Grassroots language technology: Wiktor Jakubczyc, vocab.today

It’s been a while since the last post on teachers doing it for themselves technology wise. Do check those out if you have not or need a reminder. The teacher/developer who kindly answered questions for this post, Wiktor Jakubczyc, I stumbled across when looking for a github source on vocabulary profilers. And what a find his github pages are.

I think there are good reasons for teaching and education to have a default “inertia” regarding “innovation” (which Wiktor laments in one of his responses) but I won’t discuss this here. Maybe readers may prod me on this in the comments? 😁 I would like to refer to a (pdf) point I’ve made before – that there is a middle ground for teachers to explore regarding grassroots technology.

Anyway enough of my rambling here’s Wiktor and there is a marvelous bonus at the end for all you CALL geeks:

1. Can you explain your background a little?

I’m an English teacher with over 10 years of experience and an IT freelancer. I’ve taught English all over Europe, in London, Moscow, Warsaw, Bratislava, Sevilla and Wrocław, my home town in Poland. Since I was a kid I’ve loved computers – and that was in the ’80s when an Atari couldn’t really do very much. I passionately want teachers to make the most of digital technologies.

2. What was the first tool you designed for learning languages?

The first tool I designed to help students learn English was a dictionary lookup program for Windows, way back in 2007. Back then, there were good dictionaries you could get for your computer, but I wanted to be able to look up a word in many dictionaries at once. That option simply didn’t exist, so I created The Ultimate Dictionary (http://creative.sourceforge.net) . I got great feedback from my students, fellow teachers and friends – they still use it, and they love it! It’s a very rewarding feeling to create something of value for other people, and to be able to give it to them for free.

A few years later, I discovered that another developer, Konstantin Isakov, had the same idea and made an even better dictionary application – GoldenDict. I used his source code as the base for a redesign of my dictionary, now called Nomad Dictionary. Nomad Dictionary now has Windows, Android and MacOS editions, all available to download at http://dictionaries.sf.net.

My second project was a Half a Crossword creator. Half a crossword is a type of communicative activity for ESL classrooms which emphasizes speaking and vocabulary, two key skills in speaking a language. Students get half a crossword each, split evenly between two students, and have to ask each other for missing information and give definitions for the words they have in their crossword. It’s a fantastic way to revise and recycle vocabulary, while practicing the much-needed skills of asking for and giving information. And students love it!

Again, no such tool existed, which is why I decided to create one. I first made a version of Half a Crossword for Windows (http://creative.sourceforge.net) because at the time Delphi was the only language I could program in. I found it immensely useful in my classes – it was a perfect activity to check how many words students knew before moving on to new material. I tried to get other teachers involved, to spread the word and encourage them to use it, but I found a lot of people were resistant. They loved the idea, but few actually decided to use it in their classrooms.

A few years later, thinking that maybe the problem was accessibility – you needed to download a program, install it, write a wordlist in word and then save it… it was a bit complicated – I decided to create an online version written in JavaScript. I posted the code for Half a Crossword Online on GitHub (https://github.com/monolithpl/half-a-crossword). Despite the fact that it wasn’t advertised anywhere, quite a few people found out about it, and two people even contributed code! Teachers I talked to also found the online version easier to use, and came to use them with their classes.

3. What do you think of as a relevant tool?

That’s a very good question, which is to say a very hard question. I think a relevant tool has to be both personally important enough for the creator to design it (especially if it’s a hobby project) at the same time good enough so that other people later also find it useful to them. It’s rare for these two things to coincide.

Another difficulty lies in the fact that the world of teaching, broadly speaking, is averse to innovation. Very few teachers care to experiment with new methodologies, paradigms or teaching tools. There’s extreme inertia. So getting teachers to change their habits and try something new is very challenging, especially when it comes to technology.

Relevant tools, in my mind, would be those that embrace the DOGME/Teaching Unplugged methodology, the Lexical Approach, personalized teaching, the explosion of mobile computing, just to name a few – all the radical new ideas that have appeared in the last 10 years in language teaching. And they would have to be loved by students, teachers and administrators alike.

4. Do you create tools for languages other than English?

I would love to, someday. I simply don’t have the time to do that now. This is a hobby, after all. The language learning tools I create are useful to my students, my colleagues and myself in learning and teaching English, which is what we do everyday. So that is the priority for now.

