Language Learning and Computers

Chemnitz University of Technology, 20-23 Feb

Chemnitz is a large town in Saxony (you may have heard of it under the name of Karl-Marx-Stadt, when it was a large town in the DDR) notable for a well-established University, which has just had the good sense to elect as its pro-vice-rector (sounds less implausible in German)Prof. Dr. Josef Schmied, director of the REAL English language centre. Josef is also a corpus nut, and the originator of the Lampeter corpus project, which is why I was pleased to receive an invitation to visit his centre for a two day workshop on language teaching with computers. funded by the British Council in Germany.

I was one of four invited Brits, each of whom was allocated 90 minutes talk on the first day; the audience consisted of about 40 assorted teachers from other German Universities and Language Centres some of whom were allowed to speak (but only for 20 minutes each) on the second day, before a round up discussion session.

Before all this began, however, there was a little ceremony in which a Very Important Person from the British Council in Berlin and the Vice Rector himself signed a renewed cultural exchange agreement which would ensure that Chemnitz students might continue to enjoy partnership arrangements with a variety of UK universities in the interests of greater mutual understanding, the spread of the true British language, and so on. We also had a little talk from Frank Frankel, now retired from the Council but retained as a consultant in co-ordination of language centres throughout Germany, and a long-time enthusiast for CALL, as to how its wider use might change the roles of teacher and learner.

Josef Schmied gave a brief overview of curent projects at TUC involving language-learning with computers (LLC), of which probably the most interesting is the Internet Grammar project: a web-based system for language learners, teachers, and linguists to collaborate in developing a kind of translator tool for the teaching of English grammar. Unlike the UCL project of the same name, which is monolingual, the Chemnitz project is aimed very specifically at translators' syntactic needs; it also aims to synthesize inductive and deductive procedures to establish rules.

Hilary Nesi, from Warwick, gave a well focussed and informative review of the pedagogic usefulness (or otherwise) of a range of English language dictionaries available on CD-ROM; she also waxed lyrical on the potential classroom usefulness of the humble hand-held dictionary-type device, if only their manufacturers could be induced to give them more linguistically-oriented features instead of overloading them with electronic organizer type facilities.

Geoffrey Leech, from Lancaster, gave a very interesting talk about the grammar of spoken English, derived from a major new work on which he is collaborating with Stig Johansson, Doug Biber, Ed Finegan and others. The corpus underlying this is a 20 million word corpus comprising the spoken part of the BNC and a parallel corpus of American spoken material, collected according to the same principles by Longman, but not (so far as I know) available to anyone outside the project. Beside presenting and analysing an impressive mass of comparative data, with far more detailed examples than I can present here, he made some very cogent suggestions about their potential relevance to language teaching. The availability of well based frequency information for various syntactic constructions could be used not just to determine actual usage, and thus to provide authentic examples of usage, but also perhaps to help determine which grammatical structures should be taught, and which were most appropriate for different varieties of English, or types of discourse -- both areas in which language learners have most difficulty -- thus (to use Geoff's phrase) "maximizing communicative payoff" both in production and reception.

I gave the standard talk about the BNC again, including a live demonstration of the BNC Sampler, and a little coda stolen from Guy Aston about how the BNC can be used by learners to challenge their teachers, which seemed to go down well.

Gary Motteram from Manchester's Centre for English Language Studies in Education discussed some of the pedagogic issues in using IT for language teaching, based on his extensive experience in running a Masters degree in TESOL, which is now done entirely online, and sounded to my relatively untutored ear like a model case study in IT-based distance learning. He demonstrated, and advocated, the use of Toolbook as a low price, easy access, tool kit for the construction of powerful courseware.

