Interactive Language Learning Model On The Internet

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Modern technology has provided many powerful computer assisted language learning (CALL) programs that help students with pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, reading, and writing of different languages. However most of these programs are information oriented and are lacking in interactive learning environments. We propose and discuss an interactive language learning model named "Face to Face", which is designed for North American students who wishes to learn Mandarin Chinese.

This project has a 3-phase life cycle: (1) design and modeling; (2) development and testing; (3) improvement and re-testing. Currently, "Face to Face" is finalizing its initial phase and will begin its second phase in the near future. We expect to finish the implementation and classroom testing of the prototype "Face to Face" before the end of year 2001.

We expect that the new model, "Face to Face", will make learning Chinese faster, easier, and more interesting because it provides students with the opportunity to develop their communicative competence rather than just provide information. The success of our new language learning model will improve the quality of Chinese teaching and learning and will have positive implications for design and implementation of other foreign language learning programs.


Keywords: Interactive Database, Natural Language Processing, Language Learning, Internet

Technology, Machine Learning, Mandarin Chinese


1. Introduction

We propose and establish a theoretical and technological framework for designing and developing an interactive language learning model based on the current language learning theories (Dobrovolsky, 1996) and the available computer technology. The prototype of this framework is an intelligent computer program called "Face to Face" which provides an interactive learning environment as if we were face to face with native Mandarin Chinese speakers. This learning model applies computer technology to facilitate and enhance the teaching and learning of Mandarin (Chinese) as a foreign language for adult learners. Based on the current language learning theories and the potential of computer technology, we propose, describe, and demonstrate the advantages of an interactive language learning model and its future implication as a powerful tool to be integrated into the language teaching curriculum.

Our discussion begins with an introduction to the background of our study and our examination on what has been offered by the current practice, and then identifies what is available and what is missing in current practice. We also provide the theoretical and technological base for the design of our language learning model. Based on this theoretical and technological knowledge, we present the detailed design in six parts: the virtual environments provided for the learning, the dynamic database for the language query, real time interactions between the learner and the intelligent agents, the specific supervision provided by a virtual teacher, the self-improvement ability of the learning model, and the description of a dream model (the future model of Face to Face) with synchronous virtual environments. In the last two sections of this paper, we will state our current plan and then conclude our paper with discussion on how the new model can improve the current practice.


2. Background

In this section we provide a brief introduction to the scope and the background of our study. Our discussion is based on adult learners at the university level, learning Mandarin as a foreign language; that is, Canadian university students taking Mandarin courses. It has long been evident that the ideal way to learn a language is to be immersed into the target language environment. Obviously, one of the most difficult barriers for our students is the lack of a Mandarin speaking environment. For more than a decade, we have noticed that there is a huge gap between what the students have learned in the classroom and their abilities and competence to use the language in real life situations. Our very best intermediate level students often report back that they cannot communicate with the native Mandarin speakers on campus. Their conversation often breaks down by either encountering an unfamiliar phrase or being unable to keep up with the speed of the native Mandarin speakers. Although many of our students have reached a considerable level of proficiency, with this gap they have ended up giving up learning partly for the lack of the appropriate language environment and the confidence that ensued. It is evident that without the environment to practice and use what they have acquired in the classroom, everything will soon be forgotten. What we have identified is a need to fill in the gap with a tool which can provide students with a simulated environment where they can practice and explore with comfort, guidance, advise, encouragement, and feedback. In short, wouldn't it be wonderful for the students to be able to practice in a virtual reality until they are confident enough to venture into the real world. A program or a devise like this will serve as a bridge or short cut from classroom to reality.

With the rapid development of computer technology and its great promise for education, especially language education, we turned our search for the solution in this direction hoping it might be able to provide us with the tool or the bridge so desperately needed. Before the search begins, we need to define the type of technology we intend to work with. We have looked at many computer related language teaching and learning tools which include CALL (computer assisted language learning) software programs, IT (information technology) such as the Internet, and AI (artificial intelligence) such as computer simulation and virtual reality.


