Akshara: Transcending Language Barriers
Last year, UNICEF and the Dutch non-profit organisation INDEX announced a very interesting student design competition. In keeping with the UN”s target to provide primary education for all by 2015, students from all over the world were asked to submit designs for educational equipment and services for developing countries. 115 entries were received in all, out of which an international jury selected seven finalists last week. And at the top of that list is Akshara, a deceptively simple learn-as-you-play kit designed by Sayantani Dasgupta and Meghma Mitra from Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology.
The kit is made up of several little pieces — curlicues, dashes, strokes and dots — laser cut from MDF. These little pieces can be put together in several different ways to form letters from both the Kannada and English alphabet, and, of course, anything else the kids can imagine up.
The designers explain that their design is a very effective way of teaching the alphabet because children actually make up the letters with their own hands. Plus, Akshara is a learning aid for vernacular languages — a completely under-addressed area of design. The jury agreed with them, praising them for “creating a system where learning unconsciously melts into play” and for a “poetic and stimulating tool.” The designers claim the toy can be extended to at least ten languages, and also from forming letters to forming words and sentences.
While this is undoubtedly true, I see something far more interesting in Akshara — an attempt at bridging the socio-cultural gap between English and vernacular languages. Anyone familiar with the Indian education system knows that it is a rare school where children start learning both language systems simultaneously. Students in English medium schools don’t formally study vernacular languages until class 3 or 4, and usually the same is true vice versa.
It is therefore highly likely that any child playing with Akshara will be more competent in one language system than another. The very act of taking apart letters from a more familiar langauge, and forming letters from a less familiar language out of the pieces, sends a very important message. It signals that the two languages are transmutable, and are equally accessible.
Further, in a country where English is still the language of opportunity, it is rare to find an educational aid that takes such a democratic view of learning. Languages, this wonderful toy seems to suggest, are all created equal. “English medium” kids need feel no disdain for Kannada, and conversely, “Kannada medium” children need not be in awe of English. The strokes of the pen that create letters are more or less the same all over the world, so why should we privilege facility in one language over the other?
It is unlikely that the international jury will be familiar with the niceties of language politics in India. When they choose a final winner in February this year, they might not fully realize what an optimistic and revolutionary concept Akshara is. (In fact, I’m not entirely sure the designers themselves are aware of the more political implications of their design.) There are other pleasing, inventive designs among the finalists, and I have written elsewhere about them. But if I were asked to pick a winner out of the seven, I have no doubt I’d pick Akshara.