Mind Your Language: Mother Tongue Education Gets a Boost
Children are showing a clear preference to study in their native language, a trend highlighted by the growing popularity of Khan Academy India’s bilingual and vernacular content.
When it was time to send Meera to school, like most Indian households, her family also chose to send her to an English-medium private school. Despite struggling to make ends meet, her parents decided to stretch themselves in the belief that an English education would eventually lead to a better paying job and better life prospects.
Meera, however, found herself struggling with class 8 Mathematics as her teacher introduced the concept of linear equations. It wasn’t just the x and y that confused her; rather she found herself unable to understand the language in which her teacher was explaining the subject in class. It was the same for most subjects – the English words didn’t make sense to her, the concepts even less so.
There are thousands of children like Meera in the ever-increasing number of English-medium private schools and government schools in India today, who are grappling with the language used in classrooms. It is these students that personalized digital learning platforms such as Khan Academy are trying to help, by introducing curriculum-aligned content explaining concepts of various subjects in vernacular languages, and more interestingly, in the comfortable mix of Hindi and English prevalent across many parts of India, Hinglish.
The idea of developing vernacular and bilingual Hindi-English content came almost through a process of trial and error. When the California-based nonprofit entered the country in 2016, Khan Academy’s plan was to ‘localise’ their existing videos, as had been done successfully in several other countries, by replacing the narrator in the original videos with an Indian narrator who had a local accent, albeit still speaking in English.
However, they soon realized that it wasn’t just the accent that was a problem. An initial pilot in a few schools in Rajasthan found that children did not relate well with the voice or the language of the narrator in the dubbed videos. Teachers also pointed out that most of the students found it difficult to understand the English in the videos, since they came from a purely Hindi-speaking background. As Sandeep Bapna, Managing Director of Khan Academy India, puts it, “If a child can understand English, they can get accustomed to the accent too. The need was to create content in languages that are understood by the children in India.”
Bapna also recalls a visit to a school in Delhi, where despite the language of instruction being English, the children were talking amongst themselves in Hindi. “They used English words for technical terms such as circle and square, but the rest of their discussion in class was in Hindi.”
Keeping these initial experiences in mind, Khan Academy decided to take up two parallel efforts for the Indian market – one was to develop pure Hindi content, for students who were studying only in the vernacular medium; and the other was creating bilingual content, for students who were enrolled in English-medium schools but conversed in Hindi at home. The idea was to reduce the cognitive load on learners when trying to understand a difficult concept while simultaneously listening to a non-native language. This was backed by abundant research which suggests that children learn more effectively in their mother tongue, leading to positive outcomes on enrolment, student confidence and academic achievement, especially for children from rural backgrounds. Bapna explains, “As an educational platform, we aspired to create a medium where children could access content in different languages and switch as per their needs. Eventually, it’s [their] learning that needs to be put at the forefront.”
To facilitate the contextualization of their lessons and exercises into local Indian languages, Khan Academy set up its first office outside the US in India. While retaining the tried-and-tested style and pedagogy that was a hallmark of all their videos, all the content for India was re-created from scratch instead of merely overlaying the original videos with Hindi audio and text – a first for Khan Academy globally. The process turned out to be faster, more cost-effective, and resulted in a better end product, with the language more natural and versatile, and the examples more relevant and relatable for Indian learners. Khan Academy India also entered into partnerships with state governments, which gave them access to teachers who were subject matter experts, proficient in teaching in the local language, and helped the content reach a larger user base.
A Khan Academy video explaining a class 10 physics concept in English
The same video in Hinglish
Today, after nearly two and a half years, Khan Academy India has built a library of Mathematics and Science content for classes 6 to 12 in Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and of course, Hinglish. These free, easy-to-use, age-appropriate series attempt to cut across the language barrier and deliver lessons to children in the form of simple conversations in daily life. Each student progresses through quizzes and questions at just the right level for them, getting fun ‘rewards’ to motivate them and immediate feedback to identify weak spots, followed by learning interventions where appropriate.
While the vernacular content has been well-received and is being used in several state schools, it is the bilingual content – where a concept is explained in the local language while using technical terms in English – that has proved to be most popular. Mathu Shalini, India Strategist, Khan Academy India, says demand for such content is high. “Teachers and students have found these videos to be useful and have asked us to cover other grades as well. In some Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas where Khan Academy content is being used, teachers prefer bilingual content even though the schools are English-medium. Even states and government organizations are becoming more interested in bilingual content as they feel it will help students transition to English when required to do so at a later stage. It’s still early days, but looking at the trend so far, it seems bilingual content is the way to go.”
The numbers are certainly promising. Since its launch last year, the engagement rates for bilingual content, as tracked via Khan Academy’s portal, are almost double those of pure Hindi and English content. There are approximately 2,50,000+ users per month for Hinglish content, while the number of subscribers for the bilingual YouTube channel has shot up from a mere 1,000 in January 2018 to over 80,000 to date. Most of the users have discovered the platform on their own, with in-school use still being a small part of Khan Academy’s user base in India.
Apart from Khan Academy India, there are several other initiatives that are trying to address this learning gap by creating high-quality, contextualized content for the Indian landscape, where students learn in multiple languages across the country. In 2018, Central Square Foundation came together with Google.org and YouTube Learning to run a program to develop free, curriculum-aligned content for Mathematics for classes 1 to 10, in Hindi, Telugu and Marathi. With the ultimate goal to improve the learning outcomes of students, such digital content and innovative solutions aim to support children like Meera by allowing them to learn in the same language in which they speak, think and dream.