The project, which costs users less than the price of a cup of tea for each three-minute lesson, is being run by the BBC World Service Trust, the international charity arm of the broadcaster. Part of a UK government initiative to help develop English skills in Bangladesh, it marks the first time that mobile phones have been used as an educational tool on this scale.
Since mobile-phone services began in Bangladesh just over a decade ago, more than 50.4m Bangladeshis have acquired phone connections, including many in remote rural areas. This far outnumbers the 4m who have internet access.
English is increasingly seen as a key to economic mobility. An estimated 6.2m Bangladeshis work overseas and hundreds of thousands of others want to follow in their steps. However, English is also important for securing jobs at home, where about 71 per cent of employers look for workers with “communicative English”.
Through its Janala service, the BBC offers 250 audio and SMS lessons at different levels. Each lesson is a three-minute phone call, costing about 3 taka (2.6p).
One basic lesson involves listening to and repeating simple dialogue like: “What do you do?” “I work in IT, what about you?” “I’m a student.” “That’s nice.” Another is devoted to differentiating vowel sounds like those in ship and sheep or leaf and live.
All six mobile phone operators in Bangladesh have agreed to cut the cost of calls to the service by 50 per cent to make it more affordable. Ms Chamberlain said the project team was in talks with the mobile phone companies to increase capacity to cope with the unexpectedly high demand.
The launch of the service comes just weeks after Grameenphone, the country’s largest mobile phone operator, held Bangladesh’s largest IPO, raising $71m from retail investors in the largest offering ever held in the country.
The language lessons are mainly targeting 18 to 24-year-olds, who typically had five or more years of formal education, but whose training in English had been weak. The target market is people living on less than 10,000 taka ($145, €97, £87) a month, who would struggle to pay for formal English lessons.
The relatively low cost of mobile handsets and connection charges has led to an explosion in their use and an estimated 50 million people now have access to phones.
Now users will be able to listen via their phones to weekly bilingual English language lessons and receive lessons by text as part of a low-cost service. Lessons are available at four levels, ranging from basic conversation skills, to support with sounds that Bangladeshis find difficult to pronounce, and the higher-level vocabulary of English language news media.
New lessons will be available each week with older lessons accessible from an archive. Learners can also assess their skills by doing audio quizzes and tests delivered by text message.
The trust says that it has negotiated reductions on standard mobile tariffs of up to 75% to make the service affordable to users with limited incomes.
Allan Freedman, country director for BBC World Service Trust Bangladesh, said: “Young people across Bangladesh have told us they consider learning English as a path to better jobs and opportunities. Our project is about meeting that demand and helping millions of people access English learning tools for the first time.
“It’s arguably the most exciting use of English to improve the lives of people in the developing world today.”
The Janala lessons will also be available via the internet on a website designed to develop both English-language and web-user skills, in a country where computer use has been severely restricted by high costs and lack of electricity in rural areas.
Janala will also be promoted via a weekly television programme, BBC Buzz, produced by the World Service Trust, which started broadcasting last month. The show features stories aimed at younger viewers and covers topics such as careers, politics, fashion and music.
It includes the English language learning exploits of a cartoon character called Rinku. Viewers can receive follow-up lessons via mobile phone that build on language points raised by Rinku and have a say on future episodes.