UW News

November 10, 2004

Computer is partner in language learning

Computers have never been noted for teaching conversation skills, but thanks to two new UW-developed software programs, students are now using computers to learn to converse in Japanese.

Business Japanese Online, a course that is part of the Technical Japanese Program, debuted this fall using the new software programs to make it possible for students all over the world to learn over the Internet.

Here’s how it works. Students first use a program called Language Partner, which presents a short video in which two people are conversing in Japanese. The video depicts a typical interaction, such as a greeting or an invitation. Displayed beside the video is the written dialogue in both Japanese and English. After watching the video, students are prompted to first repeat after the video characters, and then to take the role of one of the characters — speaking his lines when prompted and being answered by the other character.

Later, students begin using a second program, called Conversation Partner. This program permits them to schedule a virtual meeting with another student in which they practice conversing. By using a webcam and headsets, students can see and hear each other. They are required to practice model conversations first, then they practice more challenging role plays. They can also continue practicing more informally with other students or native Japanese tutors.

With both programs, students record their efforts when they are ready and send the recording to the instructor. The instructor can send back both written and oral feedback.

Designed for students who already have two years of Japanese instruction, the class is intended to teach functional skills for interacting with Japanese professionals, according to Masashi Kato, a senior lecturer and associate director in technical communication who is in charge of the new course. The lessons depict typical situations that business people dealing with Japanese colleagues or clients might face, and show them not only what to say but how to behave, such as bowing at appropriate moments.

Kato thinks the new software has opened the way for language programs on the Internet. “There are some other distance language learning programs, but I haven’t seen very effective oral communication programs on the Internet before this,” he said. “The key to success is to create real-time interaction in which students can simulate the same experience they get in the classroom. With Conversation Partner, we have that.”

Conversation Partner provides four Internet “rooms” that are open for practice. Students can sign up to practice at any time of the day or night, which helps the program overcome time zone differences among students (one currently-enrolled student is in Japan). The program also has tutors who are native speakers and can be called upon to meet with a student in one of the rooms.

The program has the technical resources to accommodate up to 100 students, Kato said, although that many enrollees would require more teachers than they currently have. Down the road, he expects enrollment to expand as business needs grow.

“Especially in this state, there are many companies that have a relationship with Japan,” Kato said. “But often, they cannot send their employees to classes that I teach on campus. The online program is more flexible for professional students.”

Not that professional students are the only enrollees. Some UW students who are on campus find the online course more convenient, too.

Kato thinks that for some students, the online course may be superior to classroom instruction. “I have 28 students in my class on campus, so they don’t have much time to converse,” he explained. “Students in the Internet course are required to spend a certain amount of time online conversing, and we encourage them to do more than that.”

At the end of the online course, students take a final exam, part of which is a live conversation with the instructor using Conversation Partner.

Kato thinks the program has a lot of potential for expansion. Now that it’s working for advanced students of Japanese, he can see adjusting it for those just beginning the language. He also believes the design can be easily adapted for use with other languages or for other oral performance related areas such as drama or speech therapy. The software created for the class has already been registered with UW TechTransfer so that it can be marketed.

The current class, meanwhile, is going smoothly. The only problems, Kato reported, were in the greater pre-class requirements: Students had to purchase a webcam and a headset and download the software before they could even begin. But, he said, once students got used to the equipment, they seemed to be learning the material.

“We found this program decreases anxiety for many students,” he said. “They can learn vocabulary and pronunciation skills with interactive drills before practicing with a breathing human being.”

For more information, see http://www.tjp.washington.edu/bjo/.