14 – Language Learning and Tech

In the movie Mars Attacks, aliens come to earth. With the world watching, they land their ship, and they come out. Their leader walks down and greets a military leader from the United States. The alien says, “Ack, ack, ack, ack!” A scientist in a white lab coat works with a machine. And the machine translates the alien’s words: “Greetings! I am the Martian Ambassador.”

The American military leader says, “Greetings. I am General Casey, Commanding Officer of the armed forces of the United States of America. On behalf of the people of earth, welcome!” The scientist works with the translator, and the machine says, “Ack, ack, ack, ack. Ack, ack, ack!”

The aliens look surprised. But their leader responds. “Ack, ack, ack, ack,” he says. The machine translates again saying, “We come in peace. We come in peace. We come in peace.” All the people watching rejoice and clap. A white bird flies above the crowd. It flies right above the alien leader.

Then without warning, the alien leader shoots the bird. The bird falls to the ground and burns up in a ball of red fire. Then the alien shoots general Casey. Suddenly, it’s all out war. Guns, explosions, fire! People are dying all over the place. It’s a disaster! Maybe the humans should not have trusted the aliens in the first place. Maybe the bird scared the alien leader, or maybe the translation machine didn’t work. What if this whole disaster was started by a machine?

Machines, Technology, and Learning
Machines solve problems, at least they are supposed to. But often machines cause problems. And this can be true for language learning, too. A school might spend $100,000 on a software system. But only a few students actually use it. School leaders might make expensive language labs. These labs may impress students or parents, but they may also give no positive benefits to students. And these systems often go out of date in a short time.

Nevertheless, we can find many ways to use technology that will help promote effective language acquisition. In what follows, we will look at three areas where technology can benefit teaching and learning. Of course, there are many more than three, but these three serve as a good starting place for looking at language learning and tech. They are: (1) vocabulary study, (2) extensive reading, and (3) corpus tools.

Vocabulary Study and Technology
Learners can use word cards to learn vocabulary (Nation, 1990). Word cards work and produce quick results. Students can learn using paper word cards, but digital cards can work better.

With digital word cards, learners can study words just like with paper. But digital word cards can provide audio and even video. (See EnglishCentral.com.) Digital word cards also can automatically help learners practice retrieval with spacing. That is, the systems use a spaced repetition algorithm. Learners will probably have to choose different sets of cards to do interleaving. Apparently, word card systems do not yet exist with an interleaving algorithm.

But there are problems with digital word cards. With these systems, learners may often study words that they don’t need yet. For example, a learner still may not know many of the top 2000 high frequency words. But the word card system might teach this learner many low frequency words.

Thus, digital word cards need to “know” the learner’s level. Some systems can estimate a learner’s vocabulary level, and feed him the “right” words. Other systems allow students to choose the words that they need to study.

At this point, teachers can help. They can help students choose the right vocabulary application and sets of words for study. For example, EFL Technologies has made free applications for learning high frequency vocabulary. The “NGSL Builder” presents the top 2,800 words of English. The list covers about 90% of the words in any English book. The app lets learners choose their level, and it allows learners to study words with space repetition.

Extensive Reading and Technology
Digital word cards provide a good way to learn words, but word study is basically boring. Most learners probably can only spend 5 to 15 minutes per day on word cards. Then boredom sets in. Word cards do not give learners interesting messages. But stories do. Learners can find stories interesting and motivating, and this fact highlights the value of extensive reading.

Moreover, learners can do extensive reading with technology. For example, publishers have made extensive reading websites. These sites provide many interesting stories. The stories are graded, so learners can read at the right level. The sites also provide audio stories, word count tracking, reading speed tracking, vocabulary cards, and quizzes.

In addition, publishers have made digital versions of graded readers. These digital books allow learners to look up vocabulary words quickly with a digital dictionary. Learners can also highlight text. Then they can have their device speak the text, using text-to-speech technology. And because the books are digital, learners can carry many of them in their bags or pockets.

Regarding online extensive reading, ReadOasis.com provides thousands of graded stories, with word count tracking for stories, books, and texts from other websites. ReadOasis also tracks reading speed and has many vocabulary quizzes. Teachers can manage classes and groups using a Learner Management System (LMS). The LMS allows teachers to monitor students and export data to spreadsheets for easy grading and evaluation of learners. Disclaimer: The author of this section is the Editor of ReadOasis.com. Other sites that provide technology for extensive reading are listed at the end of this chapter.

Text-Corpus Tools
Linguists use special tools to make digital vocabulary cards or extensive reading websites. These tools use computers and large databases of texts taken from the real world. These databases of real texts are called corpora, or we can call one large database a text-corpus. Teachers and researchers can use text-corpus tools to do research, prepare teaching materials, make vocabulary lists, and write graded reading materials.

We can find the most well-known set of text-corpus tools at <www.lextutor.ca>. The site is called the Compleat Lexical Tutor or Lextutor. We do not have space here to explain how to use Lextutor, but below is a short list of the things that teachers and learners can do with its tools.

  • Learners can take tests to find out their vocabulary level.
  • Learners and teachers can paste texts into the system and make cloze exercises.
  • Learners and teachers can easily find out the frequency level of a word using the search form on the front page (or with the mobile version of the site).
  • Teachers can find out the level of a text, and they can rewrite it using vocabulary profilers.

To be sure, Lextutor is a great site, and it has many more tools than the ones listed above. But the tools are not exactly user friendly. Think of it as a website for language geeks. However, teachers and learners can greatly benefit from the tools at Lextutor. They just need to take the time and learn how to use them.

Websites for Extensive Reading

Dr. Joseph Poulshock

Dr. Joseph Poulshock works as Professor of English Linguistics in the Faculty of International Communication at Senshu University.