Learning Urdu Gets Online Boost with 'Urdu at Home'
By Amjad Noorani
Silicon Valley , California

Immigrant parents often struggle with personal issues, from serious to frivolous ones.   But one that matters a great deal is how to keep children connected with the native country's culture, its people and its language.   Even if a child's conversation skills are adequate, teaching the native language to basic fluency in reading, writing and simple comprehension remains a challenge for immigrant parents.   Well, Urdu learners and parents-teachers:  have no fear, technology is here - in a child-friendly web-based program which allows the e-Shagird (student) to learn at a flexible pace yet maintain the discipline only a private tutor can provide at a significantly higher cost.   In computer speak, the website is cutely known as www.UrduAtHome.com and this review takes off on a conversation with the pioneering innovator of the program, moving on to a survey of current users, to get both sides of the story.   For how this language program is different, please read on.

Based in the creative environment of Silicon Valley, engineer Syed Hassan Abbas hails from Lahore , Pakistan and started work on this dreamy venture about three years ago.  To set things in motion, I asked Abbas about his vision for Urdu At Home and what sets it apart from other language programs.  "My dream was to create an efficient, easy-to-use online Urdu teaching and learning system that would offer students and teachers easy access to a wide array of resources, with just the click of a button from any part of the world.  We are pleased and honored that we have achieved that and now have subscribers (members) in ten countries spanning five continents," responded Abbas.   

"Most language programs focus on rapidly building conversational skills.  Our program goes beyond that and actually helps to build Urdu literacy skills through a systematic approach.  The teaching content is created by our curriculum planners and has no religious content which sadly, has become a part of Urdu curriculum in recent decades, especially in Pakistan.   Our program is for the student who wants to build Urdu reading, writing or conversation skills - and for the Urdu teacher who needs pre-designed lesson plans, worksheets and interactive Urdu learning modules."

Like many others, Abbas enjoyed reading Urdu books as a youth but that interest waned and vanished in college.  He lamented that for an expatriate, there was no resource to keep him connected to his language roots.  "I also realized that there are more than 4 to 5 million Pakistanis living outside the country and it was probably very challenging for them to teach Urdu to their children because of time and resource constraints.   So I set out to create a comprehensive system," says Abbas.  "It took us nearly two years but we've constructed a stable system for learning Urdu, which can be easily expanded as we grow." 
For what's been completed so far and what Abbas and team are working on as new modules, themes and development ideas, he said "We've completed three key stages for Urdu - the Foundation stage, and Key Stages 1 and 2.   Two more stages will be added shortly.   Once all the stages are online, they will cover learners from ages 3 to 15."    We guessed right that Abbas was not the one to stop with the successful launch of an Urdu program and asked the young entrepreneur if other language programs were in the pipeline.   "Yes, work is progressing on other south-east Asian languages" said Abbas, "and we're on track to launch a Malayalam language program in the fall of 2010 to be followed by a Hindi language program."   

As a subscriber, I would of course want to know if the UrduAtHome system was based on an existing model and also if professional teachers found it useful.   "Our teaching system is based on UK's ' Modern Foreign Language' or MFL standards and covers all aspects of Urdu literacy", responded Abbas.   "MFL is a set of uniform standards for teaching languages other than English which includes integration of reading, writing, listening and conversation skills in the curriculum.   Our program incorporates essential elements of MFL standards and is extremely useful to Urdu teachers in schools in the UK and Pakistan.  Fortunately, our list of multi-user school subscribers is also growing in both countries." 

Taking a whirlwind tour of the website with Abbas, one is immediately impressed with the thought and detail that is obvious in the development of UrduAtHome.  The healthy impressions were positively reinforced by survey responses and testimonial statements from actual users.  I also discovered that several satisfied subscribers have been with the program for two years or more.  

The open-ended questions to subscribers were simply:  why the need to learn Urdu or, why teach Urdu to your children? And why use an online program, not books?  Who is learning from the program? Ages, country of birth? Impressions of the Urdu curriculum and the teaching methodology of UrduAtHome? How they rated the quality of customer service?   How the family and children had benefited from the program? (conversationally/reading, culturally, in other ways) and what improvements/enhancements would they like to see to the program?   Here's a fair sampling of responses.   Respecting the privacy of the respondents, only their initials are used in this review.  

SK had a thoughtful response: "Urdu is our mother tongue and a vital part of our identity. We need the language to be able to communicate within our society and to better understand our people, culture and history. If our children learn Urdu, they will be able to enjoy and appreciate the rich Urdu literature, Urdu humor and other forms of entertainment.  Children who are not taught their native language can often suffer from identity loss, alienation from their parents and grandparents or others from their home country. [..] Books can get dull and boring but a colorful and interactive learning program keeps a child engaged. The online curriculum of UrduAtHome is fantastic and makes learning Urdu a fun experience".  SK's daughter Zara, 3, born in Norway and being raised in the US is using the online program.  

Another subscriber QL was equally eloquent:  "Being grounded in one's roots gives children confidence, makes them smarter and brighter to learn everything else as well.  [..] My reason is to enable my children to enjoy the treasures of knowledge and literature in Urdu; it would be a shame to deprive our next generation of all that".  For impressions of the curriculum and teaching methodology, QL added: "I think it is particularly suited to children getting a Western education because it seems similar to how they are taught in schools here. And it seems to instill and reinforce important concepts that they will develop in their language building.  I especially like the graphics and sound effects in e-Shagird.  It's easy to see that a lot of effort and care has been put into producing such high quality work. The children actually enjoy sitting at the computer and learning."  QL's daughter (7) and son (11), both born in the US, are the e-Shagird in the family. "... the customer care is beyond excellent.   Not only are all my concerns/questions addressed, but my suggestions are welcome and they have a genuine interest in improving and advancing the materials."  For improvements or enhancements to the program, QL said: " ...  I would like to see more activities for e-Shagird, more reading passages. [..] I have browsed the web extensively and haven't found an Urdu learning program for children that comes close to the quality of UrduAtHome.   [..] I hope the word spreads about this wonderful program and it can develop even further with new patronage.  [..] I hope that all subscribers will help to spread the word."

