An entry to other worlds

Jamuna Inamdar

“Literature plays a crucial role as both a mirror and a window to the worlds in which children live and are expected to take their place.” (Galda, 1998).

This quote unfailingly reminds us of the power of stories and books and the role they play in enriching readers’ lives! Literature introduces readers to not just stories, but also ideas and issues related to their own lives as well as to lives and worlds they haven’t as yet seen. It makes available to them the collective knowledge about how individuals and communities have understood themselves and their relationships with each other and with nature. Through it, readers also understand the elements of stories like plot, characters, theme, setting, values, and language use.

While the role literature plays in readers’ lives is well-established and even acknowledged, the creation of and access to good quality literature, especially in local languages that readers speak and understand foremost, is disproportionately low. In India, 45% of the literature published for children is in English, 25% is in Hindi and a mere 30% is in the hundreds of local Indian languages! Additionally, only 26% of the overall literature published is for children aged 0-6 years, making it the most neglected group by publishers. (Parag, A Tata Trust’s Initiative). This dearth of reading material in local languages holds back 40% of students globally from gaining education in a language that is familiar to them. Lack of linguistic diversity in children’s books is a serious concern at present. (Purvi Shah, Director, Storyweaver, Pratham Books)

Determined to do something about this dismal state of children’s literature in local and underserved languages of India, we, the team members of Aripana Foundation embarked upon strengthening Maithili in primary education, and doing so first and foremost by creating quality literature for children in Maithili – the mother language of thousands of children of Mithila, foremost on many a child’s tongue, yet struggling against other social and politically dominant languages.

Maithili is recognized as one of the official languages of India as per the 8th Schedule to the Indian Constitution. Despite this, in the state of Bihar, in which the Mithila region is located and a large number of Maithili speakers reside, Maithili does not enjoy the status of an official language. It is absent from children’s schooling and educational experience, the repercussions of which are serious. Younger generations, deprived of an academic, creative, enriching engagement with the language, coupled with very little exposure to literature and educational material therein, remain only remotely aware of the history and linguistic uniqueness of Maithili and the treasure trove of literature created by literary greats. Maithili literature too, like any other, offers its children a window and a mirror, with which children can know the world around them and themselves, better, in a language that is their mother language, the one they speak and understand before any other! No other language, no matter how widely prevalent and influential, can replace the experience Maithili can provide to Maithil children. Presently, there’s very little opportunity or space for young, budding minds to learn, understand, experience the language, in turn nurturing pride in their minds towards the language and culture.

At the present rate, without thoughtful intervention, younger generations might completely lose touch with the language. Not very many individuals will know it enough to become creators of literature in Maithili and not many will learn to be readers either!

This context and challenges therein, helped set goals for the project. Right from the start, the project proposed to address more than just the dearth of good quality books in Maithili for early readers and young children. An equally important goal of this project was to encourage community participation and enhance community awareness towards the revival of Maithili. Additionally, the project was also designed to include translations of some of the choicest works in children’s literature from across the world, into Maithili.

The project was launched in August 2018. Through word-of-mouth and with help from social media, team Aripana sent out a call to interested volunteers from the Maithil community to join this mission of creating quality literature for children in Maithili. The response was heartening, with Maithili speaking individuals from across India, and not just Mithila, joining the group of volunteers, and thus began the journey of creating children’s literature in Maithili. Our partnership with Pratham Books’ Storyweaver* gave it the much needed impetus.

When team Aripana started work in the area of children’s literature in 2018, Storyweaver had roughly 20,000 stories in 220 languages except Maithili. Not a single story existed on this beautiful, resourceful, contemporary, open-source platform that was becoming a popular place for parents, educators, writers, translators, and illustrators to come together to weave new stories for children and help create a pathway to nurture the next generation of readers.

The team of volunteers at Aripana, chose some of the popular, beautifully illustrated and delightfully crafted children’s books from the Storyweaver platform, to translate into Maithili. By December 2019, the team had created 26 English-Maithili (bilingual) and Maithili books that were made available to readers through multiple channels – through Aripana’s intervention in government primary schools of Mithila (its library program and its program to strengthen mother-language, Maithili, in primary education), through a one of its kind online store of Maithili books, by attending literature festivals, and other community organized cultural events. Attendance at these festivals and cultural events served more than one goal. It not only helped create awareness about this community-driven project, encouraging other interested individuals to join this mission but also got us valuable feedback from people who started reading the books, helping us on this journey! The team was pleased to introduce audio-visual versions of the Maithili books, on the organizational YouTube channel through a special playlist. Aripana was able to reach more than a 1000 children through various festivals, gatherings, digital media, and school collaborations.

The approach adopted by Aripana for the creation of children’s literature in Maithili involved collaborating and co-creating books with the community. This approach necessitated capacity building of the volunteers especially around the nature of children’s literature, writing for children, nuances of the Maithili language and a basic know-how about the translation process. Mid-way through the journey of creating delightful books for children in Maithili, the team decided to pause, reflect, and take stock of the ground covered, the challenges faced, and the support required. The result of this was a webinar organized by Aripana Foundation, with the renowned Maithil author, recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award, Shri Pradip Bihari Ji as the chief speaker. An immensely rich talk materialized that touched upon,
• general principles to keep in mind when writing for children
• norms of and common errors in Maithili writing/ translation
• arriving at a common understanding within the team regarding usage of certain terms, words, standard spellings, etc.

