May 11, 2016

Bengaluru techies build an app to bridge language divide in the city

The lessons are given using simple whiteboard animation and audio inputs.

BYShrabonti Bagchi

Recently, on a Facebook group for utilitarian queries about life in Bengaluru, a member wrote about a rather disturbing incident. While driving by herself, her car accidentally brushed against an auto (as per her account, the auto driver was trying to squeeze through a narrow gap). Although she apologized, the auto-driver became aggressive and started abusing her, and soon she was surrounded by other drivers and bystanders who all seemed hostile towards her. She managed to drive into a police station nearby, followed by the group of aggressive auto-drivers, but to her dismay, even the cops refused to listen to her unless she spoke in Kannada and seemed to be more in sympathy with the auto-drivers, the woman claimed.

And almost always, at the crux of these tensions is a language — Kannada. No matter what the argument between a Kannada-speaker and a so-called migrant, it soon devolves into “speak in Kannada or get lost.”

Let’s leave the incident aside for the moment, since we have no way of verifying whether it really happened that way. What’s interesting is that the post got over 200 comments — and they could be divided neatly into two categories: those that said what the hell, knowing or not knowing Kannada should not prevent one from seeking recourse to the law; and the other bunch of comments that were all along the lines of ‘serve you right for not knowing Kannada.’

Language wars are not uncommon in Bengaluru. They are sometimes played out on the streets, and sometimes on social media. Language has always been an emotive issue in Karnakata, but as Bengaluru becomes home to more and more non-Kannadiga people, tensions between the “localites” and “non-localites” have become more pronounced. And almost always, at the crux of these tensions is a language — Kannada. No matter what the argument between a Kannada-speaker and a so-called migrant, it soon devolves into “speak in Kannada or get lost.”
Can technology help bridge this divide? Two young techies who run the Kannada Language Learning School (KLLS), certainly think so. Sangamesh PH and Raghavendra Prasad, who have been part of a team that started spoken Kannada classes for migrant Bengalureans in 2011, have now developed an app that can give basic Kannada lessons through a series of videos and gamified tests, a la Duolingo. And one of their biggest motivations is “to bridge the growing gap between Kannada speakers and non-speakers.”

A Kannada Language Learning School class in progress in Koramangala, Bengaluru.

While KLLS has been conducting offline classes over the weekends for several years, they felt that for a lot of people, coming to their Koramangala centre was a challenge. “So we thought, if people can’t come to our classes, we will take the class to them,” says Sangamesh, who works as a software engineer with a global communications major. His partner, Raghavendra, was also working in the same company (and in fact, their venture started with informal classes for colleagues on campus) but recently quit to work full-time with KLLS.KLSS2
Sangamesh, who often travels to Germany on work, says using Duolingo, the popular language-learning app with over 120 million registered users worldwide, encouraged him to create the KLLS app.
“The app is built in a way that people can use it anytime, anywhere — while commuting, waiting at a cafe, or during lunch-time at the workplace,” says Sangamesh. The app, which currently has 5 modules with 4 video lessons each along with multiple-choice quizzes with “hundreds of questions in every module”, is available on iOs and Android, and works on a freemium model — while some of the content is free, to really make use of it, you’d have to buy the modules (about Rs 60 each). There is a download option too, which lets users view the videos in offline mode. The newly registered company is going to release four more video modules shortly.
The lessons are given using simple whiteboard animation and audio plus video inputs. While there are a few other ‘Learn Kannada’ apps, like ‘Kannada Baruthe’, ‘Learn Kannada’ by SimpleConcepts, and ‘Learn Kannada Quickly’ by Alter Gyan, these are mostly static lists of words without the interactive elements provided by the quizzes on KLLS, which are its USP. The developers have also built in the social element, as users can share their test results on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc. Their aim is to make “learning Kannada cooler.”
“We have noticed over the years that language does help people connect. It’s not our intention to force anyone to learn Kannada, but we definitely want to facilitate communication and interaction between the Kannada-speaking population and those who have just moved here,” says Sangamesh. Many of the centre’s classroom students come to them saying that they want to improve their spoken Kannada, because they’ve noticed that even making an attempt to speak a few words in Kannada breaks the ice with locals and leads to more positive experiences.
As EM Forster famously said, ‘Only connect.’ And the KLLS app wants to help people do just that.

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Shrabonti Bagchi is a writer of FactorDaily.