The UCLA Language Materials Project, a database for teachers of less-studied languages, has won $500,000 from the Education Department to add digital instructional materials to its archive. But what an archive. With high-quality images of ephemera and hard-to-find foreign stuff, the website is part resource guide and part travel scrapbook for the global village.
A wrapper for spiral pasta has instructions on the back in Kazakh, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Ukrainian, Russian and English.
If you ever wanted to know what nursery rhymes are popular with children in Martinique, recognize a milk can label in Greek, skim an opera program in Czech or find a traveler’s phrasebook in the Greenlandic dialect of Inuit, then UCLA has an archive for you that’s a global portal to all these experiences.
Part resource guide for language teachers and part travel scrapbook for the global village, the UCLA Language Materials Project (LMP) has been amassing a virtual collection of “authentic materials,” everyday objects with text in more than 150 different languages, since 2002.
The website is a linguist’s dream. It was created to provide teachers of less commonly taught languages with interesting materials, lesson plans and bibliographic pointers — all of it available on the LMP website or other websites to which it links.
The online database doesn't include Spanish and French, but does feature Bashkir, spoken in Russia, and Sindhi, a language you might hear in Pakistan and India. It focuses primarily on many of the large and small languages that are not taught in U.S. schools, colleges and universities. The project is directed by UCLA Professor Emeritus of Linguistics Thomas Hinnebusch, the principal investigator, and is housed in the UCLA Center for World Languages.
From a Japanese brochure with pet quarantine information for travelers
The website carries descriptions of thousands of grammars, phrasebooks, textbooks and other publications, videos and even audio material. But the archive also contains well over 1,000 descriptions of these "authentic materials" — train schedules, subway instructions, pictures of road signs, menus and sales receipts — many of which were found by UCLA students, faculty and staffers on trips abroad and brought back to be scanned into the archive.
What a chair-bound explorer can find in this online treasure trove is mind-boggling: a toilet paper wrapper in Kazakh and Russian, a Malagasy guide to six septic tank models, a handbook for battered women in Finnish, a labor union pamphlet in Burmese and an advertisement for the Yod Abyssinia Cultural Restaurant in Amharic, a language spoken in north-central Ethiopia. Then there’s the Nupe ad from Nigeria for effervescent liver salts.
"I don't think you would find an image of that on Google," noted Nivardo Valenzuela, the department coordinator for Spanish and Portuguese at UCLA and a contributor to the archive.
A vintage Nigerian poster on community self help in Hausa asks, "What are you doing for your village?"
As a work-study student with the project back in 2005, Valenzuela was responsible for scanning an endless stream of such ephemera that came in with travelers from such faraway places as Tokyo, Kano and Antananarivo.
And it kept coming, plastic bags full of it, for about four months.
"At one point, I had to cut up a plastic ice cream carton so I could scan the wrapper," Valenzuela recalled. Juice bottles in Persian also had him reaching for scissors, and large posters required multiple scans and reassembly using image-editing software.
After his work-study stint, Valenzuela went to Brazil with the Education Abroad Program and returned with a small trove of items in Portuguese. Last December he traveled to Morocco and snapped up an Arabic brochure on the Marrakech Film Festival.
Hinnebusch, director of the project, frequently brings back items from his travels: a toothpaste tube from Korea, newspapers from East Africa, a brochure in Arabic from George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
From an advertising brochure for powdered milk formula in Vietnamese
Authentic materials have been popular among language teachers for at least a decade, said Hinnebusch, “if not longer.” Teachers of these less commonly taught languages, which are handily profiled in the archive, can use restaurant menus and greeting cards to enliven a language lesson. Archive organizers point out that students will often remember grammatical construction of a language better if they can see how language is used in real life — in recipes, on can labels and even business cards.
Included with scans of many of these materials or with links to websites where they can be found are complete lesson plans demonstrating to teachers how these items can be used to sustain student interest.
In July, LMP won a three-year, $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to help teachers find more suitable web-based and digital materials for their courses. The first year will be devoted to a survey of available resources, which will give policymakers clues about which languages need support for new teaching materials, said Barbara Blankenship, a UCLA expert in phonetics who coordinates several LMP initiatives.
Close-up of a red cloth bag used to package Kalocsa Hungarian paprika powder
"For example, they usually allocate money for Swahili, but actually Swahili is already very rich in teaching materials, compared to, say, Kyrgyz," said Blankenship. It’s a language spoken by 2 million people in Kyrgystan, according to the website.
In the second and third years of the project, the LMP team will add citations for digital materials to the website and produce an online training workshop that will introduce teachers to advanced search techniques for foreign language materials.
If you have something to submit to the archive, archivists suggest you contact them first. Photographs are accepted, but only if they show text.