The simplest solutions to the most intractable social challenges can sometimes hide in plain sight. What if someone said that a small change on television across India could guarantee two hours of reading practice every day, to a billion viewers, including 500 million weak-readers, for the rest of their lives? Would you believe it? What if that claim were to be backed by a number of studies that demonstrated how weak-readers became functional and fluent readers, simply by watching TV?
Same Language Subtitling (SLS) is a nation-scale solution born at IIM Ahmedabad in 1996, at the Ravi J. Matthai Centre for Educational Innovation, to address India’s massive weak-reading challenge. After over two decades of research, pilot TV implementations in eight languages, impact studies, and policy advocacy, SLS finally became a part of national broadcast policy recently.
India is globally the first country where SLS has been promoted on TV, specifically for reading literacy. Other countries have generally used captioning and subtitling for media access and language learning. When SLS is implemented nationally, it promises to serve three national purposes: 1) daily reading practice for half a billion weak-readers, 2) media access among 65 million Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH) people, and, 3) Indian language learning for one billion TV viewers.
Weak-literacy in India
India’s official literacy rate was 74% in Census (2011) and is expected to cross 80% in the upcoming Census (2021). Does that mean 80% Indians can read a newspaper or a simple text? No. A picture closer to reality is that in a population of 1.25 billion (7 years and above), an estimated 400 million are good readers (32%), 600 million are weak-readers (48%), and 250 million are non-readers (20%). 1 With most literacy efforts of the state and civil society concentrating on the non-literate, the SLS project targets the 600 million weak-literates. This number can only swell by millions more, as today’s non-literate people transition to weak-literacy in the future.
SLS is simply the idea of subtitling mainstream popular TV content in the “same” language as the audio. What you hear is what you read. For example, Hindi films and serials with the dialog and songs, subtitled in Hindi; Tamil content subtitled in Tamil, and likewise on all existing Indian language content on TV.
Eye-tracking studies have found that reading engagement with SLS on audio-visual content is automatic and inescapable, among 90% weak-readers. Regular exposure to SLS on TV leads to measurable reading skill improvement and can transition weak-readers to functional and fluent reading in 3-5 years. 2,3 In Maharashtra, where SLS was scaled up substantially for two years, there was a strong positive impact on school children’s reading skills.4
India has one billion TV viewers who watch on average, 3 hours and 46 minutes of TV a day (FICCI-EY, 2019). The quantum of reading practice from watching daily two hours of content on TV, with SLS, is more print engagement than even what schooling can offer. The mean lifespan in India is nearly 70 years. The mean years an Indian spends in school is 6.4 years (4.8 years for girls and 8.2 years for boys). SLS is expected to benefit the reading skills of female viewers, by compensating for the fewer years in school and leveraging the time, more than males, that they spend watching general entertainment on TV.
Policy on SLS
The SLS project at IIMA has been advocating for SLS in education and broadcast policy, backed by strong evidence. It took 23 years for SLS to go from idea (1996) to national policy (2019). The legal impetus for it came from the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, which requires ‘sub-titles’ on TV as a ‘right’ of those who cannot hear well.
On September 11, 2019, India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) officially announced ‘Accessibility Standards’ for 800+ TV channels in India. MIB mandated all major TV channels to start by captioning at least one TV program/week by 2019 and ramp it up to 10% of all programming by 2020, 20% by 2021, and so on, capping it at 50% of all programming by 2025. A key point says, "The language of the Closed Captioning or Subtitles shall be the language of the content." In other words, SLS.
The onus to implement SLS is now squarely on the film and TV industry, with the state responsible for monitoring and enforcing the implementation. Having achieved the policy breakthrough, the challenge before the SLS project now is to put in place a quality implementation model under a multi-stakeholder partnership of the government, industry, academia, and civil society. The policy on SLS comes up for review in two years (September, 2021). Having a successful model implementation on existing content by then is necessary to take the "not-implementable" argument off the table. It would also act as a catalyst for the entertainment industry to implement SLS on new content, as part of the production process itself.
Of the 50,000 films produced by the film industry so far, only about 20,000 will ever make it to TV. SLS can be added to all those existing films at source, i.e., with the rights owners who will then only give SLS versions of the films to TV channels. As per the national policy, the industry would be responsible for SLS on new films and content.
SLS is cost-effective. It costs roughly INR 35,000 to SLS the dialog and songs of a film. The cost of SLS on 20,000 films is, therefore, only 70 Crores, a fixed cost to transition the entertainment industry in India to institutionalize SLS on all film content on TV. The per person cost of two hours of daily reading practice for a lifetime of 70 years, is less than a rupee.
Global potential of SLS
SLS has direct implications for India’s ability to meet Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4) on quality education by 2030. Quality education cannot be achieved without quality functional reading skills, preferably, by the end of Class 3. SLS on popular TV entertainment is not just relevant for India but also other low-literacy countries in the Global South, especially in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. SLS could be India’s contribution to global literacy.
1 Kothari, Brij and Tathagata Bandyopadhyay (2010), Can India’s “Literate” Read? International Review of Education, vol. 56: 705-728. 2 Kothari, Brij and Tathagata Bandyopadhyay (2014). Same Language Subtitling of Bollywood film songs on TV: Effects on literacy. Information Technologies & International Development, 10(4): 31–47. 3 Kothari, Brij, Avinash Pandey, and Amita Chudgar (2004). Reading Out of the “Idiot Box”: Same-Language Subtitling on Television in India. Information Technologies and International Development, 2(1): 23-44. 4https://www.huffpost.com/entry/what-caused-maharashtras-leap-in-reading_b_589d1277e4b0e172783a9a8f