actual teacher who mostly gives the learner confidence to speak in a group. This allows for practice opportunity for the learner in a safe environment.

In EnglishBolo every 15 minutes we have introduced a test. The feedback we receive is – ‘we love taking the test ‘. The reality is that the test is nothing but a game . The real learning is happening during the 15 minutes they spend interacting with the software which has all these principles that are designed in this delivery. EnglishBolo is designed for a large segment. We have learners from rural areas, a domestic BPO, Biryani Blues restaurant and Hope Foundation, an NGO; these are spread across the country.

VKJ: Reports have stated a serious a dip in the reading abilities of stud ents; even National Achievement Survey points this out. To what extent have RTM and EB proved to be an effective solution to address this challenge?

SG: In partnership with Schoolnet , we started a pilot in Maharashtra, Aurangabad district in 2014 across 125 schools. The pilot study was done by a third-party assessment agency . The outcome was clear –  reading comprehension  improved in these schools versus schools that were not in the program. With USAID we went back to the Government and the language institute at that time in Maharashtra commended the program and highlighted that the  program  is  the  most  pragmatic way to solve the English Literacy problem . We went back to Maharashtra with USAID as our partner. And in partnership with Schoolnet, we want to put it in 4,000 more schools. We have scaled up to 3,720 schools to be exact. Now independent assessments are to be done.

We showed that in these schools as compared to control schools which did not go through the program, there was a 20- 40% change in the reading ability of students over one year. This was even if during that one year the program in many schools began late because of infrastructure constraints and lack of rooms etc. We have seen that if we take it to Year 2 and Year 3, this starts moving to 50-60%.The massive gap between the students exposed to this versus the students not exposed to this was so evident that now with a tripartite agreement with Government of Maharashtra we are implementing it in 65,000 schools!

So, impact measurement and feedback both came together to enable the growth to 65,000 sch ools. We saw the same thing happen in Sri Lanka. We ran a pilot In Colombo in low-income government schools. The impact was so evident when they did their own test and came back to us and asked what it will take to run the program across the country .The process is underway . Next year the full country will be covered by this program.