Special Issue: Computer Assisted Language Learning || Some uses of natural language interfaces in computer assisted language learning

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  • Some uses of natural language interfaces in computer assisted language learningAuthor(s): R. D. WARDSource: Instructional Science, Vol. 18, No. 1, Special Issue: Computer Assisted LanguageLearning (January 1989), pp. 45-61Published by: SpringerStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/23369235 .Accessed: 28/06/2014 17:54

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  • Instructional Science 18: 45-61 (1989) 45

    Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht Printed in the Netherlands

    Some uses of natural language interfaces in computer assisted

    language learning

    R. D. WARD

    Department of Computing Science, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen AB9 2UB, Scotland

    Abstract. It has often been proposed that computer programs simulating written conversation could be

    effective in language teaching and remediation. This paper presents a theoretical rationale for this

    approach, and reports empirical studies of its potential. Although the studies were concerned mainly with language-impaired children, their findings should have some relevance for the wider field of

    computer assisted language learning in general. Several microcomputer programs were developed to hold written dialogue with children about

    screen graphics. Studies of the software in use over several months by two different groups of lan

    guage-impaired children produced evidence to suggest that experiences associated with the software

    led to improved skills in the language covered by the programs. The studies also produced new ideas

    about the kinds of language learning activities which might be promoted by this kind of software.

    The paper concludes with suggestions about how these ideas might form the basis of future intelli

    gent tutoring systems able to prescribe a variety of language learning activities, over a range of lan

    guage materials.

    Introduction

    It has often been proposed that computer programs simulating written conversa

    tion could be effective in language teaching and remediation. Dialogue programs like Eliza (Weizenbaum, 1966), SHRDLU (Winograd, 1972) and adventure

    games, which involve the use of language as the currency of interaction rather

    than its subject matter, have been cited as suitable examples (e.g. Goldenberg, Russell and Carter, 1984).

    In practice, most developers of computer assisted language learning software

    have tended to avoid activities in which learners are required to produce open ended language. In fact Ahmad, Corbett, Rogers and Sussex (1985, page 59)

    explicitly advise against this because of problems such as form and meaning, structural variety, ellipsis, inference, world knowledge, humour, and so on, which

    despite being easily dealt with by human beings, pose tremendous difficulties for

    computers. Where natural language processing techniques have been used, it has

    been mainly for handling students' answers in tutorial question and answer dia

    logue where language remains the subject matter of exercises (e.g. Cerri and

    Breuker, 1981; Markosian and Ager, 1984). Little empirical evidence has therefore been produced to support the hypothesis

    that simulated conversation with a computer is effective in language learning in so

    far as it can be implemented. Indeed, it is not clear what kinds of learning activities

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  • 46

    might be based upon this kind of interaction. Eliza, SHRDLU and adventure

    games would all appear to promote qualitatively different kinds of activity, with

    differing degrees of problem solving, user initiative, input constraint and domain

    explicitness. The importance of such factors in computer assisted language learn

    ing remain largely unresearched. This paper reports an empirical investigation of computer simulated conversa

    tion in language remediation, and describes several remedial language activities which emerged during the investigation. Although, the paper is ostensibly con cerned with teaching English to language-impaired children who are having prob lems with early multiple-word language (a stage of development at which many deaf, dysphasic, autistic and mentally handicapped children run into difficulties), we believe that it also has relevance for the wider field of computer assisted lan

    guage learning in general.

    Human and computer based language remediation

    Theoretical justification for using natural-language dialogue programs in com

    puter assisted language remediation can be found in the literature on language acquisition and development. Research conducted during the 1970s towards

    resolving the conflict between behaviorist and innatist theories led to a now gen erally accepted cognitive interactionalist account of language development. Evidence suggests that normal language development depends upon the infant

    experiencing meaningful and purposeful linguistic interaction with others, who

    use increasingly sophisticated language, pitched at levels just ahead of the infant's

    developing skills (Bruner, 1983). Over the years a great many remedial language schemes, including computer

    based schemes, have drawn their ideas from research into the acquisition and

    development of language. Thus early computer based learning, in all topic areas,

    was strongly influenced by programmed instruction, a direct application of behav iorism. Similarly the innatist influence can be directly traced into the structuring of language teaching materials, for example in the computer based ILIAD system (Bates, Beinashowitz, Ingria and Wilson, 1981).

    However, remediation drawn from the more recent research has been almost

    wholly designed for human administration, and not, as yet, expressed in computer based form. One obvious reason for this is the difficulty of implementation. For

    example, in the 'Living Language' scheme (Locke, 1985), teachers or speech therapists are required to present remedial materials through two-way conversa tion. Even though the scheme uses a sequenced syntax programme and a develop mentally sequenced vocabulary of objects, events, properties and relationships, it is stressed that dialogue must take place within the context of real activities pos sessing inherent meaning and purpose. Similarly the Cooper, Moodley and