SL in Akron, Ohio was looking for Urdu teaching resources for his girls 6 and 9, both born in the US.   "Honestly, I envied people from India for having so many online programs, and cartoons translated in Hindi ... we had nothing in Urdu.  [..] UrduAtHome is a pioneer in this field.  [..] The subscription fee is affordable.  I like it because it keeps us on track.  It is difficult to teach kids using books.  The interactive e-Shagird is the best part of the program.  Kids like to play video games, and here is a resource which uses games to teach.    Customer service is great.  [..] I would like to see some exercises added for speaking and short stories added for listening comprehension. I still use what is available by making up my own stories, and sometimes using the pictures and the words that are introduced in the lessons. My kids have benefited by a better understanding of Urdu and being able to write.  I still struggle with making them speak in conversation.  [..] Overall, I would say that UrduAtHome is outstanding.   I like the writing exercises, and sounds being introduced in a structured, step by step manner. Each lesson seems to be designed with a lot of thought. It is short and just enough for one sitting, certainly not overwhelming. If it were too long, neither I nor the kids would want to do it. If you finish a short lesson in less than a half hour, it feels like you've accomplished something. Then I move on to e-Shagird for lesson review. Sometimes the kids only want e-Shagird, which I am fine with especially when I am tired and do not have time.  [..]  I am extremely impressed and pleased that someone thought of our language being important and that it needs to be taught. I am thankful to those who started this website, and wish them best of luck. My aim with my kids is that they be able to speak, read and write the language".

Subscriber SK says he came across it while searching for an Urdu alphabet song for his daughter on YouTube. "I would call it mere coincidence. [..]  I love it. My daughter is in the Foundation Stage which is for 3-5 year olds. [..] The syllabus age is appropriate. It helps children to learn the alphabet, phonics, helps with writing and spelling words.  Teaching methodology is very good. [..] Customer service is prompt and helpful each and every time - very friendly. [..]  My daughter's Urdu vocabulary has improved.   She now speaks a few complete sentences in Urdu and it has created interest to read Urdu as well.  [..] I would like them to create more sing-along nursery rhymes in Urdu, similar to their Urdu alphabet jingle.  It would also be a bonus to have an online Urdu story-telling program.   This will help children learn via nursery rhymes and classic Urdu stories.  [..] I recommend this program to others because it has helped me.  The entire Pakistani community living abroad is confronting the same set of challenges while raising children and one of the biggest challenges is teaching children their native tongue." 

 A teacher in the United Kingdom, SA stated:  "According to a 2005 survey, Urdu is the most widely spoken language in the UK after English.  [..]  Language is an expression of cultural and creative urges of a community.   [..] Urdu is our cultural identity and should be passed on to the next generation [..] An online program has a wider audience than books. [..] I use this program for ages 8 to 18 years in my classroom and the kids love to read and write because of the way the activities are presented. [..] Parents and grandparents find it easier to converse in Urdu rather than in English.  [..] UrduAthome has made reading and writing skills interesting and fun.   The teaching methodology ... and customer service are excellent.  [..]  [..] The program has unique features like e-Shagird and interactive exercises. e-Shagird has a lot of good stories."

MUH, a Vancouver Canadian, is another enthusiastic subscriber:  "Learning a language through online programs is more interesting and interactive than with books. [..] I am impressed and must commend the founders of the program for their very useful initiative. The teaching methodology has a fresh look to it and use of color, sound, pictures, stories make the program interesting for kids. [..] My children are using it and building their language skills day by day. [..] I recommend it because of its simplicity, utility and the excellent customer care support."                                                                          

For a closing remark, I resort to a quote from subscriber QL who says it well: "We complain of lack of resources to teach Urdu to our children.   Now that we have an excellent online resource, we should get more people to support it, so that it grows. [..] Even a busy parent can help children learn Urdu simply by enrolling them in the program. The activities are there, and the work has been done for us. All we need to do is sign up our children and log them in, or print the material for them." 

  To the skeptic and to the prudent consumer, I implore you: do not procrastinate. Check out the website and these key links on the home page:  begin with A Note to Parents.  Move on to an excellent Preview of the site.  Next, download some Free Learning Worksheets, and finally shop the fine products (Flash Cards, Interactive CDs, etc.) at the Online Store.      

New subscribers should note that 'UrduAtHome' is a community partner of The Citizens Foundation, USA (TCF-USA) - a non-profit that supports education for under-privileged children in Pakistan.   You may use this link to start your subscription and take advantage of a promotional discount - and UrduAtHome will also make a donation to TCF.   It's a win-win for everyone. 

As a tiny service to our beautiful Urdu language, it has been a pleasure exploring the UrduAtHome website and bringing it to the attention of new subscribers.   For the survival and promotion of Urdu, I hope that Urdu lovers will support this timely venture and help to spread the word, to keep Urdu alive and flourishing forever.  I can look back and state with sincere gratitude that my life has been truly enriched because of an outstanding Urdu teacher and one very special friend who helped me develop an appreciation for our exquisitely, beautiful poetry that is Urdu language.    

I am enormously grateful to all survey responders for their fine comments and suggestions to support Urdu learning.  For questions related to this review article, contact Amjad.Noorani@tcfusa.org.    

Happy Urdu Learning! 

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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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