This post has been updated with new experiments and insights.
The updated version is provided here.
Anjali, there is an amazing energy in the tinkering you are engaged in, so let me first say – thank you so much for being you and for spreading the energy through your blog posts! 🙂
It would be great if you can share the details of the experiments you conducted, but in any case, here are a few random thoughts:
I am curious to know if you did any analysis to see what it is that would give people the ‘feeling’ of being comfortable with English and what skill (reading/writing, spoken English) is easier to pick up. It seems to me that acquiring good spoken English would perhaps be easier and provide more confidence, which would then provide the motivation to work towards improving writing skills. So with that, I would like to throw in ‘audioconference sessions for spoken English’ as a possible offering to see if that makes sense.
Some other ideas for further experiments and analysis:
1) Just a simple Web site that offers a free online forum for the contributors / “teachers” to put relevant posts, assignments and suggestions for reading, to discuss further plans for the site, and for the “students” to provide feedback on the plans. This way, a) you can adjust the offerings as you go b) the students will not only get to access the relevant content but also see the efforts that are being put in by the teachers. c) you can introduce other offerings like private sessions over the time.
2) Instead of a private session, which might seem daunting or expensive, have the students enroll in small groups for a small fee and provide a mentor who can suggest what resources from the Web site would work best for that group. The thought here is that friends would engage in this as a group activity and support each other. Since this is between friends, hopefully there will be less awkwardness and more enthusiasm for learning.
More later ~ Thanks again for the great post!
Thank you so much Prachi for sharing these ideas. Spoken English is harder as it needs in person interaction and comfort with the teacher/mentor, however, it provides more confidence and many people crave for this skill. I agree with your points here.
I tried a question and answer forum with posts similar to the suggestion 1 you have given.
Experiment 4: Answers (Q&A) portal for English improvement. One can ask any question – correct a sentence, help me write it, etc and experts and other users can answer. Similar to Yahoo answers but restricted just for English help. I found that existing posts got lot of views but new users did not post fresh questions.
Anjali, you reply quickly for a busy woman. I am impressed. 🙂
I am by no means qualified to talk on this particular topic, but you seem to be okay with me coming up with random ideas, so I am going to go on just a little bit more here. 🙂 Perhaps there is a pattern emerging from all your experiments – that there is hesitation and lack of motivation to take the next step that goes beyond passive learning? So I wonder if the problem is not of finding the right mix of tools (web site / chat / classes etc.) but of finding the right campaign, the right incentive. If that is the case, then the approach would be different and would depend on the target audience. For example, instead of asking professionals to enroll, ask small businesses (companies/institutes) to sign up on this Web site. If people lack the basic English skills, then the companies will hire them conditionally and direct them to the Web site. The hires will need to do whatever it takes (take the free courses, ask for a mentor, join a paid session etc.) to improve their skills within the time period allocated to them. Has something like this being done, been thought of…or is this too much optimistic thinking on my part? 🙂
In any case, good luck with the tinkering. Hope to write to you regarding Dubzer some other time.
One possibility is to explore using video/TV. This medium is a much better fit for Indians who love to watch and absorb rather than interact immediately. There are several shows on TV teaching people stuff they aspire to do in a way that provides both entertainment and learning. Getting the right format and script is important. Any ideas here or connections with people from the creative/TV world that can help us brainstorm?
i saw your blog post
its a subject im also passionate about
The British Council has some resources for
English teaching / learning and a mailing list
some areas where tech could help:
– assessment done either online or via the phone
could help people both realize their limitations and
represent their proficiency in a validated way
– tools to make it very easy for people to start giving
and finding english language classes.
I agree. Thinking in English is the level to strive for. That’s when one can engage well and hold interesting conversations. Some of my colleagues have struggled and there is no easy solution. Corporates also want to help struggling employees but don’t know for sure how – at least the smaller ones who outsource most soft skill trainings.
Do you know of any useful training programs in Bangalore or online?
Freeman – Thanks for pointing out ELTECS. I’ll let my HR know.
I just thought I would add some of my own observations here,
I was astounded by the enthusiastic response we received on Facebook on this topic. I was and am certain that a startup in this space will just grow and grow and grow :-), provided we get the formula right! All our assumptions failed when we encountered the search audience who came to us via English learning related keywords.
For the medium, we could try newsletter format yet. That might help bridge the gap between those interested in learning English AND drive W-o-M. Thistruck me when I was going over the NOSQL newsletter (http://www.nosqlweekly.com/).
We have been struggling with this problem at the school level. I think it should be a continuous process rather than a course. The major influencing factor is the surrounding. Coming from Mumbai, I think I didn’t have an option but to speak Hindi (okay – Bambaiyya Hindi!) or English with people around me. In Pune, where I am now, it is just the opposite. Try speaking in any other language other than Marathi, and you get looked upon like some smart-a$$. In fact, almost all the non-Marathi junta in Pune, eventually learn Marathi to get around!
I had written about this some time back. Check it out: https://coupleofthoughts.wordpress.com/2008/12/17/english-grammar-to-care-or-not-to-care/
I would be more than happy to participate in any experiment that you conduct, or even get you a large student population to participate in your experiments. Let’s hope we can build a great English speaking populace!
Firstly, sorry for the late comment; I discovered this blog just a few minutes ago.
Now… the GOOD thing, I’d say, is that this isn’t a uniquely Indian problem. People across the world run into trouble when they try to learn foreign languages through the traditional methods (classes). Now, this is a good thing because we can see how people around the world are trying to solve the problem, and whether we can adapt their methods.
