Running subtitles in the same language as the dialogue in the television programme helps viewers match the spoken word to the written
Subtitles improve reading skills in India
For two decades now, Brij Kothari has believed that one of the secrets to getting Indians to read better lies in music videos: the song-and-dance routines extracted from movies and played endlessly on television.
Mr Kothari, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, has been a relentless advocate of same-language subtitling (SLS): running subtitles in the same language as the dialogue in the television programme, so that viewers can match the spoken word to the written.
His research shows that this simple technique improves the reading skills of viewers who are literate - at least on paper, in that they know the alphabet of their language—but who cannot read fluently the words in front of them.
Prompted by Mr Kothari’s non-profit organisation, PlanetRead, the Indian government experimented with SLS on its state-run channels in the Indian languages through the mid-2000s, but then lost interest. A new law, however, may now bring SLS back into Indian television, and not only on state-run channels but on hundreds of private channels as well.
According to the 2011 census, out of India’s population of 1.3 billion, 778 million people are literate. But studies suggest that many of these millions are in fact functionally illiterate. In 2016, the education non-profit Pratham found that only 47.8 per cent of fifth-grade students - nine to 10-year-olds - can read a text meant for the six to seven-year-olds in second-grade.
Mr Kothari’s own survey of people living in four large Hindi-speaking states, indicates the situation is even worse, with 60 per cent of India’s 778 million literate people unable to read newspaper headlines or a second-grade text.
This was the problem Mr Kothari thought he could solve when, in 1996, he was watching “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” a film by the Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. He recalls that he was writing his dissertation at Cornell University, in the US, at the time. “That is precisely when, I believe, the desire to watch movies peaks.”
The film was subtitled in English. “I blurted out, during a bathroom break: ‘Why don’t they put Spanish subtitles on Spanish films? We’d catch the dialogue better.’”
After Mr Kothari returned to India, he founded PlanetRead in 2004, convincing the Indian government to implement SLS in 10 of its regional channels, including those in major languages like Tamil, Gujarati and Bengali.
“We worked on subtitling movie songs, primarily,” said Nirav Shah, the chief operating officer of PlanetRead, which is based in Puducherry. “If you subtitle a whole movie, there’s a fatigue factor that sets in. People watching the movie do understand the dialogue, so they may not be inclined to read the text at all.”
But with songs, Mr Shah said, the exercise turns into something like karaoke. “Most people know the first or second lines of songs, but they want to sing along,” he said. “It becomes enjoyable, so people read the lyrics.”
The results were slow in coming but they were unmistakeable. A Nielsen survey of children commissioned by PlanetRead suggested that SLS doubled the rate of functional readers in the fifth grade. Among functionally illiterate people, the rate of newspaper reading rose from 34 per cent to 70 per cent.
“It took anywhere from three to five years of one-hour-per-week exposure to SLS, for most weak-literates to progress from weak to functional literacy,” Mr Kothari said.
Other studies around the world have found similar results. In 1985, an experiment on third- and fourth-graders in the US (eight to 10-year-olds) concluded that the children read words more easily after seeing them in subtitles. Another paper, published in the journal Foreign Language Annals in 1999, showed how students expanded their written vocabulary better after watching SLS videos.
In the late 2000s, Mr Shah said, some of PlanetRead’s grants fell through. The Indian government proved unwilling to pay for its SLS services and the experiment faded away. English cable channels currently include subtitles, to assist Indian viewers who may have trouble understanding American or British accents, and PlanetRead works with a few private channels offering Indian-language subtitles but SLS is otherwise nowhere to be seen.
A 2016 law, however, may change all that. Designed to give Indians equal access to cultural and recreational activities, regardless of ability, one of the measures the law requires is for all television programming to have either sign-language or subtitles, to assist the hearing-impaired.
SLS is much the cheaper option, Mr Shah said. "We worked up the figures. For an expense of just 100 million rupees, you could subtitle all the song-based programmes on TV. And that cost will reduce in coming years, because you’ll already have a database of subtitled videos.”
Subtitling live programmes, news broadcasts, and other shows and movies will be an additional cost, of course. Media companies have proved reluctant to implement the law thus far, because of the additional expense and effort entailed.
But Mr Kothari suggested that giving companies tax credits on these costs, or allowing them to factor it into their mandated corporate social responsibility expenditure, will create an incentive to push forward with SLS.
“All the government has to do now, really, is send out a circular reminding companies that this has to be done,” Mr Shah said. “It’s better late than never, I suppose. But the government has to get serious about this.”