A free, open source language lab app

Viewers of the Crown may have noticed a brief scene where Prince Charles practices Welsh by sitting in a glass cubicle wearing a headset.  Some viewers may recognize that as a language lab. Some may have even used language labs themselves.

The core of the language lab technique is language drills, which are based on the bedrock of all skills training: mimicry, feedback and repetition.  An instructor can identify areas for the learner to focus on.

Because it’s hard for us to hear our own speech, the instructor also can observe things in the learner’s voice that the learner may not perceive.  Recording technology enabled the learner to take on some of the role of observer more directly.

When I used a language lab to learn Portuguese in college, it ran on cassette tapes.  The lab station played the model (I can still remember “Elena, estudante francesa, vai passar as ferias em Portugal…“), then it recorded my attempted mimicry onto a blank cassette.  Once I was done recording it played back the model, followed by my own recording.

Hearing my voice repeated back to me after the model helped me judge for myself how well I had mimicked the model.  It wasn’t enough by itself, so the lab instructor had a master station where he could listen in on any of us and provide additional feedback.  We also had classroom lessons with an instructor, and weekly lectures on culture and grammar.

There are several companies that have brought language lab technology into the digital age, on CD-ROM and then over the internet.  Many online language learning providers rely on proprietary software and closed platforms to generate revenue, which is fine for them but doesn’t allow teachers the flexibility to add new language varieties.

People have petitioned these language learning companies to offer new languages, but developing offerings for a new language is expensive.  If a language has a small user base it may never generate enough revenue to offset the cost of developing the lessons.  It would effectively be a donation to people who want to promote these languages, and these companies are for profit entities.

Duolingo has offered a work-around to this closed system: they will accept materials developed by volunteers according to their specifications and freely donated.  Anyone who remembers the Internet Movie Database before it was sold to Amazon can identify the problems with this arrangement: what happens to those submissions if Duolingo goes bankrupt, or simply decides not to support them anymore?

Closed systems raise another issue: who decides what it means to learn French, or Hindi?  This has been discussed in the context of Duolingo, which chose to teach a colloquial dialect of Arabic rather than the classical language of the Qur’an or the artificial Modern Standard Arabic.  Similarly, activists for the Hawai’ian language wanted the company to focus on lessons to encourage Hawai’ians to speak the language, rather than tourists who might visit for a few weeks at most.

Years ago I realized that we could make a free, open-source language lab application.  It wouldn’t have to replicate all the features of the commercial apps, especially not initially.  An app would be valuable if it offers the basic language lab functionality: play a model, record the learner’s mimicry, play the model again and finally play the recording of the learner.

An open system would be able to use any recording that the device can play.  This would allow learners to choose the models they practice with, or allow an instructor to choose models for their students.  The lessons don’t have to be professionally produced.  They can be created for a single student, or even for a single occasion.  I am not a lawyer, but I believe they can even use copyrighted materials.

I have created a language lab app using the Django Rest Framework and ReactJS that provides basic language lab functionality.  It runs in a web browser using responsive layout, and I have successfully tested it in Chrome and Firefox, on Windows and Android.

This openness and flexibility drastically reduces the cost of producing a lesson.  The initial code can be installed in an hour, on any server that can host Django.  The monthly cost of hosting code and media can be under $25.  Once this is set up, a media item and several exercises based on it can be added in five minutes.

This reduced cost means that a language does not have to bring in enough learners to recoup a heavy investment.  That in turn means that teachers can create lessons for every dialect of Arabic, or in fact for every dialect of English.  They can create Hawai’ian lessons for both tourists and heritage speakers.  They could even create lessons for actors to learn dialects, or master impressions of celebrities.

As a transgender person I’ve long been interested in developing a feminine voice to match my feminine visual image.  Gender differences in language include voice quality, pitch contour, rhythm and word choice – areas that can only be changed through experience.  I have used the alpha and beta versions of my app to create exercises for practicing these differences.

Another area where it helps a learner to hear a recording of their own voice is singing.  This could be used by professional singers or amateurs.  It could even be used for instrument practice.  I use it to improve my karaoke!

This week I was proud to present my work at the QueensJS meetup.  My slides from that talk contain more technical details about how to record audio through the web browser.  I’ll be pushing my source to GitHub soon. You can read more details about how to set up and use LanguageLab.  In the meantime, if you’d like to contribute, or to help with beta testing, please get in touch!

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