I hope other people around the world will find the time and be inspired to create tools for their languages. Unfortunately, there is a huge gap between the English-speaking world and the rest of the people out there when it comes to technology: just compare the size of the English Wikipedia versus editions in other languages. The same is true for language data: there are far fewer corpora, frequency wordlists, audiovisual materials etc for languages other than English. There’s lots of catching up to do.

I also think that the world needs a world language, so that we can all start to understand things not just around us, in our local environment, but on a more global level. For that, we need English, so I can understand why most of the interesting developments in language teaching are designed for English students. It’s simply the largest market and user base.

5. What tools are you working on at the moment? What do you have planned for future developments?

Right now I’m working on projects related to wordlists. I have a new version of a Vocabulary Profiler (https://github.com/monolithpl/range.web) almost ready. It’s an app that visualizes word frequency in a text, or in more practical terms tells a teacher how difficult a text is and which words are going to be most challenging for their students. Developing it was an incredible learning experience as I had to figure out how to compress large wordlists so that the app could work on mobile phones and discovered trie algorithms, which are a super clever concept of packing words into a small space. I’d like to mention the groundbreaking work of Paul Nation on teaching and researching vocabulary, especially his Range program (https://www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/about/staff/paul-nation#vocab-programs), which I tried to recreate for the modern web.

My most ambitious project to date is an extension of this work – it’s an app to highlight collocations, chunks etc. in a text called Fraze Finder (https://github.com/monolithpl/fraze-finder). It takes the concept of profiling vocabulary to the next level by analyzing multi-word elements, like phrasal verbs, which students most often struggle with. The idea is to help students and teachers notice collocations, to identify them and understand their importance in written and spoken language. The difficulty here is building a good library of these expressions and accurately finding them (with all their variations) in texts. I have lots of ideas for future projects, which I’ve tried to gather together on my personal website vocab.today (https://vocab.today/teacher). I hope one day to complete them all!

6. Are there any tools (not yours) that you yourself use for learning languages?

Over the years, I’ve tried and experimented with dozens of language learning solutions. Let me focus on three main areas:

Language Management Systems (LMSs) – these are content delivery platforms, basically, websites where teachers upload material for their classes and students do their homework, complete tests, review their progress and exchange messages with one another.

I gave Moodle a try, but it was just horrible to use for both teachers and students, and I think other people agreed with me for it seems to be fading away into a well-deserved oblivion.

Later, I tried Edmodo, which was a lot easier to use, and obviously inspired by Facebook, which was just starting to be the big thing at the time. I ran into numerous limitations using it, and finally, out of sheer frustration, just gave up. It was very pretty on the surface, but you couldn’t do much with it. And students prefered to use Facebook for their day-to-day communication, so it was difficult to make them use something else.

So today, I create Facebook groups for my students and use Google Drive, Forms and Docs to share documents and tests. It’s still not a perfect solution, but it has the advantage of being familiar to everyone and easy to use. Unlike the many solutions I’ve used before, I think these are versatile enough to do the job and are actively being developed and improved.

Flashcards – There are hundreds of apps and websites that help students learn through flashcards. I’ve tried many of them with my students, including Anki (which is a great piece of software). However, I’ve found that Quizlet is the most easy to set up and easy to use. And there’s a huge library of flashcards made by talented teachers around the world available for anyone to use. It’s quite amazing, and it’s free.

Mobile Apps – I’ve also experimented with several dozen different learning tools for mobile phones. This is a very new market, as the iPhone only came out ten years ago. There is currently much hype around apps like DuoLingo, Babbel or Memrise, but personally I found them to be quite boring. The activities are very repetitive, and apart from situations where I would be forced to use them (on a crowded train with nothing else to do), I can’t imagine myself ever using them long-term.

This is still a very experimental field, which is why I find it shocking that the three biggest apps offer just two types of activities: multiple choice or fill-in-the-gap exercises. I would love to see more variety. There’s also the fact that due to their novelty, the claims of effectiveness these apps advertise with is often greatly overstated – just see what happened to all the “brain training” apps like Lumosity which now have to pay multi-million dollar fines for lying to their customers (https://arstechnica.com/science/2016/06/billion-dollar-brain-training-industry-a-sham-nothing-but-placebo-study-suggests/). There’s definitely room for improvement.

7. Any advice for people interested in learning to design such tools?

The most important thing is to have an idea on what to create: something that would be useful for you or your students that doesn’t yet exist, a faster and better way of doing something you do every day or a radical improvement on a tool or solution you currently use.

