|MARK TURIN||Learning Nepali the Klingon way|
| A new CD-ROM teaches you to ask
in Nepali where the beach is..
© Mark Turin, 2002
Consumers learning European languages are increasingly faced with a choice of instructional materials, ranging from traditional pocket-sized Berlitz travel companions to interactive CD-ROMs. The latter have the advantage of being designed as personalisable linguistic resources that hold the learners attention. For the most part, only commercially viable language learning courses have been made interactive (such as Spanish, German and Russian) while minority languages materials, into which category Nepali certainly falls, offer at best an audio tape of sample conversations alongside a printed course book.
It was thus with some surprise that I came across EuroTalk Interactives Talk Now! series of CD-ROMs, offering multimedia instruction in lesser-known languages such as Assamese, Farsi, Kannada, Manx and Nepali. I ordered the course entitled Learn Nepali: Essential words and phrases for absolute beginners and was rather bemused by the contents.
After double-clicking the rainbow coloured Talk-Now! icon on the desktop, the user is taken to a secondary folder. While the natural choice would be to click the icon labelled Learn Nepali, my eye was drawn instead to a folder underneath which reads, in rather small and blocky Devanâgarî, klingon siknuhos. This I can only interpret to mean learn Klingon, the language spoken by the race immortalised in Star Trek. More surprising still, in ways that I will describe later, is that the Klingon leitmotif pervades the whole CD-ROM. Clicking on the icon labelled Klingon sadly leads nowhere and the user is left with the feeling that a Devanagari-literate computer programmer is having a laugh at someones expense, in this case probably the companys (EuroTalk). After all, it is likely that neither the managerial staff of EuroTalk nor users of the CD-ROM read Devanâgarî script.
On double-clicking the more promising Learn Nepali icon, the user is required to personalise the interface by typing a name. A very pleasant (if uncommon) Nepali voice greeting, subha din (Good Day), is then heard followed by a loud American shouting Good Afternoon. While the top left of the home screen is dominated by administrative features, including purchasing other EuroTalk CDs, the prominent graphic of a CD in the middle of the screen labelled Learn Nepali is strangely not clickable. The user is instead required to click a small start arrow, once again enter a name, and then the same enthusiastic American voice says Welcome to Euro-Talk, the irony of which is all too apparent when starting to learn a South Asian language.
The content of the CD-ROM is housed within a subdivided roulette wheel of clickable segments, including First Words, Countries, Numbers, Phrases and Food. The subdivisions are sensible and useful, and navigation through the different sections is likewise intuitive. In each subsection, the user must choose an approach fitting his or her needs: word practice, speaking practice, an easy game or a more challenging one. The overarching structure is heavily dependent on graphics rather than text, and success is measured by passing tests. This approach will appeal to younger learners, but university students, researchers, healthcare or development professionals who are hoping to learn Nepali as part of their vocational preparation may find the interface childish and frustrating. Many educational CD-ROMs offer level or aptitude switching: the lower level being visually rich and structured around guided tours, tests and games, while the higher level concentrates more on in depth language use and rich content. This type of stratification, if well implemented, might enhance the EuroTalk CD-ROM and be less off-putting to adult learners.
Two features of the Learn Nepali CD-ROM warrant special praise. First, it is possible to study Nepali through the medium of a language other than English. At any point in the course, the user may choose to alter the help language (the language of instruction) from American English (the default) to British English, Hindi, Icelandic, Tibetan or any of 70 others. This is a powerful facility that will significantly increase the overall user base of the package, and is a feature not readily incorporated into other language learning tools. There are some limitations, as one would expect: some languages offer voiceover tracks while others are strictly textual (for example, the written Zulu word for blue is offered when listening to the pronunciation of the Nepali word nilo blue). Scrolling down the list, I noted that Nepali is also available, meaning that Nepali could be learned through Nepali, a somewhat unconventional way of achieving monolingual language instruction. Star Trek is ever present in the menu structure, however, as the language listed as Nepali in Roman script is written as klingon in Devanâgarî.
A second useful feature is the option of a female Nepali speaker instead of, or alongside, a male one. The language course is presented by two animated guides, a Caucasian man and an equally white woman. On hearing a word, the user can opt for a Nepali womans voice instead of a Nepali mans simply by clicking on the relevant torso. The importance of this feature has less to do with sexual politics, since womens voices are just as often featured in language learning tools as mens, and rather more to do with speech variation and linguistic choice. Tapes which accompany instructional materials may contain role plays and vocabulary lists, but rarely can the user hear the same words or phrases being repeated by speakers of the opposite sex. Users of the EuroTalk CD-ROM stand a better chance of understanding, and of being understood, if and when they finally communicate in Nepali simply on account of having heard different accents and idiolects from the outset.
While the linguistic content of this beginners CD-ROM is acceptable, it is marred by an overarching cultural uniformity. EuroTalk Nepali is an exercise in unreconstructed ethnocentrism, underpinned by the assumption that each and every culture (and thus by extension, its language) has similar patterns of social, cultural and economic interaction. Sapir and Whorf would turn in their graves if they knew what was being peddled in the name of language pedagogy.
The lack of cultural tuning is best illustrated with examples, and is particularly apparent in the sections First Words and Phrases. The list of First Words starts out, naturally enough, with Yes and No, but then, third in the list we are offered telephone (pronounced teliphon), soon thereafter wine (rendered as wain) and finally near the bottom, kredit kâr? (credit card). In their defence, these are all now available in Nepal (though Im pretty sure they werent when the CD-ROM was created), and visitors to the country may indeed be in need of wine, but including these items in a list of First Words seems a little far-fetched. Likewise, the Phrases section is indicative of this globalised approach. The learner is encouraged to repeat and commit to memory sentences such as where is the train station (rel steshan kahà cha?) and where is the beach? (samudrâ kinâr katâ cha?). While the latter example is of little use anywhere in the Nepali-speaking world, the former may at least be of some utility in Darjeeling or Sikkim. Generally speaking, in fact, the content of the course is more suited for use in the Nepali-speaking regions of India than anywhere in Nepal itself.
My suspicion is that every CD-ROM within the Talk Now! series has an identical database structure which includes exactly the same words, phrases and examples. The result is a single product with voiceovers in different languages, but marketed as 75 different language courses.
EuroTalk Interactives Learn Nepali CD-ROM is a mixed bag. While the interface is effective, the games and tasks engaging (if childish) and the choice of both male and female Nepali voice commendable, the utility of the course is compromised by the problems outlined above. The seamless integration and slick interactivity of the CD-ROM, combined with the lack of cultural applicability, make it a triumph of form over content.
Mark Turin is with the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge. An earlier version of this review was published in volume 28 of the IIAS Newsletter, Leiden, The Netherlands.