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Linguist, artist, filmmaker plan multimedia foreign language 'textbook'

STANFORD -- Even though it is the native language of 30 million people, few American students study Hausa long enough to become proficient speakers. Stanford linguist William Leben hopes to change that by introducing a multimedia Hausa language and culture "textbook."

With a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Leben and his colleagues, art Professor Richard Randell, documentary film graduate student Vernon Taylor and Nigerian professor of linguistics Abdullahi Bature, are videotaping life in the markets, homes and workplaces of Kano, Nigeria, where Hausa, Africa's most widely spoken language, is in everyday use.

By next summer, Leben said, the team hopes to integrate the videotape into a prototype electronic textbook, which would allow students to hear and watch native speakers of Hausa simply by loading the textbook on their computers.

"At any point in the video, if you don't understand someone, you use your [computer] mouse to see the words written out and then, with another click, you can get a word translated," Leben said.

Multimedia computer technology may change second-language instruction in profound ways in the years ahead, says Renate Albrecht, director of the language laboratory at Stanford's Meyer Library. The changes may be gradual, however, because of the large computer memory requirements of the programs, particularly those that incorporate video. The Meyer language lab recently had to purchase two new Macintosh Centris 650 workstations to handle the most memory-intensive of the 30 foreign-language programs currently available to students, Albrecht said, and most high schools and many colleges aren't likely to be able to afford many of these workstations.

Nevertheless, she said, "in the next few years, I think there will hardly be any new language textbooks published that don't also contain a computer program of some sort" to aid students in writing, listening or practicing their grammar.

The most advanced programs available now, she said, are for the more commonly taught European languages - French and German. Leben said he applied for a grant to do one for Hausa because he didn't want to see his less commonly taught language ignored by a technology that could make it easier for more students to become proficient.

Stanford Assistant Professor Chao Fen Sun recently has developed a multimedia program for Chinese. It was tested for the first time this summer by Stanford students doing preparatory work before going to Beijing for more language study, Albrecht said. The program includes videotape of Chinese conversations, and questions and answers that students must answer about them.

Kathryn Strachota, senior lecturer in German Studies, also is working with Meyer's Curriculum Development Lab to produce a template multimedia program into which, it is hoped, professors of any language will be able to splice in their own videotape - or audiotape and slides - along with questions about the material for their students to answer.

"We are looking for models for future projects that start with materials that are quite easy to collect," Albrecht said, "such as tapes of news conferences or the typical cultural scenes" that Randell and Taylor are collecting now in Nigeria.

Leben hopes his Hausa program will improve students' translating abilities and pronunciation of words, and help eliminate some of the cultural misconceptions that occur in learning a foreign language outside of its cultural context.

"Hausa is a tone language, where meanings of words change with the tone, so that means every syllable has to be on the right tone - high, low or falling," he said. "When you tell students about that, it frightens them; but when they hear the language and get down to learning it, it becomes natural."

Cultural misconceptions that multimedia might prevent include cases where words don't translate well, he said. For example, in his own Hausa textbook, Leben translates the Hausan word for "house" as "compound" because Nigerian families often live in a group of buildings in a walled area. The translation may be technically correct, he said, "but when Americans read 'compound,' we think of the Kennedy compound."

Multimedia should facilitate more in-depth language learning, he said, of languages that are not frequently taught in the United States at advanced levels, as long as students still practice language use in classes.

"I think it will be a fun tool," he said, "but I don't think it will replace foreign-language teachers. "

The Hausa video textbook project is funded by an $87,450 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Leben's earlier paper version of the textbook was financed by grants from the U.S. Department of Education. Technical assistance for the multimedia programming will be provided by Stanford's department of Academic Software Development.



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