Programming skills are secondary and you can always find people who can help you out with technical stuff on StackOverflow. I’ve met a few programmers who after completing their studies had no idea what they wanted to create. Knowing what you’d like to create is the key.

It’s much easier to get into hobby development than it was 5 or 10 years ago. GitHub makes it super easy to upload your code and create a website for your project – all for free! It’s also a great way to discover other projects, make use of ready-made components and participate in the open source community by commenting or finding bugs.

JavaScript is one of the easiest programming languages you can learn, and it’s everywhere – on PCs, Macs, iPhones and Androids. With just one language, you can design for almost any device out there – the developments on the technological front are simply amazing.

On the teaching side, I could recommend no better than Scott Thornbury’s excellent article How could SLA research inform EdTech? (https://eltjam.com/how-could-sla-research-inform-edtech) which describes the needs of language learners and offers a list of requirements that should be met in order to create a truly excellent, cutting-edge language learning tool. To my knowledge, no such tool exists. Not by a long shot. It’s a great opportunity for creative minds.

8. Anything you want to add?

Thank you for noticing my work and giving me an opportunity to speak about it. Up until now I’ve been working on my projects almost in secret. It would be amazing if this interview inspired creative young minds to design new tools for language teaching, especially in languages other than English. I hope teachers will discover new tools that will help them teach better with less effort.

Technology has so much to offer in the field of learning languages, and there’s so much innovation to come. I’m looking forward to the bold new ideas of the future. Follow my work at vocab.today or on github!

Many thanks to Wiktor for spending time answering these questions. And here is the bonus link – Wiktor is compiling classic CALL programs that you can run in your browser, how awesome is that?! I am sure Wiktor would be glad to take some suggestions of some classic gems.

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A FLAIR, VIEW of a couple of interesting language learning apps

FLAIR (Form-focused Linguistically Aware Information Retrieval) is a neat search engine that can get web texts filtered through 87 grammar items (e.g. to- infinitives, simple prepositions, copular verbs, auxiliary verbs).

The screenshot below shows results window after a search using the terms “grenfell fire”.

There are 4 areas I have marked A, B ,C and D which attracted my attention the most. There are other features which I will leave for you to explore.

A – Here you can filter the results of your search by CEFR levels. The numbers in faint grey show how many documents there are in this particular search total of 20.

B – Filter by Academic Word List, the first icon to right is to add your own wordlist.

C – The main filter of 87 grammar items. Note that some grammar items are more accurate than others.

D – You can upload you own text for FLAIR to analyze.

Another feature to highlight is that you can use the “site:” command to search within websites, nice. A paper on FLAIR 1 gives the following to try: https://www.gutenberg.org; http://www.timeforkids.com/news; http://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize; https://newsela.com; http://onestopenglish.com.

The following screenshot shows an article filtered by C1-C2 level, Academic Word List and Phrasal Verbs:

VIEW (Visual Input Enhancement of the Web) is a related tool that learners of English, German, Spanish and Russian can use to highlight web texts for articles, determiners, prepositions, gerunds, noun countability and phrasal verbs (the full set currently available only for English). In addition users can do some activities, such as clicking, multiple-choice and practice (i.e fill in a blank), to identify grammar items. The developers call VIEW an intelligent automatic workbook.

VIEW comes as browser add-on for Firefox, Chrome and Opera as well as a web app. The following screenshot shows the add-on for Firefox menu:

VIEW draws on the ideas of input enhancement as the research rationale behind its approach. 2

References:

1. Chinkina, M., & Meurers, D. (2016). Linguistically aware information retrieval: providing input enrichment for second language learners. In Proceedings of the 11th Workshop on Innovative Use of NLP for Building Educational Applications, San Diego, CA. PDF available [http://anthology.aclweb.org/W/W16/W16-0521.pdf]

 

2. Meurers, D., Ziai, R., Amaral, L., Boyd, A., Dimitrov, A., Metcalf, V., & Ott, N. (2010, June). Enhancing authentic web pages for language learners. In Proceedings of the NAACL HLT 2010 Fifth Workshop on Innovative Use of NLP for Building Educational Applications (pp. 10-18). Association for Computational Linguistics. PDF available [http://www.sfs.uni-tuebingen.de/~dm/papers/meurers-ziai-et-al-10.pdf]