Real Language - authentic learning

Modern corpus technologies for foreign language classes

In correspondence with a communicative approach to foreign language learning, which had its beginnings in the early 1970s and has been prevalent ever since, the demand for authenticity and thus the need for access to real language has increased. From a language teaching perspective, this fact is anything but a novelty. Yet, the situation has changed profoundly insofar as the internet and the processing capacities of personal computers offer new opportunities for language teaching.  

SACODEYL stands for “System Aided Compilation and Open Distribution of European Youth Language” and is a research and development project funded by the European Commission. It exploits the potential of computer- and web-based learning to expose pupils to language learning contents and activities that are directly relevant and therefore authentic to them. As opposed to engaging in vocabulary and grammar drilling exercises by means of specially designed language learning tasks, foreign language learners ought to be given the opportunity to develop their communicative competence in communicative contexts that are real and relevant to them. To achieve this objective, foreign language learning should be embedded into cultural and subject-related communicative situations that the learners want to prepare for linguistically.

The basic materials for the Sacodeyl approach are digital language corpora, which can be used freely for non-commercial purposes. The Steinbeis transfer centre Language Learning Media uses its website to offer free access as well as advisory service to customers who are interested in making use of Sacodeyl’s potential for creating and pedagogically implementing their own corpora.

The Sacodeyl language corpora are each constituted by video-recorded interviews with youths between 13 and 18 from seven European countries, namely Germany, England, France, Italy, Lithuania, Romania and Spain. The interviews are approximately ten minutes long. The youths talk about interests and hobbies, holidays, school and education as well as future private and vocational ambitions; they also state their opinions on various discussion topics. These interviews were transcribed orthographically and subsequently divided into shorter sections. Afterwards, these sections were individu- ally annotated by means of a pedagogically motivated tool specifically developed in the Sacodeyl project. The different annotation categories can be flexibly defined by the teacher/user in accordance with the relevant language learning needs. Among other areas, they can concern information about the specific thematic direction, pedagogically relevant grammar structures as well as a classification of the required language competence according to the criteria of the Common European Framework (CEF).

From a technical point of view, the annotating process can be performed without any difficulty. The relevant annotation category must simply be dragged to the section of the interview that the chosen category applies to. In addition, it is possible to attach further resources to interview sections by means of a dynamic resource sheet. The addresses of these resources are stored in a virtual resource pool. In Sacodeyl, this resource function is made use of in order to give teachers and learners access to video, audio and image files that relate the specific interview. Furthermore, this function is intended to integrate multimedia language learning modules, which are created with the authoring tool Telos Language Partner and pick up on the language learning opportunities that the relevant section offers. The focus can be on listening comprehension, grammar acquisition and the expansion of the learners’ vocabulary. It is thus feasible to create pedagogically enriched web-based language corpora, which offer a rich reservoir of real language for relevant language learning exercises.

Pedagogic utilisation of these reservoirs is supported by a web-based search tool, which was also developed in the course of the Sacodeyl project. By using this software, teachers as well as learners can systematically search for interview sections and the related learning materials. In the browse mode, users can start by getting an overview of all the interviews the corpus contains. As a possible next step, the corresponding transcript or the video can be accessed. The search mode offers differentiated search processes, in which words and word groups can be connected with thematic and linguistic categories.

It is thus possible to find interview sections that deal with specific topics and at the same time contain certain grammatical structures as well as words that are thematically relevant. Additionally, the website addresses of the video and audio files or the multimedia-based language learning modules which are attached to an interview section through the resource sheet are accessible; they can thus be made available for embedding into various learning contexts.

The interviews and all related resources can be used very effectively in the course rooms of the e-Learning platform Moodle. Without undue effort, teachers can create motivating learning units that are linked to selected interview sections, video and audio clips as well as learning modules. Moreover, communicative model exercises support utilisation of the interview materials in Moodle. These exercises make use of communicative and collaborative activities like chat, forum and wiki. In this connection and guided by specific instructions, learners can use the Sacodeyl search tool themselves to explore certain topics or engage in lexical and grammar-oriented research.

This method of corpus-based language learning offers new opportunities for pedagogically accessing and exploring real language with the express purpose of supporting authentic and motivating language learning activities. It can easily be transferred to other languages, language varieties, subject areas and target groups. This transfer may be achieved with even more ease in collaborative teacher networks.  

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