Millions of Bangladeshis learn English with BBC Janala

From 2005-2014, BBC Janala ("window" in Bangla) was a unique service unlocking access to English language learning for millions of people in Bangladesh.

If I want to do well in my career, knowing how to speak English is critical.
— BBC Janala user Mishti, western Bangladesh

On TV, online, in print and accessible through even the most basic mobile phone handset, the multiplatform service also worked through roughly 6000 English clubs across the country.

It was part of English in Action (EiA), a major initiative designed to raise the language skills of 25 million people in Bangladesh by 2017 and funded by the UK government's Department for International Development (DFID).

The goal was to contribute to the economic growth of Bangladesh by encouraging English language as a tool to improve people’s livelihoods.

One user of the service who recognised how learning English can transform her income was Mishti, who lives in Charghat in western Bangladesh.

As well as looking after her husband and sons in her village, she works for an insurance company and travels to the company’s head office each month. "I need English," she said, "because if I want to do well in my career, knowing how to speak English is critical."

Mobile media

BBC Janala transformed the mobile phone into a low-cost educational device, offering hundreds of short audio lessons and SMS quizzes accessible through even the most basic mobile phone handset.

It was the largest, multiplatform innovation to improve basic English language skills anywhere in the developing world.

With over 95 million mobile phones in Bangladesh, more than two thirds of the adult population had access to a handset, including poorer communities.

By dialling 3000 from a mobile handset, almost anyone could learn English with lessons ranging from 'Essential English' to 'Pronunciation' to 'English for Work'.

BBC Media Action secured the agreement and in-kind investment of all six mobile operators in Bangladesh to offer these calls at a greatly reduced tariff of 50 Paisa (0.004 GBP) per minute.

The project prioritised 15 to 45 year olds – among whom the demand for learning English is greatest – particularly those who live on less than £2 a day.

Multiple platforms

Lessons and quizzes were also accessed through the website which features interactive, online learning as well as educational downloads.

Television programmes also complemented the web and mobile courses. In 2009-10, a weekly youth show called BBC Buzz was presented in Bangla and English. The weekly drama Bishaash (Believe) also ran for 24 episodes and was followed by interactive game show BBC Janala Mojay Mojay Shekha (Learning With Fun), which returned for a second series in 2012.

The TV programmes have proved very popular. Bishaash alone reached an audience of 20 million, including Mishti: "I have watched almost all the episodes of Bishaash and Janala Mojay Mojay Shekha," she says. "I watch it with my son and in our spare time we practice English together."

BBC Janala lessons were also available in print four times per week in Prothom Alo, the leading Bangla daily newspaper, and are available throughout the country in two books and four audio CDs.  

Personalised syllabus

The latest phase of the project was the Amar Engreji Courses (My English Courses), which consisted of TV, web, mobile, print and outreach content, enabling adult learners to access the same learning content using the platform most convenient to them.

Learners could track their progress as they go went the course using innovatively designed learning tools.  

With books, CDs and a newly redesigned website, the final phase of the project also saw three week-long training workshops with media practitioners and English language learning professionals which aim to strengthen the English-learning media sector in Bangladesh. A network of 1,000 peer-led English learning clubs across Bangladesh was also being set up in partnership with local NGOs.

A reality TV series aimed at beginner-level learners launched in summer 2013. The series followed learners – mostly from poorer backgrounds – as they faced an English-learning challenge and provided inspiration and motivation for viewers to begin their own learning journey, as well as introducing them to some simple English phrases.

"BBC Janala certainly made a difference in my life," Mishti says. "Now I won’t be scared when I speak to foreigners and my bosses."

Project information

Project name English in Action - BBC Janala (Window)
Funder The UK's Department for International Development 
Dates 1994-2012
Themes Resilience

BBC Buzz, Bishaash (Believe), BBC Janala Mojay Mojay Shekha (Learning with Fun), Amar Engrej Courses (My English Courses)

Broadcast partners

BBC Bengali Service, Channel I , Prothom Alo (print)