Language & Literacy Constraints (Barrier)

Language and literacy constraints formed barriers to meeting development goals for several projects. Facilitating development goals like improved farmer livelihoods required that project stakeholders share a highly contextualized understanding of language:

“That is a kind of limitation because fortunately or unfortunately in India we speak so many regional languages. So for example a farmer in [one Indian location] asks a question using some regional word about a pest or a disease or a plant. Then an expert sitting in [another Indian location] may not be able to get the correct interpretation, what in particular the farmer has in his own mind. So that becomes a bit difficult for us to exactly answer his particular question.” (Member of partner organization)

To mitigate this barrier, the project team recruited partner organizations from several regions of India to bring region-specific knowledge in both agriculture and language. But localized language capability is difficult to maintain with the broad geographical coverage enabled by the Internet:

“When we started, our entire focus was on [the Indian state of] Maharashtra because farmers are not comfortable with English. So we said let’s have a portal in their regional language so they would be able to understand the content in a much better way. So originally when we started we thought it could be Maharashtra, so we focused on some specific parts of Maharashtra. But later on we realized that questions started coming in from the neighboring states, people started using English, and then we decided, we realized that being an Internet-based activity, there was no reason for restricting ourselves to one particular state… The Internet can be accessed anywhere and everywhere in the world, so people can send the question and view it.” (Member of partner organization)

In the above quote, we see that technology’s ability to amplify geographic reach had the initially unintended consequence of attracting new project stakeholders outside the intended area of focus—a positive consequence for the development goal of improving farmer access to agricultural information. Because the agricultural portal was available online, farmers from regions outside of Maharashtra could post questions. However, India is an incredibly linguistically diverse nation with more than 150 languages (Katzner, 2002). Therefore, amplified geographical reach led to language challenges:

“We incorporate mother tongue, but every time we move to a new locality, it requires whole new voiceovers, and you are developing new games with different voiceovers. We have written out words in Hindi right now, but they need to be in the mother tongue.” (Team member)

“Content [became difficult to convey] because there are so many languages across the country. And unless you make content in local languages, you’re not going to reach people. Ten percent know English, right?” (Project leader)

“India has a lot of local languages. We need to localize the content that we have based on the type of user and location. This is what we are looking at.” (Team member)

Thus, human capacity to communicate through shared language was a challenge. But even when human capacity allowed for messages to be conveyed in local languages, technology-mediated communication posed challenges to conveying those messages:

“Indian fonts are more complex, so you need a graphic display; text display will not work.” (Project leader)

“We tested a few things where users can send questions [using SMS]. That has limitations in characters. They are maybe illiterate, and that we cannot help. They would like local language, but the fonts are not available on all phones. There is no standard for which phones have local language. It was rarely used. Not many people were using it.” (Team member)

Some projects avoided the challenge of communicating in local languages by using English, an approach which posed its own challenges due to limited English ability among stakeholders (particularly intended beneficiaries) and the international differences in how English is spoken:

“Often in [project name], if someone asks a question in Hindi, it’s answered in English. Just because the person can type in English doesn’t mean he can understand English.” (Project leader)

“Initially we used American English voiceovers, and they couldn’t understand. Without that the kids would not have understood what’s going on.” (Team member)

“Sometimes language is a problem for them. They do not really understand the exact meaning of an English word like ‘prediction.’ They said, ‘We did not get the meaning of “prediction.”’ So we started using simple English that they could completely understand, and there was feedback that they say, ‘If we don’t understand one or two words, but as a whole we can relate, then we can finally get the meaning of the message, or we go to someone who is learned and we ask them what exactly is the message’ because what they can read is that it has come from [partner organization]. That they can read for sure. So without deleting they will go to somebody and ask what is the meaning of this particular word or what does this message mean.” (Member of partner organization)

This last quote shows a great value of combining digital and non-digital media for mitigating some language constraints. A single, device-enabled message like an SMS has amplified reach, but a traditional communication approach like a face-to-face conversation with a member of one’s social network enables better understanding. Combining new and old media, particularly digital media and in-person communication, can mitigate some language barriers and make use of the strengths of each medium.

Where human mediation may not be available, other strategies were necessary to mitigate barriers created by illiteracy or semi-literacy. India has a literacy rate of 74.04 percent, according to the 2011 Indian census. In the 2001 census, the literacy rate was significantly lower (64.84 percent), which is relevant to these findings, as several of the projects under study began in the early 2000s. Literacy required for interpretation of the textual mode (regardless of how those messages are conveyed) thus presented a barrier to achieving development goals for some project stakeholders. Mitigation strategies included replacing SMS messages with recorded voice messages, supplementing text-based computer and mobile phone interfaces with audio messages, and replacing text with icons or images. While audio supplementation proved useful, the effectiveness of image-based communication proved highly dependent on the communication message and situation:

“You see, I’m doing sweeping. I can understand immediately a picture of someone doing sweeping. But if you have a doctor trying to say, ‘Do you have a headache?’ how do you say without the words? If you just point to your head, what are you saying?” (Intended beneficiary)

Back button
Home | Framing | Methods_1 | Methods_2 | Findings | Conclusions | References