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.
Sanjay Gupta shares his views with our Academic Lead and Vice-President, Vagish Jha.
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 – India has a colonial heritage of the English language. Many of us grew up with that English. English was the distinguishing factor between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ in colonial outposts, so to speak. But the world is changing fast. Increasingly the world is getting connected with telecom and the internet. So it needs a common language too. We see the desire to learn English in countries traditionally outside the sphere of British influence. So English is here to stay. Because we need something that is common across the world to help us in communicating with each other, English no doubt, has emerged as the number one common language that most people aspire for.
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-à-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. When I grew up, I was taught in a way that was reflective of our British Colonial past. I measured myself in terms of my own speech, voice, accent, and modulation by the standards set by the British. Now it is high time we jettisoned the past. Having common rules like Grammar works perfectly fine. Because without rules there will be mayhem.
For a language to become glocal, it must adapt to local nuances. The way we speak, 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. I think there is a philosophical element to the expansion of the language to be a global language. For that, it must shake off the colonization – language colonization as I call it. It must be shaken off for moving into the future. 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:
- Multi-sensory exposure: When children learn a language as parents speak to them, they have multi-sensory exposure to the language. They are being told this is a ball, the parent is showing them a ball, speaking the word, the child can relate to the ball in terms of its bouncing and behavior. So, quickly the child assimilates the sound the word associated with the ball to recognize it any other context. Multi-sensory exposure to language learning means sound, sight, voice, hearing all together help the brain assimilate the language.
- Cognitively easy association to learn the language: Suppose I am in India learning the language. An animal is shown to me and somebody writes, ‘The Tiger’. I am not confused about the animal. I know what the tiger is. But if I am in Guatemala, it is better to show a Jaguar to make a quick connection. It is cognitively easier to recall for that learner due to his familiarity with this animal. 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 learner’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 ability.
So, what we need to keep in mind is the following:
- Language is arbitrary and therefore multi-sensory exposure to the language (this is research-based,) is the best way of learning and technology can achieve this
- Language needs to be decolonised, where we need to have a choice to learn the language in the ways that are familiar to us.
- The content should be contextually cognitive and culturally aligned
- Expose the learner to content that is at that point of time relevant to their existing proficiency
If you bring these principles into the design of your technology intervention, then you have a real shot at enabling a person to learn the language.
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. In a typical English class, the teacher comes with the textbook, but nobody seems to be interested. 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. Anytime you start an enterprise, you must think about the money and resources you have and the way you will sustain yourself. So, we have consciously focused first on English Literacy. If we integrate multi-sensory reading, any language can be learned by school children as well.
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 are going after the age group who are increasingly convinced that technology-based learning makes sense. Thanks to BYJU and Shahrukh Khan!
We built EnglishBolo for low-income youth – the adults who are at the first levels of English proficiency; who do not have the learning habit acquired by rigorous schooling; and are economically disadvantaged. 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 questions. Today’s youth are constantly engaged with social media – Facebook, Instagram, etc. So how do you offer your inputs that match with the learner’s lifestyle? Once you’ve done that – then you have built the flexibility they need.
Designing the scheduling system – the day you want is the day you get; in a way we are saying horses for courses.
You can choose the program based on two criteria:
- Does it deliver learning based on some principle? – it is very easy to understand if you understand the science of language learning
- Does it fulfill your criteria as an individual in terms of your felt needs?
This, however, may not solve ALL the problems. If you give a bicycle to a person and tell them to learn in the backyard, they will learn but they will be very diffident to take it out in traffic, unless they go with someone who gives them confidence.
This is why in our product 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.
We have also created a vibrant interface and have developed a system of continuously collecting user feedback.
VKJ: You said EnglishBolo is a platform that can talk to the user. It is a lively interface where you are also getting feedback from the user. What is this model of creating a dialogue between the user and the service provider?
SG: EnglishBolo is built on the fundamental tenets of language learning. You take a 2-minute placement test and we know your level. It’s an adaptive test. In 5 questions, we know what your level is.
The content is all associated in accordance with your level. It is cognitively relevant and contextual. The program has 100 lessons. Each of them is of 15 minutes. After every 8 lessons, a learner can ‘book a teacher’
Every time a caller picks up the phone, we start the conversation in English. We speak to them in English and they wonder who this English-speaking person is in their lives. We don’t want to enforce a class on them, but we want to capture their attention. We give them a sense of importance.
There is regular customer feedback that is conducted. Weekly ‘voice of customer’ analyses are conducted. Around 250 calls are made every week. There are 100 emails that come every week. All this feedback is looked at. What are the main points? What is the product? What is the messaging? What are the main points on servicing, policy, etc? Anybody lagging behind, we will give them an extension.
The feedback you are talking about is the ‘voice of the customer’. What we do is use the feedback to craft future action e.g. new features – a pronunciation assistant that will work on our platform that is under R&D right now. This feature will give you at the end of each chapter, a set of sentences that you can now speak aloud, and it will reflect to you what its recommendations are. Where you might want to practise more… we won’t talk too much about whether the accent is right or wrong. This will be against the Indian accent. But it will say within this zone you are comprehensible or not.
By now we have called 15,000 learners. Most of them love EnglishBolo. They will often say, the pronunciation is good; the teacher is nice and so on. But if you ask them what is that one specific thing you loved, the majority answer, ‘I have loved the teacher class’. If you ask them why? They say, ‘The teacher was very supportive and encouraging’.
Why do we have a wonderful program? This is because we are not constrained by teachers. We have teachers who can speak in English, use a mouse and who have empathy. Our teacher’s job is very simple. We will train them, and they will follow an SOP. They will speak with each of the learners and teach them to repeat after them when they are wrong.
Learners are not used to teachers being kind; neither are they used to English-speaking people and the feeling of being recognised and appreciated. It’s beautiful how confidence can be built. The skill is here; this exchange is making the student enjoy the class. They want to come back and increase the engagement but most importantly this exchange makes them feel more worthy.
We want to make sure that we build EnglishBolo as an affordable solution, where the providers of the solution really care about the customer. It’s easy to copy the technology; it’s very difficult to copy the operationalisation and culture.
VKJ: Reports have stated a serious a dip in the reading abilities of students; 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!
On the backs of the validated third party independent assessment (which by the way got very strongly supported from the ground level need coming from these districts), the teachers and principals were also saying – it’s very good, it’s really making a difference.
So, impact measurement and feedback both came together to enable the growth to 65,000 schools. 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.
Here you can create the content that will be used within the module.