Digital & Mobile Language Learning in Kyrgyzstan (sort of)

I joined the THT Kyrgyz program this September. It was my first trip to Kyrgyz and and the internet situation gave me a bit of food for thought.

The host institution for THT-Kyrgyz is Bishkek Humanities University, located in the capital Bishkek. Kyrgyz (our hosts said they preferred this to the name Krygyzstan) is sometimes referred to as ‘the Switzerland of Central Asia’ in part for its geography and in part because it is the only true democracy in the region. Visa-free for Americans, Japanese and 43 other countries, it offers a much gentler introduction to Central Asia than Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikstan or Turkmenistan, not to mention Afghanistan (of which Wikitravel notes “While visiting has not been advisable for several years, it has much to offer the intrepid traveller. That said, even the more adventurous should consider looking elsewhere for thrill-seeking at the moment.”)

Entrance to Bishkek Humanites University
Entrance to Bishkek Humanities University

If you buy me a beer, I will tell you lots of tales, but for now I wanted to outline the internet situation at the university and in Bishkek.

BHU is built in the Soviet style architecture and is confined to a relatively small campus.

When we arrived at the university the power was off. Brown-outs and black-outs are relatively common there and wreak havoc with laptop computers.

A short time was sufficient to visit the computer facilities, with only a handful available to the students. Below are two pics.

Open computer room at BHU
Open computer room at BHU
another computer room at BHU
another computer room at BHU

The computers were running Windows XP and were relatively older PCs. Some of them were donations from various aid programs. I wasn’t able to speak with the IT folks at the university, but I did catch a glimpse of some of them at work.

BHU IT folks at work
BHU IT folks at work

However, even with this relatively primitive set up, there was WiFi! Here is the WiFi speed test for the WiFi at the university, and at this speed, videos or even audio Skype is probably out of the question, but text based information is not a problem.

Wifi at the university
WiFi at the university

The university was not the only place with WiFi. Our guesthouse had a relatively reliable WiFi connection, as did many of the restaurants and coffee shops.

Coupled with that was the fact that, at least in the capital Bishkek, there were lots and lots of smartphones and tablets. While the majority were Android, there were good number of iphone 4 and 4s and older ipads. Visiting TsUM, a Russian store with a branch in Bishkek, one floor is filled with smartphones and tablets, either used or redirected. This blog post from 2006 by a Bishkek resident, David Read, said that TsUM is “the temple to dodgy goods and illegal stuff”. I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked to explore and I’m not sure if the dodginess level remains the same or has dropped, but it seems clear that Kyrgyz, or at least Bishkek, may be in the process of doing a technological leapfrog, so that dedicated desktops might be a luxury, but a smartphone is standard equipment.

Kyrgyz smartphone in action
Kyrgyz smartphone in action

The young woman to the left sat next to me on the trip back and was travelling for the first time outside of Kyrgyz, but when we arrived at Almaty airport, she immediately pulled out her smartphone and was checking something on the internet. (a future Functional Friday will talk about the unexplored (at least from Japan) world of SIM cards and telephony.

This probably is not important information unless you are coming to visit Kyrgyz (though if you are interested in joining us for THT, please let me know!) but it did have me wonder about how to present CALL topics in Kyrgyz as well as a possible future where students here don’t have a desktop but have a smartphone. I’ve already had a few freshmen students who don’t have an internet connection at their apartments in town, but do have a smartphone, and getting them to do their blogs with a Bluetooth keyboard and their phone has been the key to not losing them, but they are only 2 or 3 students in a class of 25-30. The question is how would one handle this if everyone had a smartphone rather than a desktop? Maybe I saw a glimpse of the future in Bishkek? Stranger things have happened.

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