The main thing language-learners everywhere seem to be discovering is that LANGUAGE CLASSES, BY THEMSELVES, ARE USELESS. Two or three hours of a language per week is not nearly enough to learn it; you need to be exposed to the language almost continuously. Also, learning grammar rules or vocabulary and then doing exercises on them (the traditional method) doesn’t help either.
So what does help? Well, as Nikhil said, languages can be learned just by hanging around native speakers for long enough spans of time. In fact, that’s pretty much the only reliable way of learning languages: Listening to native speakers speak it, and just letting the brain puzzle out the grammar and the vocabulary. So any method we devise, I think, would need to build from that idea.
And it turns out that there is a company out there that does exactly that.
Have you heard of LingQ? http://www.lingq.com/
On LingQ, you learn a language by continuously listening to and reading it. Yes, there are vocabulary drills and in-built translations and all that, but all of them are just designed to supplement and speed up the learning-by-listening, not to replace it. Also note: There is no grammar. People just get the feel of the language after a while. Meanwhile, you can start writing and hold conversations online in the target language. And the system is designed to help people help each other learn; for instance, an English-speaker learning Japanese can get points by correcting the writings of English-learners, and can spend these points to get Japanese-speakers (who are learning English on the site) correct his Japanese writings.
From what I’ve heard, this system seems to be working quite well. So I think this is where we need to take our cues from.
That said, motivating Indians to learn may be difficult. This is a rather revolutionary process compared to classroom teaching and needs continuous listening. People might just dismiss it as snake oil.
Nikhil, Anubhav, Thank you for sharing your ideas and thoughts. It’s great to collaborate with you through this post. As you suggested, continuity is important and yet we need to make it appealing for Indians and fit with the current mindset. Do let me know if you happen to find any more interesting products or ideas.
two years back before we started work on krazykoder (learning programming online), we were actually researching doing a portal on learning english online.
we sponsored 2 consecutive courses for an acquaintance of ours who was really eager to learn English to see how his learning evolves.
here’s what we found:
1. ppl who dont know english mainly want to learn “spoken english”. this is mainly so they dont feel awkward when someone is having a conversation in english around them.
these ppl are not too hot on learning written english.
2. learning classes dont work for these people much, as they hardly get 10 mins “me time” there.
each student has to go and speak 1-by-1 for 5-10 mins. meanwhile the other students are watching.
3. watching and listening to ppl talk in english (without participating) doesnt really help much, as the part of the brain involved in “practice” is different than the part of the brain involved in “theory”.
its like reading a book on swimming, it wont help much till you get into the water.
4. what these students need is a way by which they can practice their english, however broken it might be, in an “embarassment-free” environment, where they feel theres noone to laugh at their mistakes.
needless to say, or friend still doesnt speak much english even though we have blown over 5k on learning it 🙂
what we felt the solution could be:
have a BPO (callcenter) of young Engish-speaking staff with good voices.
Their primary job will be to have telephonic conversations in English with whoever’s interested in calling up.
These guys should be able to talk about anything under the sun – cricket, politics, family, love, bollywood etc with the caller.
Their job should be only to keep the conversation going in English, mildly pointing out obvious mistakes, and encouraging the person to feel free to talk further in English.
The caller can decide to remain anonymous if he/she wants.
This service can then be used by anyone anytime who has 15 mins/day to spare practicing English.
eg: guys in local trains & busses, guys on a tea break, housewives, students, guys calling in after dinner etc.
additional features that can be added:
1. over time an automated profile can be generated of the person’s progress and the callcenter executive picking up this persons next call can talk to him accordingly., after seeing his weak points on screen.
2. the model can be extended to SMS too, where async conversations happen over SMS throughtout the day.
3. the student can schedule the calls such that the BPO calls them at a fixed time every day instead of the student calling up the BPO (this way they dont break the habit)
4. the service can be integrated with skype/gtalk etc too, so anyone in the world can use it.
5. group chats can be introduced too.
i really believe that this callcenter approach is the right approach to learning languages, as it gives the student the daily practice he/she needs, as well as it does away with the embarassment factor due to the fact that that one can remain anonymous while using it.
the reason we didnt pursue it further is we found it to be too operation-intensive 🙂
(managing a BPO is hard work, and at the time we didnt think its our cup of tea)
but itll be great if someone makes some headway in this field, as the need for it is clearly burgeoning.
would be happy to assist in any way if needed.
Hey Rajesh, This is great research and data. Thank you so much for sharing it. I wish I knew you tried this so we could have exchanged a lot of notes beforehand. I had considered the call center approach but just like TutorVista or JustDial, we need to have a very strong structure to the call. Usually call centers work well when there are specific questions, doubts or defined syllabus. Spoken English is about practice and English-speaking people to interact with. Many people feel that a real small group is important to get the real practice. Recently I have been thinking along the lines of Toastmasters or a group activity which one can join on a rolling basis but the structure allows easy participation and enough practice. What is the profile of people you would target first had you done the call center? What profile was eager to try a new approach? Let me know your thoughts. Thanks again for sharing.
i would start by putting stickers up in the compartments of all the mumbai local trains.
something like: “use your daily travel time to learn english now! call 02222222 now!”
most of those daily travellers have half an hour to kill daily while going up n down in the locals, and most dont speak good english . many of them are salesmen for whom knowing good english results in better career prospects directly. atleast 5% of them should bite.
also, instead of dialling in, users should be given the option to chat via sms too. more privacy, less disturbance.
this would be a good cross-section to start with, and then later take it to different cities and countries.
btw, the sticker would need to be in hindi 🙂
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