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  • 47

    Reynell (1978) scheme uses a kit of toys and other objects through which lan

    guage can be related to symbolic skills, for example the classification of objects by colour, type, shape, use, size, quantity and relative position. Activities are

    encouraged which make relationships between nouns (e.g. "Put the spoon in the

    box"), between nouns and verbs (e.g. "Show me the man sitting down") and

    between nouns and adjectives (e.g. "Show me the longest pencil"). In many ways, these activities resemble the mother-infant games, called for

    mats, which Bruner (1983) believes to be extremely important in normal language

    development throughout the first few years of life. Formats are games in which

    the same subset of language is used repetitively, within well-defined domains of

    meaning, on many successive occasions. For example, in picture-book reading

    games a mother might utter the four part sequence "Look! What is that? It's a rab

    bit. Yes!". Gradually, over several months, infants themselves will begin to utter

    single parts of the sequence, and their mothers will then carry on with the next

    part as if a spontaneous conversation were taking place. Formats can also change

    over time in keeping with the infant's developing skills. Bruner believes that for

    mats may be significant across the full range of language functions throughout

    infancy, early childhood and later.

    One to one interactive language teaching and remediation of this kind is very

    expensive in human resources, but it might be possible to moderate its demands

    through the use of computer programs which simulate conversation, even in a

    limited way. The essential requirements would appear to be that the software

    should promote the expressive and receptive use of a functional range of language as a natural tool for communication, rather than in exercises, whilst retaining the

    repetition and the structured, restricted domains of remedial schemes and formats.

    All of these elements can be found in a wide variety of computer games and

    educational programs, but hardly ever together. A great many drill exercises

    involve repetitive structured language at the sub-sentence, sentence and multiple sentence levels, but do not involve language as a communicative tool. Adventure

    games do involve language as a tool, but tend to restrict the user to terse impera

    tive expression such as "open door" and "take lamp". Also in adventure games,

    whilst the balance of initiative is usually with the user, most of the language tends

    to be produced by the program, often in the form of complex, figurative descrip tions unsuited to children with language difficulties, but with likely potential in

    foreign language teaching. Finally, adventure games, in common with Eliza, are

    situated mainly within a written, abstract context with little concrete meaning. The approach used in SHRDLU appears to have greater remedial potential.

    This program was able to converse in language containing many of the structures

    which language-impaired children find difficult, within a concrete, dynamic, blocks-world domain reminiscent of many remedial language materials. Also, SHRDLU's receptive and expressive language was reasonably symmetrical - in

    fact its language understanding is more sophisticated than its language generation.

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  • 48

    It did not however possess symmetry of initiative; it was a passive program which did not, for example, ask questions to be answered by the user, but this facility could easily be added.

    Working towards the requirements derived from formats above, and drawing loosely from the ideas and materials of remedial language schemes and programs like SHRDLU, we began to develop a set of microcomputer programs devised to allow users to hold written English dialogues with a computer about screen graph ics. Developing the software was an iterative process involving consultations with

    teachers and several small studies of children working with prototype programs. This led to the development of 12 microcomputer based linguistic microworlds,

    pitched at the level of early multiple-word language, containing language and

    concepts known to be found difficult by many language-impaired children. In developing the programs, our aims were realistic: no attempt was made to

    simulate Brunerian formats in all their real-life richness, and the linguistic abili

    ties of the software were limited, based upon a simple finite-state grammar. The

    aim was to provide a sufficient level of dialogue to investigate the hypothesis that

    language-impaired children can benefit from written, format-like dialogue with a

    computer. Thus the software resembled formats to the extent that the dialogue occurred in well-defined domains of meaning, was repetitive, and contained

    meaningful, purposeful, yet well-bounded language. Software capable of more

    sophisticated interaction might then be developed later, should the approach be found viable.

    One further caveat is required. Clearly, normal language learning situations, such as formats, take place through spoken, and not written language. However,

    this turns out to be a far less serious difficulty than it at first appears. Some

    language-impaired children, especially those with impaired hearing or auditory processing problems, find language quite accessible in its written form. Also,

    although written language is not usually interactive, written dialogue with a com

    puter is, and therefore assumes some of the qualities of spoken language such as

    immediacy of feedback. At the same time, written dialogue with a computer may retain a pace of interaction that leaves language open to inspection, allowing time for reflection in a way that speech never can.

    Description of the software

    The requirements of the software, as defined above, were that it should promote expressive and receptive use of language as a vehicle for meaningful and purpose ful communication between computer and user, whilst retaining the elements of structure and repetition. Through trial and error, and through observations of pro totypes in use by both handicapped and normal children, several SHRDLU-like

    microcomputer programmes were devised to allow children to exchange limited, written English dialogue with a computer.

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  • 49

    04 Your turn. >Take away three yellow diamond

    I do not understand.

    >Take away three yellow diamonds.

    There are too few yellow diamonds.

    KEY

    yellow

    green

    blue

    Figure 1. Screen layout of "Shapes"

    The subject of dialogue was screen graphics, and each program presented a dif ferent graphics environment. One of the simplest programs was concerned with

    the relative positions of just two objects, a square and a cross, in which the square could be over, under, to the left of, or to the right of the cross. Another simple program displayed three objects, a triangle, a square and a diamond, which could be coloured red, blue or green independently. These programs had vocabularies of around 10 words or phrases, allowing around 40 "acceptable" sentences to be

    constructed by the user. Other programs possessed more complex screen environ

    ments and greater vocabularies. One of them, which held a dialogue...

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