It’s been a long time since I posted anything to my Silly Ideas blog. Poking through the source files, it appears that I haven’t had a silly idea for a long time, which is a pity. I’ve decided, however, to create a new category on this blog and move stuff here; the wiki technology is just a little too long in the tooth now.

Given that I am on holiday I should, perhaps, stick to lying on the beach and other more traditional holiday pursuits; however, all my silly ideas for the next few years are likely to revolve around variations on the theme of an off-switch for small children; as this isn’t very novel, I thought I should take this opportunity while I can.

Over the years, the educational demand for second and third language teaching has gone up and up; the world is more international than ever, and language skills are becoming a basic requirement. A far cry from the days of my youth, when the ability to stammer a few half-sentences in French was considered a mark of genius-level intelligence (unless you were French, which was considered cheating). Now, I have tried to learn several languages in my life, and even have a French O-Level, from which I remember about 10 words. And, the bottom line is, that learning a new language is tedious. It’s basically lots of detail with few rules and many exceptions. And we learn in a totally different way to the way we learn to speak our first language; lots of formality and little practice, rather than the other way around.

Now if, like many people, you have read Harry Potter, then you probably will recognise words such as the Fidelious Charm, “Alohomora” or “Aveda Kedavera”. These words have been picked up through usage. Other books take this further — Clockwork Orange is half-written in a broken English-Russian mix, while Feersum Endginn in phoentic English and punctuation. They all make sense after a while.

So I though, that it would be possible to use the same technique to teach a language; or at least vocabulary and key phrases, while the student was doing something interesting — reading a story. The idea is to generate a book where, periodically, words (parole) have the equivalent in another language, such as Italian (italiano) printed after then. The first few times a word (parola) is used the translation could be placed afterwards. Eventually, you would reverse the order of the parole (words), and finally, the English parola would be missed off altogether, maybe presenting the translation as a footnote or in the index; the student could get to the information if they needed it, but it would be bit of an effort. Of course, there could be alternative presentations for different devices; it would be good to have an ebook version of this, for instance (which might use footnotes) or a web version (which might just use hover-over tool-tips).

I was thinking of a relatively slow rate of parola introduction. So, no more than 1 new word per page (or every 1000 words say). Parole would be repeated at least five times in the first form, then five in the second form and then would be translated every time. There would be no more than 4 or 5 parole at any stage of introduction per page, so that they will not distrupt the flow of the story. With 1 new parola a page, a novel would result in a 200 parole vocabulary; not a huge amount, but if the words stuck in memory, it’s still 10 times as many as my French O-Level.

The next issue would be where to get the stories from; one option would be to write them for purpose. This would, of course, require a lot of effort and, bottom line, they probably wouldn’t be that great. A better alternative would be to use stories not designed for the purpose; Project Guttenberg should be a good source. Shakespeare would probably be a bit archaic in the English, but the late victorian novels would all work.

One problem with non-bespoke stories is that the parola might not reoccur very often; while a single parole does not need to appear on five successive pages, it does need to occur with reasonable frequency while being introduced. A simple editing environment should help here; it could highlight parole which are in one of the introductory states, as well as suggest new parole for introduction based on the usage — parole which occur regularly over the next 5, 10, or 50 pages would be ranked higher. All translations would need to be checked by a human to work around idiom. They could also choose to introduce whole phrases where appropriate. I was thinking of a traffic light colouring scheme — red would mean a first form of introduction, orange the second, and green fully introduced. Suggestions from the software would be underlined, like spelling mistakes, until checked manually.

Finally, translations could be ranked in terms of difficulty; level 1 might start off with all foreign parola going through the introduction process, while level 2 might have basic verbs and nouns considered pre-introduced; they would always be available in a glossary.

Now, of course, none of this is going to remove the need for more traditional teaching; with the example here, it is probably obvious that parole is the plural of parola, but in general these rules would need to be taught; but it should be a lot easier to teach grammar to people who already know a reasonable amount of vocabulary; they will already have enough language to attempt sentances, which can then be corrected interactively. And the critical point, is that people can learn language in an enjoyable way; they would not need to put aside an hour a day for learning, but an hour a day for reading an entertaining book.