A life-enhancing language lesson

April 27, 2007

Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, is working to improve the prospects of deprived children in India with the help of Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck and his own well-spoken colleague James Tooley.

Professor Mitra is pioneering experiments using speech recognition systems to train children to speak good English. Every Indian understands the importance of learning English for improving life opportunities, he said.

But while he found little difference in pupils' grasp of English grammar and spelling, he believed many struggled because of their teachers' poor pronunciation.

Recently, Professor Mitra won worldwide recognition for his "hole in the wall" experiments, where children in remote areas were given unsupervised access to public computers in outdoor kiosks and encouraged to learn from one another and explore the technology. He found the benefited were not gender-specific, and the programme helped reduce dropout rates and petty crime.

Professor Mitra said: "I went to a Jesuit school in Delhi, where we were taught manners, morals, diction, elocution and debate. That turns out what we in India call the public-school product."

He said that these skills, not caste, were what determined one's prospects.

"If an untouchable went through the Jesuit school system, he would rise to the top because of his striped tie despite his surname."

Professor Mitra hoped to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak English well. "This isn't a knowledge issue, it's a skill - you learn from and copy other people. I thought it was a good case for technology."

He went to a school in a deprived area of Delhi and gave 16 pupils unsupervised access to a computer. The computer was designed to recognise the speech of Professor Tooley, who speaks standard Received Pronunciation English. "It was like magic. I went back and asked: 'How many of you practised on the computer?' and a pupil replied: 'All of us' in James Tooley's voice."

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