[sugar] 9.1 proposal: Language learning on the XO.

Tony Anderson tony_anderson
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 
native language.

Greg Thomson has provided a quite complete roadmap to learning a foreign 
language at


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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