3. Current Computer Technology in Language Teaching and Learning

We surveyed broadly and in depth to see what programs or tools are available for language related activities, what they have to offer to improve language learning, what are the major advantages and disadvantages, and most of all what we can draw from such technological capabilities and possibilities to help solve the identified problems. To broaden our view, we have examined the use of CALL programs and IT not only in the teaching and learning of Mandarin, but also of English, French, Japanese, German and Spanish.

In the past decade or so, CALL programs and one-line materials have flooded the field of language teaching and learning and bombarded the learners as well as educators with a variety of activities. Hence, tough decisions have had to be made in choosing among them since there have been very few systematic studies to categorize and evaluate these materials and programs. We reviewed largely computer technology employed to solve problems and improve learning in different aspects of language learning. Of course, computer application in each area of language learning can be a large scale study on its own, and therefore, the brief discussion of each area which follows, we hope, will be sufficient to identify the need and to seek out the possibilities.


3.1. Pronunciation: There are all sorts of online programs and software on the market specially designed to help with pronunciation such as English Pro Web Edition for English learners and HypeChinese (Fu, Hongchu, 1996) that is designed to help students with the learning and practicing of various Mandarin sounds (Pinyin) and tones. There are even commercial programs, which demonstrate the way of pronouncing by showing mouth, teeth, and tongue positions through animated visual displays. Many programs also offer immediate feedback, mini quizzes and game like drills to boost interest in pronunciation practice. We have used some of these programs and even devised our own which students have found very helpful and we have noticed the progress made by the students through these programs.

3.2. Grammar Exercises and Vocabulary Building Games: A large number of on-line and CALL programs are designed to teach and practice grammar and vocabulary. Electronic dictionaries are also available in various languages. For example Hall (1998) talked about how a varied application of CALL and IT can be used to teach grammar more effectively by a combination of explicit, implicit, and exploratory approaches. They have made learning grammar and vocabulary less tedious and painful and at times made it quite fun.

3.3. Character Writing: This is unique to Japanese and Mandarin learning. The development of computer animation has been of great assistance to students to practice and learn to write Chinese characters on line. The animated program is capable of demonstrating, stroke by stroke, each character chosen by students. For English and many other language learners the function of desktop publishing provides numerous writing related activities.

3.4. Authentic Materials: One of the greatest advantages that the computer has brought to foreign language learners is to provide exposure to the target language and culture in various authentic forms: on-line newspapers, magazines, songs, novels, videos, movies, photographs etc. The information is at the fingertips for research and increasing knowledge.

3.5. E-mail and Chat Rooms: The e-mail and chat rooms are so far the most interactive tools provided by computer technology. They offer a real opportunity for communication in written form between a language learner and a native language speaker. They have been used in higher levels of learning. They partially fill in the gaps we have identified by providing an authentic language environment in which several aspects of language learning are addressed such as real life communication, grammar competence, learning strategies, reading and writing skills. There are several drawbacks: first there is no face to face communication; secondly, no oral skills can be practiced, and thirdly, it is still frightening for some people to cross the zone between the classroom and reality.


Without a doubt computer technology has revolutionized the way we teach and learn a language. With its capabilities of integrating graphics, sounds, animations, visuals, and machine intelligence, computers are used today very successfully in a wide variety of aspects of language learning. The advantages have been noticed by many language teachers as well as learners: computer technology adds variety to language learning; it individualizes the learning; it provides immediate feedback for each exercise; it exposes language learners to authentic materials, and it is patient, fun, safe, stimulating and sometimes encouraging.

All of these advantages are needed for our design, the deployment of which is intended to close the gap in what has been missing previously. However, we found that many of the existing programs are, at best, capable of demonstrating and reinforcing the student's knowledge of the target language and culture using a variety of skills and resources. Most of them still play a passive role, as they are mainly oriented and limited to providing information, amplifying explanations, and mechanical drills. Technically, what is missing is the ability to react to unpredicted outcomes as these occur in real life communication.