At the end of this long day, the British Council took us all to an a rather unusual performance at the Schauspielhaus. Das Ballhaus is a kind of musical-cum-ballet, presenting fifty years of German history through the device of a dance hall, in which a massive and highly skilled cast waltzed, tangoed, drank, and generally overacted through the terrible twenties, the even worse thirties, the unspeakable forties, and the unbelievably depressing fifties, before succumbing to the degenerate sixties, the cacophonous seventies, and the incomprehensible eighties. The piece lasted three and a half hours, with an interval, and the theatre was unbearably hot, but it was oddly compelling, being full of humour and incident, and quite the most extraordinary display of really bad tailoring I have ever seen. Although entirely non-verbal, and although almost all of the music was entirely familiar and accessible, it also demonstrated how far shared knowledge and experience is essential to understanding a culture -- the second half in particular being full of incidents which the East German contingent found riotously funny or touching but which left the rest of us entirely bewildered.

The next day was given over to a mixed bag of presentations from other happy recipients of the British Council's bounty (in the shape of exhange agreements with UK universities). Regrettably I missed the first of these -- a group from Rostock describing a proposed diachronic newspaper corpus comsisting of samples of high, middle, and low brow British newspapers from three centuries. Speakers from Magdeburg's Otto von Guericke University and from various units of Potsdam University described their experiences in setting up IT-based learning resource centres, aka Self Access Centres or SACs, and in using the internet as a source for such things. There were also brief consumer reports on a various workshops attended (thanks to British Council funding) at a number of UK institutions. Sound principles (teachers should act as guides not experts; teach how rather than what etc.) were articulated and many favourite web sites cited.

Dr Thomas Bellman, from Leipzig's Hochschule fur Technik Wirtschaft un Kultur, demonstrated some nice software for cataloguing ELT resources: it looked like your standard bibliographic database, but included hot links which would start up bits of courseware directly from the record, screens which enabled you to pre-define subsets of records according to ELT-relevant categories, and buttons for access to a web browser, a wordprocessor, ond even a virus checker, all embedded within the same interface. I did not have the heart to murmur "OLE?"

Dr Jurgen Martini (also from the Otto von Guericke University in Magdeburg, but a different part of it) gave a defiantly non-IT-based presentation about the difficultiues of teaching cultural studies which kept promising to open up a new area of discussion, but didn't quite do so. The courses he teaches sound very interesting though.

The Workshop's final speaker, Bernd Rueschoff (from Karlsruhe), has the unusual ability to make CALL-theory sound interesting, as well as knowing how to make a very impressive presentation. He covered a very wide range of pedagogic issues, ranging from the need for authenticity in language learning and cultural studies, the use of technology as a means of enriching rather than replacing the traditional learning environment, and the drive towards active participation in learning rather than passive acquisition of information. He also had some practical advice to offer on how exactly to achieve these motherhoods, based on substantial experience.

I concluded from all this that, like the rest of us, German institutions have both Language Centres and Linguistics Departments, and are not quite sure whether IT has a role to play in either, neither, or both. They are also rather vague about whether corpus linguistics belongs in linguistics or cultural studies, or both, or somewhere else. All of these constituencies were represented, eying each other somewhat nervously, at the workshop; and if there wasn't a lot of rapprochement, there was a respectable amount of talk. Recurrent topics in the discussion included the impact of "self-access" as a way of learning rather than simply as a means of doing pre-set assignments, and doubts as to its general applicability for all students; anciety was also expressed about the possible dangers of allowing students access to politically incorrect notions over the internet, and the need for reliable assessment of networked resources, at which I felt a plug for Humbul would not be out of place.

I stayed on for an extra day after the workshop ended in order to show the Chemnitz team what I had been doing with their Lampeter corpus, and to discuss plans for future collaboration. This took so long that I never got round to doing any respectable amount of sight seeing, which is why this report is regrettably deficient in my reactions to the new Germany, the architectural oddities of Chemnitz (yes, Karl Marx's head is still there, just across the road from McDonalds) and Dresden (wonderful palace -- shame about the traffic system), or the delights of Saxon cookery. But it's probably long enough as it is.