A rush to learn English by cell

By Maija Palmer and Amy Kazmin
Saturday, November 14, 2009

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 cellphones, threatening to swamp the service even before its official launch Thursday.

"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 British government initiative to help develop English skills in Bangladesh, it marks the first time that cellphones have been used as an educational tool on this scale.

Since cellphone services began in Bangladesh just over a decade ago, more than 50 million Bangladeshis have acquired phone connections, including many in remote rural areas. That far outnumbers the 4 million who have Internet access.

English is increasingly seen as a key to economic mobility, especially as ever larger numbers of Bangladeshis go abroad to find work unavailable to them at home. An estimated 6.2 million Bangladeshis work overseas, and their nearly $10 billion in annual remittances represent the country's second-largest source of foreign exchange.

However, English is also important for securing jobs at home, where about 70 percent of employers look for workers with "communicative English."

Through its Janala service, the BBC offers 250 audio and text-message lessons at different levels -- from basic English conversation to grammar and comprehension of simple news stories. Each lesson is a three-minute phone call, costing about 4 cents.

One basic lesson involves listening to and repeating simple dialogue such as: "What do you do?"

"I work in IT, what about you?"

"I'm a student."

"That's nice."

All six cellphone operators in Bangladesh have agreed to cut the cost of calls to the service by 50 percent to make it more affordable. Chamberlain also said the project team was in talks with the cellphone companies to increase capacity to cope with the unexpectedly high demand.

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