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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

VCAT Afghanistan and the Pashto App

Afghanistan is a country that comprises many ethnic groups. There are roughly 200 different dialects and over 40 languages spoken in Afghanistan. Pashto and Persian Dari are the country’s two official languages. Soldiers from the U.S. and NATO stationed in Afghanistan as well as in neighboring areas of Pakistan often find themselves at a disadvantage because they are not well versed with the language. The United States Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM) has a solution: The Virtual Cultural Awareness Trainer (VCAT) Afghanistan.

The Joint Knowledge Online of the USJFCOM unveiled a training program that aims to promote improved language as well as cultural understanding between US/NATO and Afghan military troops as well as with the local population. This online training program will enhance the knowledge of both military and government officials and personnel of Dari and Pashto languages and of Afghan culture. The program uses “advanced learning and gaming technologies” to help students develop language familiarity and cultural knowledge via storytelling, intelligent tutoring, simulated missions, and remediation.

The students not only learn important or often used keywords, phrases or greetings but they will learn how and when to use these together with gestures or actions (for example, a handshake). After all, non-verbal communication is as important as speaking the language. The USJFCOM has high hopes for this online training program which is scheduled to be launched in the summer of 2011.

Another technological solution to learning the Afghan language, specifically Pashto, comes in the form of an app (application) that can be installed on the Apple iPad. There are already a handful of apps that attempt to teach Pashto. However, one noteworthy app is yet to come. It is a free iPad app from Indiana University’s Center for Languages of the Central Asian Region. This Pashto app can be used even without an Internet connection as long as the application has been installed on the tablet.

This yet to be released app will feature videos of Pashto speakers enunciating each letter. There will also be animations featuring the Pashto calligraphy. Users of this app can practice writing the calligraphy by tracing the letters on the tablet screen.

Both VCAT Afghanistan and this forthcoming Pashto application are important tools for military and government personnel who will find themselves assigned to Afghanistan. Speaking or at least attempting to speak the language of a country seems to ease initial tension often felt between two different nationalities. It is of grave importance for military personnel to show their Afghan counterparts and the Afghan people they come in contact with that they accept them and what to be accepted by them by speaking in Pashto.

The VCAT Afghanistan training program is only available for military personnel, multinational counterparts and interagency/intergovernmental partners. However, the Pashto app will be made available to all iPad users. At present, Apple is still reviewing the said app. Both a BlackBerry tablet and an Android-based tablet version are in the works.

Today’s technology makes it easy for anyone to learn a particular language. Learning a language is not simply about learning words and phrases. It is about knowing when and how to use appropriate non-verbal signals. It is also about understanding the culture behind the language. In a war-torn country like Afghanistan, where its people are wary of the military and foreigners in general, it is doubly important for people who work and travel to this Central Asian country to learn not only the language but its culture and its history as well.

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