What we see needed is a model that provides a near reality environment, that can excavate learners' creative ability as well as engage their attention. That is, the model should provide advice and guidance and, most of all, lead the students to the realization that there is a way to achieve communicative competence with comfort and convenience but without too much risk. This leads to our proposal to design and develop an interactive language model. We have also learned from examining the existing programs, from the development of computer technology and from our experiences in language teaching that it is highly possible to accomplish such a goal. Our theoretical and technological framework has emerged from our knowledge of language acquisition and of computer technology.


4. Theoretical and Technological Basis for the Design of the Model

After identifying the gap between what is needed and what is available, we propose a new model based on language acquisition and learning theories, years of teaching experience, the pioneer work done by the programs discussed above, and the potential of modern technology.

Through decades of research and experimentation, the current field of second and foreign language acquisition has focused the research on how a second language learner acquires the target language and what knowledge and skills contribute to the ability to use a language effectively. So far, most language educators believe that the focus should be on the development of communicative competence on the part of the learner. There are many books and journals devoted to this topic. For the scope of this paper, we will just present the core of the development of communicative competence. Other than merely teaching the forms of a language as was done for centuries, communicative competence includes a wide array of related elements contributing to successful language learning. Dobrovolsky's (1996) model of communicative competence, as depicted in Figure 1, provides a good idea of the major elements included in this concept. The belief is that while knowledge of a language's grammar such as phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics allows learners to distinguish between grammatical and ungrammatical sentences, successful communication requires many more skills and knowledge as indicated in Figure 1. All of these aspects of language competence need to be considered in learning a language for the purpose of effective communication. However, as discussed earlier, many of the existing learning programs are inadequate in addressing the areas of strategic competence and pragmatic competence. These are no doubt very difficult areas to tackle.

As the saying goes, "Language is a living animal". It is forever changing, at times it is unpredictable, and the cultural elements attached to it makes it unique to each situation. For example, there are number of ways of expressing a greeting in Mandarin: "ni hao!", "ni hao ma?", "zenme yang?", "zuijin hao ma?", "jinlai hao ma?", "chi fan le ma?", "hao jiu mei jian le!", "ni qu nar le?", "zao wa!", "zhao an!", "wan an!", "shen ti hao ma!", or simply "hei!". The list can go on and on. The native speakers would never give a thought before answering any form of greeting. However, it would be extremely difficult for students to arrive at this level for there have been no effective tools available to assist them in developing such competence. What are taught in the classroom or in the textbook are only in one or two forms. Yet a short exchange of greetings like other more complicated situations involve an array of knowledge and skills, such as cultural tradition and communication strategies in addition to grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation etc. It is not the fault of the teacher or textbooks. It is the nature of the language and language use. Therefore, we intend to venture into the task of providing the learners with such a model which is designed intelligent enough so that it can help the learners to explore, be advised, prompted, given alternatives, feedback, and ultimately lead them through various social situations. What is needed is a computer program with the ability to act intelligently to guess the users intentions, to assess their abilities, to analyze and pinpoint their weakness and to provide help accordingly. In short, what we need is a tool or a boat to allow students to try but not sink and eventually build up enough courage, knowledge, and skill to successfully reach their destination. Is this just a dream? Will the present technology allow us to achieve our goal? With these questions in mind we examine the current and the potential of technology.

Figure 1. A model of communicative competence (Dobrovolsky, 1996)


As discussed above, visual, audio, graphic and animation technology give us the basic tools, but yet what is missing is the ability for a computer program to act as a tutor or a partial teacher. The lack of this ability has limited the present programs to a more passive role in language learning. The search for how and what we need to achieve the intended objectives led us to the field of computer technology, especially artificial intelligence that has provided us with greater possibilities.

The advance of modern technology not only enables us to attempt what was unthinkable before, but also encourages us to use our imagination and to venture into areas where the pioneers have tried and yet were unable to achieve in their time. However, their efforts have advanced the field, shed great light and laid the foundation on which to build. We will have a brief look at the related aspects of the technology.

