By Sonja Burrows

It all started in Amy Collier’s office. Around a small, round table sat four people: Amy, myself, the Director of Middlebury’s School in India Vinita Tripathi, and Middlebury’s Assistant Director of International Programs Bill Mayers. Bill and I had just wrapped up work together on an exciting language-learning site for Middlebury’s School in Morocco, which had involved among other things creating interactive learning opportunities to help students of Arabic to acquire Darija, the dialect of Arabic spoken in Rabat. Amy and I had just presented the finished project to the Schools Abroad Directors, all of whom as you may know gather each summer on Middlebury’s Vermont campus to discuss their programs.

The meeting in Amy’s office had been suggested by Bill, who was keen to discuss the possibility of an online Hindi learning space to support students preparing to study abroad in Delhi. As we sat that day in Amy’s office, talking through the possibilities, I thought to myself how much I loved this part of cooking up new projects. The part when we sit around the table, ideas flying to and fro, hands gesturing madly into the air, excitement punctuating every suggestion. There’s an undeniable sense of possibility, of hope — a tangible yes energy we build together, which represents beyond the shadow of a doubt my favorite part of this job.

Vinita had described, at the beginning of our conversation that day, a hope to support students — all of whom are novice-level Hindi speakers at the outset of her program — in learning to pronounce and write the Hindi alphabet before their arrival in Delhi. She expressed to us a desire to help them learn both how to produce Hindi script by hand, as well as to pronounce the sounds of the Hindi language. As we sat around the table, Vinita provided a few examples of the pronunciation of several Hindi letters. She spoke them clearly, slowly, beautifully, and we were all captivated by her voice and demeanor. I saw a spark in Amy’s eye as she watched and listened to Vinita pronounce these sounds in Hindi, and knew she had an idea.

“You know,” said Amy, “there’s something very powerful about seeing your face as you pronounce these letters. I think we should explore the possibility of creating a video in which students learning Hindi can not only hear the sound of your voice but can also see you as you pronounce these letters.” Everyone around the table jumped enthusiastically on board with this idea, and before long we had concocted a plan to create our own mobile green screen studio and to shoot footage of Vinita pronouncing letters of the Hindi alphabet when she returned to campus in several months. I had already partnered successfully with Joe DeFelice of Media Services on several video collaboration projects in the past, and knew he would be a great match for this work.

Even before the end of the meeting that day, my imagination was teeming with ideas. I could already see something beautiful forming in my mind’s eye, a space that reflected the aesthetic of Delhi, of India, of Hindi — I knew there would be yellows and golds, deep browns, intricate patterns and henna-dyed hands and saris. I also began to think about the alphabet videos, about creating scripts and animations to support these learning materials for students. I already loved this project, and hadn’t even started work on it yet!

About a month later, when Vinita had returned to Delhi and some space had opened up in everyone’s schedule, we began our collaboration in earnest. Vinita, Bill, and I set up a biweekly Zoom meeting to brainstorm and create content, and the work flowed freely from there. I contacted Joe DeFelice and confirmed his availability and interest in this collaboration. We began to scheme about creating our mobile green screen studio, and carefully wrote and edited a script and animations. I created a shell for the website, spending many an absorbed hour patiently encouraging the space to reflect the beauty of what I had seen in my mind on that first day when we spoke in Amy’s office. As I am prone to do when I love what I am making, I designed and redesigned the space for quite some time over the next months, until it finally felt right both to me as well as to my collaborators.

October finally arrived, and with it Vinita’s long-awaited visit to Middlebury during which time we intended to have our green screen video shoot for the pronunciation lessons. After months of careful prep, we were ready for the shoot. Joe set up the green screen materials we had ordered in Dana Auditorium. I brought copies of the script for everyone, and Bill came for moral support. Vinita arrived with a smile, dressed in brilliant orange. Together, our small group spent a few hours filming Vinita as she read the letters of the Hindi alphabet and presented each lesson carefully, clearly and beautifully.

You may be wondering if, as lead instructional designer on a project for Hindi language learning, I am myself a speaker of Hindi. The answer is a resounding no (resounding not because I wouldn’t want to speak Hindi, but simply because I have not yet had the opportunity in my life to do so). As a matter of fact, neither Joe, myself, nor Bill knew any Hindi — the only member of our team who brought Hindi expertise was Vinita. You may then wonder how in the world this band of people, only one of whom knew any Hindi, was able to create a digital language-learning website all about this language. My answer to you is that, believe it or not, it is absolutely possible to do this work without being a speaker of the target language. As a language educator and instructional designer, I know enough about language-learning to understand how to create spaces where meaningful linguistic acquisition can occur; my love of this process — of the process of learning and teaching languages — guides my work in spite of any linguistic proficiency (or lack therefor) I and others may bring to the table. In some ways, being a linguistic outsider makes the work that much more effective, given that we were designing this space for complete beginners in the Hindi language-learning journey. The result is a language-learning space that holds a deep respect for and understanding of the beginner mindset, one that gently guides the novice learner through first steps along the language acquisition path.

A few weeks ago, the work on this space officially came to a close. Yet as tends to be the case with work in the digital, things are never truly done. The sense of possibility persists, even after the end date has arrived. There are still a few details here and there which may be added, always the possibility of change, revision, development. But with our final meeting in May, Bill, Vinita and I officially considered this space ready for learners. And as happens when work I love comes to a close, I feel a little sad. I find that I often still visit the site, clicking through my favorite pages and admiring our work. I hope students enjoy being there as much as I do, and that they want to stay, and learn some Hindi.

At moments like these when a project I adore has wrapped, I live the truth of the overly-repeated words Work is love made visible by visual artist and poet Khalil Gibran. My work on projects like this is most definitely the visible result of how dearly I treasure it, all the parts about it — from the early brainstorming conversations all the way along the bumpy road of development to the final moment when a shiny beautiful learning space is ready to share. A space where possibility persists. I hope you will stop by.


This piece appears on Middlebury’s Office of Digital Learning and Inquiry

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