Bangladeshis rush to learn English by mobile

By Maija Palmer in London and Amy Kazmin in New Delhi

More than 300,000 people in Bangladesh, one of Asia’s poorest but fastest-growing economies, have rushed to sign up to learn English over their mobile phones, threatening to swamp the service even before its official launch on Friday.

“We were not expecting that kind of response; 25,000 people would have been a good response on the first day,” said Sara Chamberlain, the manager of the discount service. “Instead, we got hundreds of thousands of people.”

The project, which costs users less than the price of a cup of tea for each three-minute lesson, is being run by the BBC World Service Trust, the international charity arm of the broadcaster. Part of a UK government initiative to help develop English skills in Bangladesh, it marks the first time that mobile phones have been used as an educational tool on this scale.

Since mobile-phone services began in Bangladesh just over a decade ago, more than 50.4m Bangladeshis have acquired phone connections, including many in remote rural areas. This far outnumbers the 4m who have internet access.

English is increasingly seen as a key to economic mobility. An estimated 6.2m Bangladeshis work overseas and hundreds of thousands of others want to follow in their steps. However, English is also important for securing jobs at home, where about 71 per cent of employers look for workers with “communicative English”.

Through its Janala service, the BBC offers 250 audio and SMS lessons at different levels. Each lesson is a three-minute phone call, costing about 3 taka (2.6p).

One basic lesson involves listening to and repeating simple dialogue like: “What do you do?” “I work in IT, what about you?” “I’m a student.” “That’s nice.” Another is devoted to differentiating vowel sounds like those in ship and sheep or leaf and live.

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