Indigenous languages get a much-needed boost thanks to StoryWeaver, an online platform

Last month, West Bengal announced that English medium education will be introduced in about 65 state-run schools at the primary and secondary levels. In Karnataka, the chief minister is firm on introducing English in state government schools for the academic year 2019-2020. Other Indian states too have passed similar decisions in favour of promoting English language instruction, sparking concerns about the sidelining of indigenous languages.

“University education in India has largely been delivered in English for the past 150-odd years. And the usage of English in delivering primary education is increasing day by day,” says Dr Ganesh Devy, the literary critic and activist who led the People’s Linguistic Survey of India which is credited with ‘discovering’ about 780 Indian languages.

Dr Devy adds that schooling “often leaves tribal children culturally uprooted”. Books in tribal languages are “an excellent tool for primary education in those languages,” he adds. This is where an online platform like StoryWeaver — developed by Pratham Books with support from Google — comes in. The platform was launched in 2015 and today it hosts more than 10,000 storybooks and has about a million readers online. It brings together readers, authors, illustrators, and translators to create stories for children via an open source technology where all content is freely accessible and downloadable any number of times.

130 in total, ranging from Hindi to Konkani and Bhoti, Sanskrit to Surjapuri, Occitan and Southern Kurdish

StoryWeaver encompasses 130 languages at present, ranging from Hindi to Konkani and Bhoti, Sanskrit to Surjapuri, Occitan and Southern Kurdish

“StoryWeaver is a collaborative platform that attempts to address the scarcity of multilingual, joyful reading material for children,” says Purvi Shah, who heads Digital Initiatives for Pratham Books. StoryWeaver does this by empowering communities to create storybooks in their own languages, she explains.

Yogini Acharya — parent to a 10-year-old; assistant director, Directorate of Tribal Welfare, Government of Goa; and frequent StoryWeaver visitor — says the platform hosts stories that cover a variety of themes in the simplest of ways. She provides an example: “There’s a story called ‘Appukutan Ko Gussa Kyu Aaya’ and it’s a beautiful story about dealing with anger-management”.

On the languages front, the platform has about 130 in total, ranging from Hindi to Konkani and Bhoti, Sanskrit to Surjapuri, Occitan and Southern Kurdish. Amna Singh, the associate language editor for Pratham Books, says that tribal and under-served tongues comprise 30 percent of the languages on StoryWeaver.

Organisations that work with tribal communities have found the platform to be of great help. Kirsty Milward, the founder of one such organisation — Suchana — says that StoryWeaver has enabled quick content creation methods. Suchana has been working with tribal children in Birbhum, West Bengal, for the last decade, and Milward says, “Our educator-translators, once trained in basic computer skills, have been able to translate 79 books to Kora and Santali using the Bengali script”.

It is important to note that in six Kora villages where Suchana is working, the language was never printed before.

“Santali kids now have access to books in their own language and this is making them particularly interested in the books,” says Kamala, a Santali, and Adivasi support officer and teacher for the Integrated Technology in Education Project at Suchana.

The other noteworthy beneficiary of the StoryWeaver platform is the Gond-speaking tribal community which resides across seven states in India and therefore faces a unique problem — they are unable to converse with each other because each of them speak a dialect of Gondi that is influenced by the state languages (Andhra Adivasis speak Telugu-influenced Gondi, Maharashtra Adivasis speak Marathi-influenced Gondi, and so on).

The StoryWeaver team, along with CGNet Swara, an organisation which has been working with the Gond community since 2014, organised a workshop where over 20 Gondi speakers from three different states worked together to translate 350 storybooks from Hindi to Gondi. The aim was to create a repository which could be distributed to schools, and also gather sufficient data to pilot a machine translation tool.

“We are currently working with the Chhattisgarh state government and the NCERT [National Council of Educational Research and Training] to print these books and distribute them across schools,” says Devansh Mehta, the head of business development at CGNet Swara.

These books will help children see the value in their own mother tongue, Dr Devy opines, adding: “Radio programmes in these languages is another way to go. I hope Pratham also launches radio service in these languages.”

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Updated Date: Jan 30, 2019 16:10:35 IST

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