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.


Brij Kothari said...

Thanks Don Osborn for drawing my attention to this post.

SLS on music-videos in African languages, especially on mainstream TV, is an obvious extension of our work in India.

For children, who like to watch cartoons, we produced animates stories with SLS in 30+ languages, including Swahili (through virtual collaboration):

These animated stories are easily converted in any language by replacing the audio+SLS. We'd love to make them available in other African languages.

Allows for wide distribution of reading to children in their local language(s), on any screen already in their lives (e.g., mobiles, TV).

Don said...

You're welcome Brij, and thank you for the comment. I remember visiting the home of some Nigerien friends in Niamey, when their children were watching cartoons in French. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it occurred that they had no opportunity to watch similar entertainment in Zarma (their first language) or Hausa (also spoken in the neighborhood). Adding an SLS option to such entertainment, whatever the language, could be great not only for literacy and indeed pluriliteracy.

In the meantime, I'm thinking about spreading the word about SLS to basic literacy efforts in Africa on the one hand, and video/animation for development projects.

Michael Novak said...

This is Michael Novak of One Plus Two Media, Inc. (
We have implemented an automated Same Language Subtitle solution specifically in Swahili, Hausa, and Shone so far. We have also just launched our operation in Africa with our base in Accra, Ghana. We hope that our next language will be Twi for Ghana.

We are active in Nigeria, DRC, Cameroon and elsewhere.

We also work just fine in English, French, German, Malay, Eskimo, and Indonesian. More on the way!

Our solution is the first to offer a scalable solution for the entire video, not just music. We also provide additional features that move subtitling into an eBOOK solution. This approach reduces bandwidth usage by 90-95%, so solutions can be delivered over 3G to smartphones and tablets.

I'd be happy to discuss this in more detail. I can be reached at or by phone at +1 415 710 2737.

Don said...

Michael, Thank you for reaching out to let us know of this important SLS initiative. I appreciate your taking the time to talk with you about it and hope to have a new blog posting about this subject in October or early November.