Language e-Learning and Adaptive Technologies


Thus far, our brief discussion of language e-learning has focussed primarily on second language learning. But language technologies can also contribute to the learning of a first language by assisting people who, for one reason or another, have difficulty in acquiring or mastering a particular language skill or linguistic ability. Take the case of someone with a severe physical handicap, like Stephen Hawking, who suffers from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). Not only has the disease left him almost completely paralysed, but it has also deprived him of the ability to speak.(1) Since 1985, Hawking has used an electronic voice synthesizer to communicate; and that synthesizer uses a predictive text entry system which, like the ones that are now so common on our mobile phones, only requires the first few characters to auto-complete a word. For someone like Hawking, whose physical movements are extremely limited, this kind of language technology makes an enormous difference in his quality of life.  

The same kind of predictive text technology can also help people who are handicapped by various kinds of learning disabilities, e.g. students for whom writing (or spelling) poses a major challenge. One Canadian company has a developed a software package that functions much like the system that Hawking uses, combining word completion suggestions and voice synthesis; except in this case, the aim of the text-to-speech is to provide the student with auditory feedback on the sentence s/he has just drafted, making it much easier to catch both spelling and grammar errors. (“That isn’t what I meant to say!”) The program is compatible with almost any computer-based text entry system and is now in wide use in many Canadian schools.

Another Canadian firm targets children who suffer from serious mental or psychological disorders, like autism or various forms of dyslexia. Many of those with the severest form of autism find themselves imprisoned in a world of silence in which they barely speak at all. The company in question has developed a number of computer-based systems that exploit pictograms in order to make it easier for such children to communicate with others. The systems allow the children to combine pictograms corresponding to intuitively clear notions into simple sentences; and once again, there is the option of using speech synthesis in order to vocalize the sentence into English or French.

(1) Though not, thankfully, of his ability to think in marvelously innnovative ways.