Virtual reality modeling language allowed the author to create a 3-D web site that provides a near real environment or a virtual reality. By employing this technology we intend to allow our students to use the language in a close to authentic setting rather than facing a blank page.

Computer modeling and simulation made it possible for people to venture beyond their experiences. For example, flight or driving simulators are used to train pilots and drivers, which allow users to test their abilities without risking their lives. In a similar way we wish to offer our language learners a simulated environment for them to test their wings safely before stumbling into unknown territories.

Artificial intelligence techniques permit computers to do things in which, at the moment, people do better, such as the ability to perceive, reason and respond. There have been a few attempts earlier by computer scientists to simulate natural language communication. For example, Turing did work in 1950, which put forward the question "can machines think?". Using the same technology, Joseph Weizenbaum designed ELIZA in the 1960s to make a computer assume the role of a therapist in a typed conversation with a patient. The inexpensive pocket electronic translator employed a similar technology.

The technology of pattern recognition and machine learning stunned people when IBM's customized super computer RS/6000 SP beat grand chess master Garry Kasparov in 1997 ( Beekman, G, 1999).

The technology of speech recognition and optical character recognition provide input to natural language systems, freeing the human communication from the keyboard, and speech synthesis technology allows the computer to talk back in English or other languages.

As one can observe, natural language processing has come a long way. The real challenge is that it is less successful in dealing with natural-language syntax and semantics since the meaning of a sentence can be ambiguous unless it is considered in context. The major criticism is that natural language input and output are meaningless without a knowledge base that allows the computer to understand the ideas behind the words, or natural language must use a sufficient large corpus for statistical approaches to make sense. Just as in the case of the computer therapist, as impressive as it can be, there is no real understanding on the part of the machine.

These are all real problems and challenges. However, in our case, we do not want to replace the reality or replace a native Mandarin Speaker (at least not yet). We just want to take advantage of the potential of artificial intelligence to provide better opportunities for the students to practice communicating with a virtual conversation partner; a tutor with as much intelligence as its creator can make it.

Based on the above theoretical and technological discussion, we arrived at the current framework that allows us to have a sound rational for the development of the new interactive language learning model.


5. The Design of the Interactive Language Learning Model

We want to create an interactive language learning model on the Internet that contains a selection of virtual environments in which students could select a particular language (current application is Mandarin Chinese) that they have learned in class rooms and to practice and apply the learned knowledge about that language. The main features of this language learning model are stated as the followings:


5.1 Virtual Environments:

We want to provide virtual environments in which students would feel as if face to face with native language speakers and at the same time not feel as if being watched or examined by a third party. In such worry-free environments, students would feel more relaxed and therefore be able to concentrate on the learning tasks.

The external representations of the learning model's virtual environments are dynamic Web pages containing a learning task, a virtual teacher of the student's choice, and a dialog box. An initial input from the keyboard typed by either the student or the teacher will start the learning process. A set of action buttons is used to navigate the learning process. Behind these external representations, there lie the corresponding knowledge bases. Figure 2 is a screen shot of the "Super Market" virtual environment.

Figure 2. Screen Shot on the Supermarket Exercise

5.2 Dynamic Databases:

We want to design dynamic databases such that the primary knowledge stored in the system can be updated and retrieved dynamically. The database should be flexible enough to handle non-predictable queries. It can be accessed by aggregation indexes, key words, multiple contents and criteria (DISC, 2000). Figure 3 shows the general architecture of the dynamic databases in the model.

Figure 3. The Overall Design of the Dynamic Databases


5.3 Real-time Interactions: We want to have highly active interactions between the virtual teacher and the student such that (1) the responding time of the system should be fast enough that the student would not feel any delays; (2) the learning process should be continuous even when the student made some mistakes in Pinyin, tones, or grammar; (3) the system should be flexible enough to deal with all possible questions raised by the student. We plan to use hash index tables to achieve rapid knowledge acquisition and relational index tables to connect the target information directly.


