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How a number of initiatives are breaking the language barrier in teaching science

These initiatives include Bigyan, an online platform with articles by scientists in Bengali; The Jigyasa Project, a series of talks on science in Tamil, Kannada and Hindi, organised by the Bangalore Life Sciences Cluster in association with Mandra...

, ET Bureau|
Nov 16, 2019, 11.00 PM IST
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A group of nonprofit initiatives is using Indic languages to help science and tech reach millions of Indians not adept in English.
"Is it true that this flower is very poisonous?” a WhatsApp message in Kannada, accompanied by the picture of a flower dripping sap along with dire warnings typical of such forwards, enquired of Kollegala Sharma.

Questions like these are not unusual for Sharma, a scientist at the Central Food Technological Research Institute in Mysuru, since he runs a daily science podcast in Kannada, called Janasuddi. He devoted his next 10-minute episode to talking about latex, which was shown dripping in the picture, and its many uses. The sender, an 87-year-old woman in Mysuru who listens to Janasuddi on a smartphone gifted by her granddaughter, was satisfied.

“She regularly sends me questions and feedback. She says she cannot read or go out much but the podcast gives her information,” says Sharma. Helping people understand science better has been a passion for Sharma for decades.

The podcast, now over 150 episodes old, is his latest attempt in this endeavour. Each podcast is a 10-minute voice recording, giving details on new research in science, biographies of scientists or answers to listeners’ questions, which he distributes through community radio stations and WhatsApp broadcasts to 2,500 people who, in turn, disseminate it further.
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The listeners include teachers, who share it with students, and even the principal of an English-medium school in Kolar, who sends it to the parents of all his students. “Since his is an English-medium school, I asked him why he was sending it to parents. He told me, ‘We teach English through Kannada’,” Sharma adds.

The principal’s response illustrates well the challenge of science communication in a country like India where academic texts, discourses on new developments and even teaching, particularly at higher levels, tend to be almost exclusively in English though a sizeable number of the population is more familiar with their mother tongue or the local language.

To break this language barrier in teaching science and technology, a small but growing number of initiatives, like Sharma’s Janasuddi, have started platforms that discuss concepts in local languages. They want to make concepts in these subjects more accessible to those who do not know English. And technology, whether it is WhatsApp, YouTube or podcasts, makes it easy to disseminate information to a wider audience.
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These initiatives include Bigyan, an online platform with articles by scientists in Bengali; The Jigyasa Project, a series of talks on science in Tamil, Kannada and Hindi, organised by the Bangalore Life Sciences Cluster in association with Mandram, which also hosts talks on science and technology in Tamil on its own; and Sea of Science, a podcast series with episodes in six languages. What could amplify and broaden these efforts is the government’s recent move to prioritise improving accessibility to science in regional languages.

“There was an important session on this at the first meeting of the Prime Minister's Science, Technology and Innovation Advisory Council held in October 2018," says K VijayRaghavan, principal scientific adviser to the government.

"Since then, there have been multiple discussions and a proposal has been formulated to take this up on a large scale."

The founders of the non-government initiatives share a common passion: improve accessibility to science and technology and dispel misconceptions.
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"We want people who haven't developed an interest in science to hear our podcasts in their native tongues and develop an interest on important issues. If we can communicate science in the same language people use to express their thoughts and feelings, we might connect with them at a deeper level than if we spoke in, say, English," say Shruti Muralidhar, 34, and Abhishek Chari, 33, who run science communication collective IndSciComm and the podcast Sea of Science, in an emailed response to ET Magazine's queries. Muralidhar is a post-doctoral associate at Massachusetts In stitute of Technology, while Abhishek Chari is a freelance science communicator in the US.

Another initiative involved in this space is Mandram, which was started by Maggie Inbamuthiah - the head of the India arm of US-based nonprofit for women in tech AnitaB. org - after she felt an urgent need to plug that gap in late 2017.

