This Indian Startup Shows You Don’t Need Textbooks To Learn Languages

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Languages should be learned through a discovery process and not in rote-learning style replete with grammar and other stringent academic rules, says C.P. Viswanath, CEO of education services firm Karadi Path. His reasons for this unusual line of thought? An experience in the slums.

After several years of living in the U.S., where he worked with Indian engineering firm Thermax, Viswanath and his wife, Shobha Viswanath, made a life-changing decision to return to India in 1993. They wanted their 5-year-old son, Kaushik, to be raised in the same rich Indian culture they had experienced growing up.

Karadi Path Education Co-founder CP Viswanath. Photo courtesy of Karadi Path Education.

The move changed a lot of things. The absence of Western-style community libraries in India was noticeable, and at that time, all the high-quality books at local bookstores were imported and expensive.

Their observations of the local environment led to the development of Karadi Tales in 1996 — initially an audio-formatted storytelling experience, which later grew into a collection of high-quality, yet inexpensive printed books. The collection of stories is frequently voiced by well-known names, including Indian cricketer Rahul Dravid and the late Saeed Jaffrey OBE. Music composers including the Bollywood power-trio Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy have also contributed their talents.

“We seemed to attract the right breed of people,” says Viswanath, himself a musician, who co-founded Karadi Tales with wife Shobha, an educator, and brother Narayan Parshuram, also a musician who had also recently returned from the U.S. “It must have been our earnestness.”

Although Karadi Tales had its own rocky stream to flow down, the use of its books in education led to the founding of the Karadi Path Education Company in 2010. It was the start of a foray into teaching language in an experiential way.

School children in Chennai reading Karadi Tales books. Photo courtesy of Karadi Path Education Company.

“Schools had started using Karadi as language enrichment tools,” says Viswanath. “An NGO from Dharavi [considered Asia’s largest slum] had been using our audio books to teach English language, [and] they said it had been working wonderfully and invited us to visit.”

The children were able to engage with the story, but “it was a bit of an exaggeration to say they were learning English,” he says. “I had an epiphany there.”

Recognizing that Indian children by the age of four or five are often able to speak three or four languages, Viswanath wanted to see if he could deconstruct the process and apply it to English education – bearing in mind that many of the teachers teaching the language in the average Indian classroom are not actually able to speak it themselves.

“Here in India most of us are able to speak three, four, five languages, it’s so commonplace we don’t even think about it,” he says.

Karadi Path Co-Founder CP Viswanath interacting with students in Chennai. Photo by Ra Chandroo; courtesy of Karadi Path Education Company.

This led to a year’s worth of work in which Viswanath says the team came up with several basic principles that reconstructed the natural language-speaking process for the classroom. “We will never teach a word or grammar, teaching must be joyful – there should be no instruction,” he says. “All language should be learned through a discovery process.”

When there is a need for engagement, the urgency to realize fluency kicks in, says Viswanath.

Validating the product through tests in the field, including in the original Dharavi school that had sparked the idea, they quickly realized that the children were picking up English quickly through learning through music and audio – using the Karadi Tales titles as a backbone.

A school child reads a Karadi Tales story. Photo courtesy of Karadi Path Education Company.

“The program has to work with minimal competency for the teacher – in government and tribal schools the teacher’s English also improves,” says Viswanath. “She or he is teaching the experience.”

India’s school system is divided between teaching an array of languages, depending on the region, while universities and the workplace remain rooted in the English language.

With plans to roll out a Hindi version of the product by late 2017, especially important because of the number of varied versions of the dialect that are spoken across the country, Viswanath believes there is a strong social intent in Karadi Path’s motive. “It’s a narrative that’s not getting enough play,” he says.

Translating the product into profits however, is a little more of a challenge – schools across India have been bombarded by new ideas very frequently, and all too often let down, he says.

In four years they’ve expanded the language teaching product out to 1,800 schools, and the plan includes keeping costs as a low as $2 a child for government and tribal schools.

“When the cost comes down, it’s easier for the schools to take a leap of faith,” says Viswanath.