Hooray for Bollywood!

by Translation Guy on October 25, 2012

India is in the middle of a literacy explosion. Better schooling and the spread of cheap Hindi media outlets has led to a boom in literacy in all Indian languages, and that provides consumers with a growing choice of market languages. Literacy fuels economic growth.

According to the latest census in 2011, 74% of Indians, aged 7 and above, are literate. The next question is:  just how literate are they?

About half of Hindi speakers can’t even read a newspaper headline, according to the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. Clearly, there are many who have not advanced beyond a basic familiarity with the alphabet.

So despite improvements, about 400 million so-called “literates” can’t read their way out of a paper bag. Add on the quarter billion more who can’t read by any measure and you’ve got two-thirds of a billion people who still need to learn to read.

Roving National Geographic Explorer Ken Banks thought that the massive audiences for Hindi cinema would make a great classroom for Hindi literacy. He thought that Bollywood could promote Hindi literacy with Same Language Subtitling — or “SLS” — that is, captioning text on-screen to match the audio. When translating sound to text in the same language, Banks says “what you hear is what you read. SLS suggests subtitling the lyrics of existing film songs and music videos on television, in the language in which they are sung. Hindi songs subtitled in Hindi. Tamil song subtitled in Tamil, and so on in every one of India’s 22 official languages. In other words, Bollywood film songs marry karaoke to produce mass literacy.”

SLS is literacy magic. Studies prove that once it appears on screen, readers find it irresistible. Even early readers can’t help but try to follow along, and in the process they improve their reading skills. Since viewers love to learn song lyrics and are curious to know their meaning, the building of reading skills becomes fun instead of frustrating.

Banks notes that weak readers normally face a high motivational barrier to keep reading in the face of tedious print. But song lyrics are light, repetitive and easy to remember. They make for the perfect language lesson — simple phrases repeated and anticipated.

Independent studies show that even 30 minutes of weekly SLS exposure over a couple of years more than doubles the number of functional readers in primary schools in India. And it turns out that song lyrics are a kind of gateway drug when it comes to literacy addiction. Studying song lyrics encourages new readers to start reading the newspapers.

A special added bonus is that women are big Bollywood fans, and SLS is helping to reduce the abysmally low literacy rate for women in India, which runs about 65% according to the 2011 census.

Hooray for Bollywood!


  1. Would this work for English as well, like captioning Glee to get illiterate English kids to read better? Although then you would have to force them to watch Glee.

  2. Is this a government backed iniative, something that is mandated for the film industry to now incorporate or is it something that is done post-production and release, or something that private industry came up with on its own?

  3. Peter says:

    People still read newspapers, as in actually print copies? Well I guess it is the third world.

  4. I would vote for something like this in America, but the English spoken on TV is so horrendous that I doubt it would be a useful teaching tool. Also we don’t have anything that is the equivalent to Bollywood on television here, unless you count American Idol, and no one should be subjected to that.

    • Ken says:

      Interesting. I recall but cannot cite studies, that the important thing about literacy is to get people to read what interests them, even if it is trash. Once they have tools in place Shakespeare becomes a much easier proposition.

  5. What exactly is the definition of literate if over 400 million of them are non-functional, I think standards need to be revised in light of this.

  6. Gabe Cole says:

    I think that SLS should be applied beyond just India, I think that captioning could be a tool to teach literacy worldwide. Illiteracy is still an issue in the western world, and think of how many kids spend there days planted infront of the idiot box these days. If we are going to raise a generation of fat, lazy sloths; they should at least be able to read.

    • Ken says:

      Agreed. They caption like crazy in Japan, which has been very helpful to my own language studies.

  7. S. Germaine says:

    Okay, so if they can’t read a newspaper headline, how they hell does that qualify as literate? Who came up with that classification?

    • Ken says:

      Good question. I think a lot of literacy classifications are driven by funding rather than reality.

  8. Laco Vodick says:

    I can attest to the fact Bollywood is higly addictive, but I had never thought of it as a teaching device. This is actually rather ingenious.

  9. And my mother said watching TV and movies would rot my brain.

    • Ken says:

      I agree with your Mom. It’s certainly rotted my brain.

  10. I think this is such a signifiicant breakthrough, especially for a country like India with so many people and strained resources to ensure the education of the next generation. It should be an example to countries worldwide on creative thinking and problem solving.

  11. I especially like that this is helping rasie the female literacy rate, maybe this is something other countries should look into, but how translatable (pardon the pun) is this program? You would need a country with a large enough media infrastructure and programming that provided basic level language that was heavily repeated and that could be easily understood but still widely popular.

  12. Not enirely surprising, I’ve known quite a few immigrants to America who have learned far more about the English language from watching television than from ESL classes. I knew a man who learned to speak English from watching the Godfather over and over.

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