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 element