Language learning is big business. In India, the socio-economic status in society is approximately in line with a person’s fluency in English, and for millions, proficiency in this language has come to be seen as a key to prosperity.
A year ago, capitalizing on the aspirations of people, with an economic motivation, to learn English, Anuradha Agarwal founded Multibhashi. It’s an online language-learning platform that help people learn English through major Indian languages such as Hindi, Bangla, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada.
Language tech isn’t an easy space to succeed, but Agarwal says the exponential rise in mobile phone use and internet connectivity in rural areas and small towns have caused an “explosion in demand” for English learning platforms.
“We focus mainly on those who are at the bottom of the pyramid, especially the millions of blue-collar workers. We help them to upskill themselves and improve their employability. Speaking English reinstates confidence and self-esteem in them,” she adds.
In a country of so many varied languages — 20 official languages, English, the only linguistic commonality, is increasingly becoming the de facto mother tongue in urban families.
Recalling what prompted her to start Multibhashi, Agarwal says, “Couple of years ago, when some of my family members and friends, educated in schools with Hindi as the medium of instruction, confessed they felt less confident when they had to converse in English, I started posting bite-sized animations on social media on everyday language needs such as how to talk on the phone and tips for ordering food at restaurant.”
“It got increasingly popular, and that’s when I decided to take it up full-time,” adds Agarwal.
As in most things in India, English proficiency is distributed unevenly across the diverse socio-economic groups, and estimates of how many actually know the language lack credibility. The most reliable estimate is around 12% of its population or 125 million people, which is expected to quadruple in the next decade.
The challenge for Agarwal, a computer engineer and management graduate, was to take it to mass market. Using her experiences to formulate ideas around learning, it took her four months to develop the android and web apps with interactive courses. “The platform focusses primarily on early stage language learning. We provide a blended approach to learning where the user is encouraged to self-learn as well as learn with a tutor on one-on-one on chat, call and video sessions. Constant feedback is also an integral part of the learning journey,” Agarwal says.
In just over a year, the app has over 130,000 downloads and the user base is growing 40% monthly, setting the stage for the startup to generate revenue. “Since last December, we have been growing 30% month on month, and we see this growth story to continue next year, when our focus will be on tracking revenue,” she says.
According to a recent report by Google and KPMG, online education in India will see approximately eight times growth in the next five years, and this will have significant impact on the edtech market that has a potential to touch $1.96 billion by 2021. Today, the edtech market in India is worth $247 million.
Another startup inspired by India’s English language demand is Google-backed Duolingo, which has seen a huge increase in active users after introducing an option last year to learn English from Hindi.
With economic growth, technological advances and digitization of the workplace, the Indian labor market is in a vise. On the one hand there’s a worsening skills shortage, and on the other there’s a demand for urban workforce, from cab drivers and delivery boys to bartenders and technicians, who can efficiently provide services to the Indian middle class and the elite, who prefer English.
Of late, Multibhashi is eyeing this segment in a big way. “We have started working with B2B partners, those that have huge blue-collared workforce and recruiters that help these professionals to get placed,” says Agarwal. “The B2B channel allows us to access valuable pockets of consumers in one go.”
In September, Multibhashi raised an undisclosed amount of seed funding to scale up its core technology and add new courses. “We plan to include more job-based modules for the blue-collar and grey-collar workers, and add more Indian languages as the source language.”
In a country where English plays some role in the lives of all Indians, even those who say they cannot speak or read it, this is a fail-proof business.