Thursday, April 30, 2015

Same-language subtitling for African languages?

The current edition of The Economist has a feature on "same-language subtitling" (SLS) as a literacy tool in India, entltled "Literacy in India: A bolly good read." Could SLS be used with African languages to promote literacy in Africa?

SLS is a bit like closed captioning in that it includes text in the language being spoken (or sung in), but the target is people who can hear and understand the language but are still learning to read. My limited understanding of subtitling is also that subtitled text gets more (or at least different) attention in production and display than does closed captioning.

The idea of SLS for literacy is not new, having been conceived two decades ago by Dr. Brij Kothari, who has continued work on development and use of the technique in India through the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad and later his NGO, PlanetRead.

More broadly, the idea of using subtitles in the same language goes back at least a half-century to sing-along shows (such as the 1960s American "Sing Along With Mitch" TV program; a contemporary example is Disney's release of a "sing-along" version of the 2013 film, "Frozen"). Many Chinese film and TV productions, as the Economist article mentions, subtitle in hanzi which can be read by speakers of different Chinese languages written with them (Mandarin dialects, Cantonese).

However, as far as I've been able to tell, there is not yet any use of SLS for African languages - at least on a systematic basis.

SLS in African languages?

A recent tweet by the Ghanaian NGO, Kasahorow, raised hopes of an example of SLS in the Akan language:
However, the YouTube videos are actually static images the of the lyrics with instrumental music in the background. Perhaps a step to SLS? Kasahorow, one should note, has quietly been doing a lot of production of learning and reference materials, plus some apps, for various African languages from around the continent. It would seem from afar that a collaboration between Kasahorow and PlanetRead could produce some very interesting results.

The topic of SLS came up in a session at the African Language Teachers Association/NCOLCTL conference last Saturday (25 April 2015). Two faculty from the University of Florida's Program in African Languages - Dr. James Essegbey and Dr. Charles Bwenge - presented on use of videos in Akan and Swahili (respectively) for L2 learners of those languages, and issues with production and access. A possible evolution of this kind of resource is to include subtitles/captions for the dialogues. While the subjects of these videos, and often the deliberate pace of speech in them (to facilitate L2 learners' understanding) may make most of them unsuitable for L1 (native) speakers, some of the more sophisticated ones might possibly be useful for literacy.

There is a significant amount of film, video drama, and music video production in African languages, and that is likely to increase. Use of SLS in popular releases might present a significant resource for L1 literacy in those languages, L2 language learning, and written use of African languages generally.

Final notes: I first learned of Dr. Kothari's work on SLS in the mid to late 1990s. The topic of SLS is mentioned in passing in two earlier postings on this blog:

Addendum, 1 May 2015

I understand from Brij Kothari that PlanetRead and Kasahorow have indeed collaborated virtually on one project to produce animated stories with SLS in Swahili. [See also his comment to this post.]

Addendum, 6 May 2015

I understand from James Essegbey that the Swahili videos shown by Charles Bwenge have subtitle capability.