September 23rd, 2013
If you’d like to give it a spin, install it on your smartphone and select “Chinese, Mandarin” in the app’s setup screen.
This release is a milestone for us in two ways:
- It’s our first release for the iPhone.
- Language Mentor is now effectively “done”. In other words, it’s reached a stage where it does everything it’s designed to do with no obvious gaps. Yes, there will be tweaks and refinements, but we’re happy with its current state.
Our goals in creating Language Mentor have been to:
- Offer a simple app that plays “mostly audio” language lessons.
- Present lessons within a simple user interface that encourages language study and practice while doing other things – i.e. working, exercising, etc. – thus creating “free” language study time within learners’ busy lives.
- Make language learning more efficient by taking the existing “language lessons on audio CD” format and evolving it to its obvious next level – “audio-centric language lessons on your mobile device.” This makes language learning more efficient because an app can do things like displaying text, and allowing the learner to repeat chunks of audio, that a CD can’t do. Even better, Language Mentor allows the learner to suppress chunks (i.e. to tell the app “I’ve learned this chunk – you don’t need to drill me on it any more”), which allows learners to focus on the content that they haven’t learned yet.
- Offer a free and open platform. Language Mentor is open in two different senses: a) Open in the sense that anyone can create lessons for any language and publish them via Language Mentor, and b) Open in the sense that Language Mentor’s code is open source. Open source code is important in an open platform because it goes a long way towards ensuring that the platform’s creators (that’s us) won’t later decide to close the platform, or convert it to a paid product. If we were to do this, others could simply recreate the open platform by branching the project’s code.
First, we’re starting to evangelize Language Mentor to the language teaching community.
Second, we’ve started work on creating an authoring tool for Language Mentor.
It’s already possible to create lessons – in fact, it’s fairly easy. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it’s fairly easy if you possess skills such as audio editing, editing XML files, etc.
We’ve created a full set of instructions. They explain how to create lessons, simply and clearly and in detail. They’re written for people with no technical skills. Anyone can learn how to do this – really!
But we suspect that, even so, many people will be put off by the learning curve. Frankly, if you’re considering creating lessons for Language Mentor, you’ll need to invest a day or two into learning how it’s done. And then your first few lessons will go fairly slowly. Once you get past your first dozen lessons the process speeds up. How much? Well, we find that it takes us under an hour to assemble each lesson – not counting audio editing. Audio editing can take as little as a half hour if your audio’s quality is excellent, or much longer if it’s not.
We’re hoping that we can create a lesson authoring tool that will greatly simplify this process – that will eliminate much of the learning curve and make the process much faster. Our goal is to make it so simple and easy to use that it will be practical, for example, for language tutors to create weekly “one-off” lessons for individual students.
And Now, a Question For You!
If you’ve read this far there’s a good chance that you’re at least curious about Language Mentor. If you’ve gone a couple of steps further and have a) installed and explored the Language Mentor app, and b) taken a look at our instructions for creating lessons, we’d love your input. Here’s our question:
As outlined above, we’re planning to start work on a) evangelizing, and b) creating an authoring tool.
Do you think that Language Mentor as it exists now – without authoring tool – is ready to be evangelized?
In other words, what are the chances that individuals and/or organizations will be interested in creating lessons using the “manual” process outlined in our instructions?
We’re happily creating lessons using this very process, but how will others feel?
Of course, this isn’t really a yes/no question. We’ll definitely be putting some energy into getting the word out, if only to get feedback. So, allow us to restate the question: In the short term, how much of our effort should we put into letting the world know about Language Mentor? How much should we put into developing an authoring tool? Is Language Mentor ready for use – as an open platform – as-is?
If you have any thoughts on these questions we’d appreciate your input. Please leave us a comment or contact us directly via our contact form.
October 22nd, 2011
Our shiny new user forums have received their first post – chrisd has asked “where are you in the development process?”. This is a big enough question to justify a blog post – on this shiny new blog.
This update includes:
- Language Mentor Development
- Learning Module Development
- Authoring Tool Development
- Evangelizing the Language Mentor Platform
- How You Can Help
Language Mentor Development
Our Language Mentor language study tool has just been released in a public beta version for Android phones. This means that it’s finished enough to be usable and useful, but still has some wrinkles that need to be ironed out. I’m seeing a few small bugs but they’re “non-fatal”, i.e. they are either small inconveniences or can be resolved by restarting the app.
Currently Language Mentor can only be downloaded from our website. Once we’ve tested and polished a bit more – probably by the end of this year – we’ll release it on the Android App Store.
As this is Language Mentor’s first release, it is missing some non-essential features which will be implemented at some point in the future. For example:
- In a future version users will be able to select which modules they want to download. In this version, as we only have a limited number of modules available, I’ve decided that its both easier and better to simply give users the option to “download all new modules”. This will work fine until enough modules exist to make it this approach impractical.
- In a future version users will be able to enter the URLs of learning module repositories located anywhere on the web. This is a key feature – Language Mentor is designed to be an open platform that anyone can create and publish modules for – but given the fact that at present we are the only people creating modules, it isn’t needed in this version. Most of the “infrastructure” code for this is already in place so it will be easy to implement.
- In a future version, users will be able to download modules in the background while they do other things. At present our download screen asks users to wait until the downloads are finished.