While she and cofounder Venkatar a man Ramachandran had been talking about a platform like this, what pushed them to launch one was the story of S Anitha - a 17-year-old from Tamil Nadu who died by suicide when she was unable to secure admission into a medical course. Anitha, who studied in a Tamilmedium school, had high scores in her Class XII exams but failed to clear the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test, where the questions were in English.

"That really lit the fire for us. If students like her have exposure and access to material in their local language, things would be different," says 43-year-old Inbamuthiah, who started Mandram with Ramachandran, 34, in January 2018, three months after Anitha's death.
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Ramachandran runs a consulting firm in Hyderabad. Mandram has organised talks on science and technology in Tamil in Chennai and Coimbatore and will hold one in Madurai on December 7. The videos are also uploaded on YouTube.

"There's cognitive research that shows your understanding is far better when it happens in your native tongue," says Ramachandran. Mandram also coordinates with Bangalore Life Sciences Cluster (BLiSc) - a science research institute - for an initiative called The Jigyasa Project. They held a series of talks on science in Tamil, Hindi and Kannada in Bengaluru last year, says Mahinn Ali Khan, head of communications at BLiSc.

"Science in English tends to be exclusionary because it doesn't take into account the millions of Indians who don't speak English. This doesn't exclude them from being interested in the subject. We saw this as a lacuna that needed to be addressed," she says.

From January, BLiSc will launch an Indianlanguage version of Science Cafe, a monthly talk held in public spaces. But even for the most passionate science communicator, talking and writing about their subject in an Indian language is not easy.
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"Since we are trained to think and speak about science primarily in English, there are multiple points where it becomes difficult to perform science communication in Indian languages," say Sea of Science's Muralidhar and Chari. Difficulties, they say, include "achieving a fine balance between the formal and informal versions of Indian languages, in terms of scientific explanations" and searching for the appropriate words for scientific terms.

To fulfil this uphill task, Rajendran Dandapani, director of engineering at software firm Zoho, decided to take the help of Google Translate when he had to deliver a talk on artificial intelligence in Tamil for Mandram. Artificial intelligence was in itself complex to translate, he says. "I finally used seyarkkai nunnarivu - seyarkkai is artificial, nunnarivu is intelligence." The co -founders of bigyan. org.in say they don't tie themselves into knots over terminology.

"The barrier to learning science in our minds was not specific English terms, it was having to read English prose as a whole. So we set aside the problem of finding equivalent terms by avoiding verbatim translations and focussing on making the content as accessible as possible," say Kazi Rajibul Islam and Anirban Gangopadhyay, two of the four researchers running Bigyan, on email. The other cofounders are Dibyajyoti Ghosh, also a researcher in the US, and Kunal Chakraborty, who is doing his PhD at NCBS.

Currently, around 20 researchers all over the world are associated with Bigyan. All the founders of such initiatives are keen on focusing on children, especially those in rural areas.
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"We are beginning to talk to people working with schools who want content in local languages," says Mandram's Inbamuthiah. "Our immediate audience is still people who know English and the local language but come to the event out of interest. If we can reach out to the population in Tier-2 and Tier -3 cities, that will help us achieve the actual purpose of doing this."

BLiSc plans to take scientists to interior villages so that they can stay there for a couple of days and talk to school students. "We are looking at teaching children that science is fascinating, that it is not something beyond their ken, they just need curiosity. Most importantly, we want them to know science is a viable career option," says NCBS's Khan. Bigyan, which launched in 2014, began publishing a print magazine in 2018, priced at Rs 30 a copy, for rural Bengali-medium schools.

"We are also working with rural high school teachers in the Contai area of West Bengal to improve their teaching," says Islam. The government, on its part, is kicking off its proposal by April to have machine and human translations of scientific literature and textbooks so that bilingual studies are possible in the subject. VijayRaghavan clarifies that the idea is not to translate everything, which is not feasible.

"The government can only set examples. But if we, as students, teachers and researchers, learn to practice our science bilingually, there will be dramatic change."


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