Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Idea time: Language Acquisition 2.0

I have to admit, I am somewhat hesitant about posting this here, because frankly there is serious money in this idea. Nevertheless, it's idea time!

I did a number of Language Acquisition courses in the course of my English Language and Culture programme at Leiden University. The focus was on acquiring vocabulary and on pronunciation. Most educators believe that doing+feedback is learning, and if we can trust Machine Learning, then this is certainly true.

Nevertheless, the classes were the only time most students did any "doing". Sure, we were given tasks to practice at home, but I for one thought speaking to the mirror was a somewhat surreal exercise and hardly ever did it. (Moreover, I was often pressed for time, and somehow creating interesting programs always won over repeating the strut vowel a thousand times). The practice and feedback within the classes wasn't exactly the pinnacle of modern learning either. Imagine a group of 20 awkward glancing individuals, speaking one after another, afraid to criticize eachother's horrid pronunciation flaws, and without feedback, failing to identify their own. Not much "doing" was done, and the feedback loop for every student was routed through the language lab's teacher. The single teacher was capable, but the students were too. The students were just a bit less capable, more hesitant and always ill-prepared.

Without a doubt there is room for improvement. This is where the idea comes in. Think stackoverflow meets blackboard meets youtube meets chatroulette. An online community where you send in videos or audio (youtube), or have conversations with others (chatroulette) and are graded for your performance (stackoverflow). The community is shielded off from the outside, your college / school needs a subscription for you to access it. The content has one goal: to be reviewed by peers and or teachers, one, two or perhaps three times, then it is deleted or archived.

For instance, a student joins a Language Acquisition 101 course, and he (or she, but I'll refer to it as he, because screw you, this is my blog and I do what I want) gets access to the site and starts off with a rating of 0. The teachers have made a selection of areas you need to focus on in this course (the strut vowel, the silent r, getting a distinct British accent, they name it). The staff attaches instructional video's to the separate tasks, because the student naturally forgot what the heck the strut vowel is. The student then submits a video of himself pronouncing the sentences of the exercise. Another students later rates this video with regards to every separate task (how well did the student do on the strut vowel, how well on the silent r etc.). The rating consists of a simple five-star selector, with optional comments. The scores are immediately added to the student, stackoverflow style. Students can earn badges (Triple A*** strut vowel expert) and get a higher status in certain traits. Once one gets a higher status, ones feedback gets more value etcetera.

I believe that this is the next step in language acquisition. Students can take their time to get acquainted with the material (by watching the instructional videos), take their time to analyse eachother's videos, are invited to be active in the community and they learn every single step of the process. When they do, they get feedback and when they give feedback they analyse the speech of others.

Are you a developer and do you have the time to build it, go ahead! When you get rich, buy me some beer. Or wine. Are you in investor and think this idea is great? Give me a million bucks and I'll consider it. Are you a university and think this is great? Get some guys from the CS lab (or girls, oh no wait, never mind, it's the CS lab), and give them a million bucks.