[sugar] 9.1 proposal: Language learning on the XO.
Wed Oct 29 01:08:57 EDT 2008
To state the obvious: language is the means for human collaboration and,
therefore, central to the XO mission. I also believe that the computer
can be more effectively used to support language learning than it is.
The target user for the XO is a primary school child in a developing
country. Consider the language learning task faced by this child. First,
the child is learning his native language (mother tongue) at a rate of
approximately 1000 words per year. Second, the child is learning the
language (or medium) of instruction. This may, or may not, be the same
as the native language. Third, the child is attempting to learn a
foreign language (probably English). Note: research has shown that a
child typically learns new vocabulary at a constant rate. So while
learning new languages appears easy for a child, a bilingual child may
have a smaller vocabulary in the native language as a result.
Learning English is likely to be a priority for many or even most of the
target users. Educators distinguish teaching of English as a foreign
language into ESL and EFL. ESL is the situation in which the student is
living in an English-speaking community while EFL is for students living
in a community speaking the native-language. In most cases the XO will
support the EFL model. Moreover, it many cases the teacher will not be
fluent in English.
Current dogma among educators is that learning a foreign language
involves four 'competencies': listening, reading, speaking, and writing.
These should be learned in the context of the culture of the people
speaking the language. Each of these should receive essentially equal
The rote learning of vocabulary and study of grammar are somewhat
deprecated. In practice, however, I believe the traditional 'Latin'
course (grammar, vocabulary, reading, recitation, and writing) is still
predominant simply because it is well understood, practical in a
classroom setting, and able to be 'assessed'.
An overlooked point here is that learning to read in one's native
language is very different from learning to read in a foreign language.
In the first case, one is trying to connect the printed word with the
word in one's current spoken vocabulary. In the second case, one is
trying to recognize a word and then remember it's meaning in one's
Greg Thomson has provided a quite complete roadmap to learning a foreign
which is based on two important ideas: one, that the student should have
a 1:1 relation with a native-speaker of the language being learned (a
language resource person) and two, that the first task is to learn to
understand the spoken language. I believe his materials can form the
basis for an organized approach to use the computer to support language
Short of viable speech recognition, language learning on a computer is
going to involve keyboarding. We need tools (esp. games) to help
children learn to touch-type. Activities such as Chat and Speak provide
a motive for learning.
Learning vocabulary is central to learning to communicate. However, this
learning should result from frequent exposure and opportunities to use
the vocabulary which a computer makes easy. Traditional flashcards are
text-based. We need 'flashcards' which speak a word or phrase and allow
the learner to select a corresponding image.
Learning to pronounce a foreign language correctly is believed to be
easier for children than adults. Songs and poetry can certainly help.
Without speech recognition, the XO can support a child hearing a word or
phrase, recording it, and then hearing the two together for comparison.
In summary, language learning is central to the mission of the XO,
Computer usage in language learning is way below what is needed and
possible. The XO with access to the internet, the ability to collaborate
within communities and across communities, the ability to record and
display images, record and play sounds, and to enter and display
information in most of the world's languages gives it great potential.
Efficient tools and content development depends on a clear understanding
of how languages are learned and the paradigm-shift possible by a focus
on 1:1 learning and the immediate use of new language skills in
Personally, I am looking to developing, adapting, or using tools on the
XO which support Greg Thomson's model/roadmap for learning a foreign
language. A short-term problem is that most of the available content is
proprietary; however, I believe the OLPC/Sugar/XO community worldwide
can provide these materials if we have a well-defined direction and a
easily-available repository for free content.
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