Unexpected benefits of multilingual technology

27th June 1997 at 01:00
Cracking the language barrier has led to Urdu-speaking parents taking part in more after-school activities. Viv Edwards reports

Redlands Primary School in Reading boasts 28 different languages from Arabic to Yoruba. There is a certain irony, however, that in spite of efforts to promote the full range of languages, it is the French clubs run by parent volunteers in lunch-time and after school that have traditionally attracted most interest from the children. The interests of Pakistani pupils, who form the largest linguistic minority, were served by the Urdu club, attended until fairly recently by half-a-dozen faithful and enthusiastic little girls - a striking contrast with the much larger numbers of francophiles.

Today the situation is quite different. Regular attenders at the Urdu club have swollen from six to 20-plus and now include a significant number of boys. Half-a-dozen or so native English speakers have joined their ranks and there have been many reports of children helping each other to learn and practise Urdu in the playground. And Pakistani mothers, who have previously fought shy of acting as parent volunteers, now have a much higher profile in the school.

So how did Urdu finally make it on to the map? The one element in the equation that has changed in recent months has been the introduction of an Urdu word processor.

Word-processing in languages that use non-Latin scripts is a relatively recent development in the UK. Languages such as Urdu and Arabic pose special challenges. The forms of the letters differ according to whether they stand alone, at the beginning of a word, in the middle or at the end. So contextual analysis is needed.

The memory requirements for word-processing in Urdu were such that both software and hardware were once very expensive. But now packages such as Page Composer, which offers contextual analysis as standard, cost less than Pounds 200 and are a much more manageable proposition.

When multilingual word processing was introduced at Redlands, staff and children had already identified a wide range of possible uses, including Urdu and English versions of the same book, labels for displays and letters home. However, no one could have anticipated the even more impressive benefits.

The impact on children has been dramatic, kick-started by a description of the Urdu club activities in a school assembly and helped along by a large display in the infant hall of word-processed names and simple sentences in Urdu. Peer tutoring has proved a prominent feature, with more-experienced children providing scaffolding for novices.

Parents have also played a crucial role in moving the project forward. The word processor was launched by the two Urdu-speaking teachers - Khalida Akram and Ghazala Javaid - at the termly "mothers' tea", an informal gathering attended by many Asian women. Pakistani mothers previously reluctant to have anything to do with computers showed great excitement at seeing the word "Welcome" written in Urdu on the screen. By the end of the session, everyone had keyed in and printed their own names in nastaliq script.

A follow-up workshop built on this initial enthusiasm. One aim was to provide an opportunity for hands-on experience of working with the Urdu program, another to produce resources to help their children. Parents drafted stories on paper, working mostly in pairs and seeking feedback from their peers and the Urdu-speaking teachers. Later they began keying in their stories.

At the end of the session, several of the women voiced their interest in coming into school regularly to practise their newly acquired skills. Teachers already feeling hard-pressed by other demands found it difficult at first to see how extra time could be found. But parents were sensitive to this problem and were willing to negotiate support and structure for their own learning.

In practice, a kind of cascade training evolved. Time initially invested by a member of staff in working with one particularly enthusiastic mother has reaped ample rewards as she, in turn, has been able to help other parents and children.

Another practical step was to move the computer to the infant hall at lunch-times. Mothers had felt inhibited about working in the classroom, where they were distracted by what was going on around them and worried that they, for their part, were distracting the children.

The gains from multilingual word processing anticipated at the outset have been achieved: dual-language books, communications home in Urdu, teaching materials for the Urdu club. The other benefits, though, are even more impressive. In a number of cases, women whose English is limited and have not felt able to take a part in school-related activities have made a contribution to children's school learning for the first time.

Kathryn Forster, headteacher at Redlands, has a long history of commitment to diversity and is very pleased at the high status that word processing in Urdu is enjoying. Redlands prides itself on being a welcoming school with high levels of community involvement but, up to the present, relatively few Pakistani families have taken an active role.

Kathryn is excited by recent developments. Like other members of her staff, she has been surprised to find how many mothers are literate in Urdu and how quickly the initial computer phobia was overcome.

Pakistani children have openly expressed pleasure at the expert help provided by their mothers. They have also grown in confidence both around computers and in their writing skills in Urdu, and are clearly enjoying their newly acquired expert status. English-speaking children, for their part, are showing an unprecedented level of interest in learning to speak, read and write in Urdu.

Several questions remain. To what extent are events at Redlands a product of novelty value? And how difficult will it be to maintain the current level of interest on the part of both children and parents? The cautious reaction of Redlands teachers is that efforts to date have provided the momentum to make multilingual word processing a permanent feature of school life.

* The Multilingual Word-processing in the Primary School Project, which has monitored developments in Redlands, is staffed by Urmi Chana, Viv Edwards and Sue Walker,of the University of Reading. More information from the Reading Language Information Centre,The University of Reading, Bulmershe Court, Reading RG6 1HY.Tel: 0118 931 8820Web site http:www.rdg.acAcaDeptsehsReadLangresearch.

* The UK distributor for Page Composer and a wide range of other multilingual software is Lingua Language Services, 63b Woodhead Road, Holmfirth, Huddersfield HD7 1PR. Tel: 01484 689494

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