In February 2020, Google supported six Artificial Intelligence (AI) research projects in India that would focus on addressing social, humanitarian, and environmental challenges in sectors like healthcare, education, disaster prevention, etc. One of the teams supported by Google was AI4Bharat (an IIT Madras based platform building AI solutions for problems relevant to India) along with non-profit Storyweaver to build open-source input tools for underserved Indian languages to accelerate publishing of openly licensed content.

Aripana Foundation joined hands with Google, AI4Bharat, and Pratham Books’ StoryWeaver in this project by sharing its expertise in the Maithili language and helping build a Maithili input tool, now integrated and available on StoryWeaver’s desktop and mobile interfaces.

For this purpose, Aripana Foundation once again pooled in the knowledge and expertise of members from the Maithil community by inviting them to volunteer for the project. The volunteers not only helped in annotating more than 40,000 words in Maithili but also supported AI4Bharat and StoryWeaver during the testing of the input tool before it was made available on the StoryWeaver platform.

India has over 75 crore people using the internet, a significant proportion of Indian users are using it across low friction verticals such as entertainment, news, messaging, and social media. Of the various barriers that prevent these users from engaging with more verticals and availing more services, one of the biggest is that content is available mainly in English. While India is a country with great linguistic diversity, much of the information and access to internet, e-governance, ecommerce, e-banking services cannot be used by the majority of the population. The internet today is severely deficient in terms of content in Indian languages. In fact, 53% of non-internet owners in India state that they will start using the internet if it has content available in their mother languages. Therefore, in India’s new and emerging digital ecosystems, novel ways to engage with citizens who communicate in varied languages and dialects must be found. The objective is to make information available to the people in their native language in order to be a truly connected nation.

A key factor in building solutions is improving accessibility to multilingual data. Progress in Indian language technologies has been hampered due to the lack of availability of large amounts of high quality datasets to train state-of-the-art AI models. Curated and validated contributions are urgently required so that these can go into an open source repository, where it can be harnessed and put to use by the entire ecosystem.

Aripana Foundation is working in collaboration with Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras, to build high quality datasets in Maithili, which will be used to train state-of-the-art AI models and develop automatic speech recognition, text to speech synthesis, machine translation, optical character recognition (OCR), and related technologies in Maithili. This, in turn, will enable the development of various applications for the public and private sector, NGOs, and other end-users.

In order to fulfill the goal of making digital services on the internet available to the common man in his/her mother language, Maithili, team Aripana took the first step and commenced the digitization of Maithili content contributing to the building of high quality datasets in the language. For this, the team spent significant time sourcing high quality digital content in source (English) and target (Maithili) languages. Due to paucity of large databases of digital content in Maithili, team Aripana started creating a digital database of 1.25 lakh Maithili sentences. Great care was taken to ensure that the corpus of Maithili sentences that comprised the database was representative, i.e., various subjects were included such as science, sports, politics, history, etc. Various forms such as fiction, autobiographies, travelogues, etc., by various authors in multiple dialects were included. A comprehensive list of 700 to 800 books was prepared, out of which 400 books were shortlisted that fulfilled the above criteria. Small sections of the selected books were then digitized and proofread resulting in the creation of perhaps the largest, most diverse high quality dataset of digital content in Maithili. A team of translators was recruited in order to translate English text into Maithili to create parallel translated datasets to be used subsequently for machine translation models across 22 Indian languages.

With expert reviewers now part of the team, Hindi to Maithili translators were also added and with a strength of over 15 translators and reviewers, the team translated 60,000 plus sentences from English and Hindi into Maithili and are on track to translate 1 lakh more sentences in the coming months. As part of the same project, team Aripana embarked on the next task of Speech Data Collection for the collection of speech data in Maithili from 10 districts of Mithila in order to capture various dialects / variations of the spoken language with the aim of creating one of the largest Maithili audio databases. Team Aripana has so far successfully visited four districts of Mithila, some of them being Darbhanga, Madhubani, Saharsa, and Supaul, resulting in the collection of over 678 hours of speech / audio data. Alongside this, a dedicated team of transcribers is in the process of transcribing the collected speech data. This data along with transcriptions will subsequently be used to create text-to-speech, speech-to-text, and similar other applications in Maithili, for the first time.

In India’s new and emerging digital ecosystems, we are reaching citizens who primarily communicate in Maithili while the overall project (Project Bhashini by Government of India) aims to do that with citizens using varied Indian languages and dialects. The objective is to make information available to the people in their native language in order to be a “truly” connected nation.

We hope that Aripana Foundation’s work in building digital tools and technologies in Maithili will enable the development of various applications for the public and private sector, NGOs, and the end-user. This will result in the creation of a knowledge based society where information is freely and readily available and especially in a language the end user understands and connects to the most.

*Launched by the renowned NGO Pratham Books, Storyweaver is a one of its kind, digital, open-license platform that is a storehouse of close to 33,000 stories in about 280 Indian languages – Tamil, Marathi, Kannada, Bengali, Assamese, Odiya, Telugu, Gondi, Konkani, and many many more!

The author is the co-founder of Aripana Foundation, an NGO working for the past six and half years in the Mithila region of North Bihar to improve the quality of education in underserved government schools. With 15+ years in education, her core areas of work are strengthening environment education in schools, making libraries a central part of children’s education, art in education, and early childhood care and education. Jamuna also runs the Greenwood Learning Centre in Bangalore that has a preschool, a library, and several after-school programs for children aged 7 to 15 yrs. She can be reached at jamuna.inamdar@aripanafoundation.org.

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