- Currently, Language Mentor is “hard wired” for learning Mandarin Chinese. Once modules become available for other languages users will need to be able to select a preferred target language. Or we may take a different approach and offer a separate version for each target language, i.e. “Mandarin Chinese Language Mentor”, “English Language Mentor”, etc.
- And there will probably be a number of other features that we’ll implement in future versions. The ability to delete modules comes to mind. But one of our primary goals is to keep Language Mentor as simple as possible – so that it’s really easy to use – so we don’t envision adding a lot more features or major new functionality.
Currently Language Mentor works on Android phones. Because we created this app with Adobe Flex and Adobe AIR technologies, it should be fairly easy for us to also create an iPhone version. Look for a public release in the first quarter of 2012. And Adobe’s goal is to make it possible to release apps that are created with these technologies on many platforms. We’re hoping to be able to release versions for Blackberry, Windows phones, etc. within the next two or three years.
Learning Module Development
Our primary goal is to create a platform which others can use to publish modules – for many different languages – not to create the modules themselves. But we obviously need some modules in order to show how the platform works so we’ve been working with a few collaborators to help them create modules. At present three Mandarin Chinese learning modules have been released by Zhang Qiwei, and she, Xi Aina and Ren Huibo have a number of other modules in the pipeline. You can see a list of upcoming modules in our Learning Module Directory.
In general, we’ve found module development to be a more time-consuming process than expected. This is partly because we’ve been doing “team translation”. Team translation consists of two people, one fluent in one language, one fluent in the other, working together to create high quality translations. While our collaborators’ English level is quite high it isn’t quite at the “native speaker” level, and my Chinese skills don’t even approach that level. We spend a lot of time discussing the nuances of Chinese and English words and expressions. A person who is truly fluent in two languages could probably translate modules in a fraction of the time that this process takes us. We plan to explore the possibility of hiring such a person or persons some time soon.
Besides translation, we’ve also found that the process of writing scripts has been quite time-consuming. Surprisingly, we’ve found that once we have a finished script the process of obtaining voice recordings, editing the audio, and doing the other tasks necessary to publish a module go fairly quickly. Why has writing the scripts taken so much time?
- We want them to be fairly perfect. After all, these are demonstration modules, intended to show how modules can be created, so we want them to be fairly polished.
- We use a very specific format for our scripts, so that we can use an automated process to convert them into voice scripts for voice talent.
Authoring Tool Development
As we’ve developed modules it’s become clear that the process can be made more efficient through the development of authoring tools. We currently have a fairly simple in-house tool (which we call ScriptHelper) which a) checks script formatting, and b) converts module scripts into scripts for voice talent.
But it’s clear that we can do a lot more along these lines. I’m not going to go into detail on all the ideas that we have in this post, but we plan on making this a primary focus over the next few years. Stay tuned.
Evangelizing the Language Mentor Platform
Our primary goal is to make this platform available for others to use – as a platform. While we like creating modules, and plan to continue to do so, this is a secondary goal for us. Why is this?
Let’s step back for a moment and look at the big picture. In our world today there are immense unmet needs for language learning materials:
- The world needs language learning materials that are free.
- The world needs materials that can be studied while the student is busy doing other things.
- The world needs language learning materials for many different languages. Wikipedia estimates that there are between 3000-6000 active languages in the world today, and lists 80+ languages that have over 10 million speakers. The SIL Ethnologue lists 473 languages that are nearly extinct.
- The world needs language learning materials whose “vocabulary scope” extends far beyond what is currently available. For example, Pimsleur’s “comprehensive” courses typically teach about 500 words. While this is a great start, students need to learn 2000 or more words in order to attain even basic proficiency.
We believe that Language Mentor can provide one important piece of the solution to this unmet demand – simple, free, software that evolves and improves upon current CD-based and MP3-based approaches.
It is important that such software be an open platform because the task – as outlined above – is a “world sized” task requiring the contributions of many.
And it’s important that such software be open source so that contributors can have confidence that the software will continue to be available. In other words, the fact that our platform is open source provides a kind of insurance – it gives contributors the option to download its source code and tweak and maintain it if that becomes necessary.
Okay, so that’s the big picture. Let’s return to what we – The Language Collaborative – hope to accomplish over the next few years. Clearly, we can’t hope to make more than a tiny dent in the above outlined “world needs” – in fact, it would be silly for us to try. Instead, we’ll continue to produce a limited number of learning modules for one or two languages (Mandarin Chinese now, English soon). These modules will help some learners to learn language, but more importantly they will serve as models that demonstrate the simplicity and usefulness of the Language Mentor approach.
We’ll also be doing our best to get the word out. How will we do this? We haven’t fully figured this out yet. Do you, dear reader, have any suggestions to offer? The problem isn’t a lack of ideas – the problem is that there are so many possible avenues, and we need to identify which ones will be most effective. We need to find communities of interest where word of mouth will come into play. We need to find organizations that are interested in using our free tool rather than creating something similar from scratch. And we need to learn how to communicate effectively with these communities and organizations.
How You Can Help
If you think that Language Mentor is a worthwhile approach, here are some ways that you can help:
- At present, we need beta testers. If you are a student of Mandarin Chinese and own an Android phone please give Language Mentor a try and send us your feedback.
- Going forward, we’ll be focusing more and more on evangelizing our platform. If you have suggestions re how we can do this we’d love to hear them. And, of course, if you might be interested in creating learning modules for Language Mentor please be in touch – we’re eager to help.