5.4 Specific Supervision:

We want to make the virtual teachers highly intelligent such that they can give very specific advice and error corrections according to the history of a student's learning behavior. The model maintains several history database and keys to remember the students whom the teacher had met previously. This maintenance is done by a knowledge accumulator. Figure 4 shows the overall communication structure among students, the virtual teacher, and the history databases. Each student's file will have an aging variable to remember how long ago since this student has been on the system. If the age of a particular student's history file exceeds the threshold, the agent will send a message to the control panel of the system. Then these files can be either deleted to save space and accelerate the search or saved in an indirectly connected database in case the student comes back after a long period of time.

Figure 4. The Overall Communication among Students, Teachers, and the Databases

5.5 Self-improvement Ability:

We want to apply the concept of IVSA learning algorithm (Zhang and Cercone, 1999) to give the language learning model the ability to improve itself on its performance over time. The computer program behind the virtual teacher should have an automatic learning element such that it can learn from teaching. The learning element should have the ability to update its knowledge base according to the self-evaluation results (see Figure 5). It should be intelligent enough to be able to record any problems encountered when it has trouble in answering the student's questions. We can use these records for future improvement of the learning system.


Figure 5. The Automatic Learning Element of the Language Learning Model

5.6 Synchronous Virtual Environments:

In the future, we want to create our dream model that is fully equipped with audio, video technologies. In this model, students can actually listen to the virtual teacher's voice and watch his or hers movements. The synchronous virtual Environment model involves in natural language processing technique such as text-to-speech and speech-to-text, voice generation and recognition, language understanding and translation. Many researchers in this area are working hard towards the solutions. However, currently it has not been very successful compared with other computer science research topics such as networks or expert systems.


6. The Current Plan

The first step is to design the prototype of the language learning model, "Face to Face". As shown in Figure 2, the external representation of the prototype consists of Web pages that contain a selected learning environment, a virtual teacher, or a conversation partner of the student's choice. Currently, we apply the Text-to-Sound_Symbol approach (Zhang, 1998) to the input and output of "Face to Face". That is, we will use PinYin instead of voice or Chinese Characters as the input and output of the current language learning model. The reason behind this is that Pinyin can be translated into IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) easily in the future when we are ready to adopt text-to-speech and speech-to-text technologies.

The primary goal of implementing the prototype is to reach the basic requirements discussed in the previous sections. We will first focus on creating dynamic databases and knowledge bases to achieve fast information retrieval and make the conversation flow. The first step of our plan is to build a supermarket virtual environment with which student can "talk" with a virtual teacher, a sales person, or another customer of the student's choice. The student can "practice" relate vocabularies in sentences and "ask" questions during the conversation. We plan to complete this supermarket virtual environment at the end of the year 2000. The class room testing will be carried out during the winter semester of the year 2001. We will gather information on how to improve the prototype during this period of time. Modifications on the supermarket virtual environment will continue through out the next few months until a satisfactory prototype has been evolved.


7. Conclusion

We find that although current computer technology does not replace a classroom teacher, it can certainly enhance language learning. We agree that "the ultimate goal in using technology for teaching and learning should be to enhance what we already do well, and allow us to explore approaches we have never been able to consider"(John, K.A. 1989). We believe that the new interactive model will be a useful effort to explore computer technology and to tackle seemingly unsolvable problems. We also believe that such a model is not limited to Mandarin learning. It has greater capacities and implications for the teaching of other foreign languages. It can also be adapted to be used by students of all ages and for all instructional levels.

Currently, we are still at a very initial stage. There are many tasks, such as how to represent the internal knowledge base intelligently, or how to make the model "aware" of different types of questions which actually mean the same thing, that have not been solved completely yet. As we have discussed earlier in the previous section, we will start from a simple model that will fulfil the basic requirements of our design first, and then continue to reach our future goals one after another. We believe our model holds promises of providing near reality learning environments for language students.