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As India’s technology sector evolves from services to building products for itself and the world, the use of English as the primary language for training and interacting with coders is being questioned.
Guvi Geeks Network is one of the companies challenging the norm of English in India’s tech sector, and has begun training students in software development in their native languages. What started off as a YouTube channel to help a few engineering students has all the ingredients to become a movement.
“Colleges first thought we were discouraging students from learning English. This was hard for them to understand because colleges in India train kids in soft skills and language. The technical training is given by companies when these guys get jobs,” said Sridevi M, COO at Guvi Geeks Network.
In a little over two years, Guvi has about 67,000 registered members on its platform (largely students signed up through colleges) who spend between 80-100 hours learning the basics of coding and software development in Tamil, Telugu and even a bit of Marathi. The firm is looking at teaching the basics, the first step in building the local language tech network.
Guvi was born out of an observation of founder and CTO Arun Prakash. In college, coming from an English medium school, he was able to pick up the coding concepts being taught, but his friends who’d largely studied only in Tamil upto their K12, struggled. As he put it, his classmates would grasp concepts far better than him after he explained it to them in Tamil.
“They were actually smarter than me, but they always had that hindrance because of English. There was always this fear of learning something new or experiencing something new. When I taught it to them in Tamil, they used to do things much better than what even I did,” says Prakash.
Thirteen years later, returning to his college, he was pained to see a very similar state of teaching. That’s when the idea of starting Guvi Geeks Network as a YouTube channel struck him a two colleagues of his at PayPal. Rather than complaining about how India’s higher education was lacking, they decided to fix things in their own way.
Traditionally, IT services firms required engineers and coders to learn English as they were serving global customers. As more companies build products for the local as well as global market, these firms need coders with strong grounding in concepts to build superior products and learning in language that they are comfortable with, in this case mother tongue is better..
“Many of bright rural students are left behind because of their poor English. They could be good programmers, or good engineers. But they lose out due to English. I have been working with GUVI for the past 4 years. I think they can make an important difference for the society. They are good,” says Prof. Ashok Jhunjhunwala, Principal Advisor, Minister of Power and New and Renewable Energy, Government of India, New Delhi, India, who is on sabbatical from IIT Madras (IIT-M)
As a YouTube channel Guvi’s content was available for free online. Now it is looking at monetising its strengths. As a startup, the company is initially focusing on the engineering college market, selling subscriptions for its online content and courses. The company charges just Rs 750 and Rs 2,500 for a lifetime membership, and colleges are lapping them up.
To make money, the firm has started a job portal, the most logical step since it has all the data of a student’s performance. So far Guvi has placed around 1,000 students in several software product companies such as Zoho and JustPay.
“It (teaching in local languages) definitely needs to be done, but it’s not going to be easy at all. The thing to understand is that programming is not an isolated activity, you’re working in an ecosystem that is worldwide. The fundamental criteria of working in an ecosystem is to communicate with everybody in that ecosystem,” says Kiran Jonnalagadda, co-founder of HasGeek, a platform that brings coders together to have meaningful conversations.
While Japan and China are the only two countries that have built comprehensive local language ecosystems for technology, France and Germany too have strong local ecosystems which work in conjunction with English. For a country like India, this model might be best suited, as it will reduce the reliance on English to learn technology, but will still enable us to be part of the global technology ecosystem.
Once basics are taught in local languages, higher level concepts can be picked up by someone with even mild proficiency in English. For millions of Indians who speak English but still find it more comfortable to learn and converse in their native languages, this could open up the door for them to become much more proficient technologists.
“Being a programmer, speaking only the local language and not knowing English isn’t possible. The script is all English, the documentation is all English, it’s just that the learning doesn’t necessarily have to be in English,” adds Jonnalagadda.