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Christopher Atwood
Center for Languages of the Central Asian Region

Dave Baer
Center for Languages of the Central Asian Region

George Vlahakis
University Communications

Last modified: Monday, May 2, 2011

Want to learn Pashto? There's an app for that

IU center develops iPad application that will help people working in Afghanistan and Pakistan

May 2, 2011

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Want to learn Pashto? There's an app for that.

Language specialists in Indiana University's College of Arts and Sciences have developed a new application for the iPad that will help people working in strategic areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan to read and write in Pashto, one of the region's primary languages.

Pashto Script Tutorial

Screen capture of one of the application's features

The new tool was developed at the IU Center for Languages of the Central Asian Region (CeLCAR), with Title VI funds from the U.S. Department of Education and the support from the IU College of Arts and Sciences.

Soon anyone with an iPad can download a free interactive tutorial for the Pashto script. It will be officially available for download from the Apple App Store in early May.

Pashto is the native language of the indigenous Pashtun people who are found primarily in the area between the Hindu Kush Mountains in Afghanistan and the Indus River in Pakistan.

Christopher Atwood, chair of IU Department of Central Eurasian Studies and interim director of CeLCAR, said that although the new app is available to everyone, it will particularly help people in government, the military, nonprofits and academia "better understand a language in this crucial part of the world.

"Americans are finding themselves thrown into contact with Pashtuns and the Pashto language without having the time for much formal classroom experience," Atwood said. "Portable tools like this will help them make the most of any formal instruction they get and help them continue to learn and solidify what they know in the field. When technology is more mobile, it can be used more quickly and applied directly in situations where its needed.

"While you may need to reach a very high level to become an interpreter or translator, every little bit you learn of a foreign language helps you to understand the people you're dealing with and to show that you're making that effort. The value that tools like this can make in avoiding simple misunderstandings is invaluable."

Sukhrob Karimov, an information and communication technology specialist at CeLCAR, has been working on the interactive tutorial app since February.

"This tool provides an interactive opportunity to learn Pashto script, allowing the learner to start to read and write in a shorter period of time. It is designed to help those interested in Pashto to be comfortable with one of the most complicated Arabic scripts," Karimov explained.

One of the biggest challenges was to develop an application that would not require 3G or a Wi-Fi connection.

"Due to the fact that the application has an authentic video recording for each of the 44 letters of the Pashto Alphabet, the size of the overall app was increased to 30mb," Karimov said. "On the other hand, it can be used literally anywhere -- on the bus, in an airport or perhaps in a rural village of Afghanistan."

The application was developed specifically as a supplemental tool to CeLCAR's Pashto Elementary Textbook. All of the interactive activities are designed to help beginning Pashto learners start reading and writing in Pashto more quickly and easily than traditional teaching methods alone.

Users will find that the app teaches the proper pronunciation of each letter of the Pashto alphabet, gives them a range of opportunities to practice reading and writing and trains them to recognize the various shapes of the letters in their context. Video recordings teach various forms of Pashto letters. It also contains features that test users' listening and comprehension skills.

Atwood said the Pashto script tutorial not only has received high marks from students currently studying the language at IU Bloomington, but also from native speakers and experienced language instructors.

Its presentation at the 2011 National Council of Less Commonly Taught Languages conference in Madison, Wis., led to an initiative to establish a national support group for language learning technology for similar projects elsewhere.

In addition to the iPad app, the center is offering several smartphone applications, which are available on the Android Market and will be available soon through Apple App Market.

The center also will soon release a Pashto Alphabet app for Blackberry's new Playbook tablet. It won a Research in Motion App World Award from the Adobe Community Team.