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Language Lesson

A Digital Tool for Practicing Foreign Language

Carleton, St. Olaf, and Macalester seek a FaCE grant to advance the development of a digital tool called “Language Lesson” (LL), by which language instructors can create sequenced lessons that include content and questions such as multiple choice, short answer, and embedded answers (Cloze questions).

Language Lesson’s key feature allows students to respond to prompts via recordings that the instructor can verbally annotate with corrective feedback – a groundbreaking feature that is valuable in learning to both produce and recognize spoken language.  All language learners struggle with pronunciation, but learners face particular challenges when studying languages containing suprasegmental components such as tone or pitch not featured in their native language.

LL thus offers an especially powerful means of teaching, learning, and assessing via “elicited imitation.”  With Language Lesson, we intend to explore the effectiveness of targeted feedback through technology and investigate technology’s role in enhancing students’ spoken language acquisition.  With plans now in place to develop key features of LL and to work towards releasing the application, the time is right for a large and diverse team of language instructors and technical experts to convene to guide and test development and to foster its wider adoption.


This project has two dovetailing goals:

  1. to develop and launch the Language Lesson application itself (conducted by the colleges, with assistance from a contractor) and
  2. to stage a workshop at which language faculty at ACM institutions can learn about Language Lesson and adopt it in their own courses. Both project goals match the FaCE program goals of introducing and sharing high-­impact curricula and pedagogies and effectively utilizing technology.

Having evolved continuously since its inception in 2010 as a custom Moodle module, Language Lesson was recently rewritten as a stand­alone program that can integrate with any current learning management system (including Moodle, widely used across the ACM) through a modern web browser.  Additional features are now feasible, such as pitch visualization.

Language Lesson currently has a rudimentary pitch detection feature that allows students to see a visual representation of the pitches produced in their own recordings.  By improving this feature so that the application superimposes the student’s pitch line over the model pitch line, students will be able to see how their own pronunciation varies from the model.

While this is especially valuable for teaching of Chinese, this feature could help students acquire greater control in any language requiring careful attention to intonation or pitch.  In addition to having students work on “listen & repeat” exercises in Language Lesson, we aim to develop evaluative features, grounded in the “Natural Language Processing” domain of computer science and artificial intelligence, that could be used in language placement and proficiency assessments.

Though language learning has long involved technological tools – foreign-language learning at American liberal arts colleges effectively utilizes tools ranging from audio and video tape recordings to YouTube and digital textbooks – this project seizes on the opportunity to ground the collective development of the Language Lesson application in concrete classroom practices at liberal arts colleges. We expect to see reciprocal benefits of using this new tool to refine existing pedagogies and of using current pedagogies to shape the new tool.


The project team would first deploy Language Lesson in several Chinese and Japanese courses at Macalester, St. Olaf, and Carleton in the colleges’ spring 2019 terms.  Following this test of the tool, the team will meet in Northfield to discuss the tool, to learn about relevant research in explicit pronunciation and speaking exercises, and to prioritize features and fixes for the contractor to deliver, ensuring that the tool delivers the types of exercises most useful in each of our language curricula.

Based on discussions that have already occurred, the contractor’s work is likely to center on the development of features that allow faculty to more effectively use pitch visualization tools by which the application lays a contour line depicting a student’s own spoken pitch over the pitch of a model recording.  This visual feedback complements listening to one’s own or the model recordings and the added auditory feedback that the instructor can provide through language lesson.

The contractor will work on these improvements during summer 2019, in close cooperation with project leaders.  By fall 2019, the improved application will be ready for use, and project participants will deploy it in their fall 2019 courses, assisted wherever needed by Carly Born and other academic technologists.  Following the term, the team will meet at a follow-up workshop to discuss the improved application’s value (especially the use of pitch visualization), share best practices (including shared and shareable “listen & repeat” exercises), and learn about the results of the early evaluation of the tool’s value.

Projected timeline:

Spring 2019

Preliminary deployment in courses:
Carly Born makes visits to each campus to study use

Early summer 2019 (Northfield)

Introductory workshop:
Discussing lessons learned from the spring-term test
Begin hands-on development of tools/modules/etc.
Prioritize features and fixes for the contractor

Summer-fall 2019

Code development:
Contractor programmer works on application
Likely foci of activity: pitch line display and feedback via sound files

Fall 2019

Full deployment in courses:
Evaluation of classroom application
Carly Born makes visits to each campus to study use

Winter 2019-2020 (Macalester)

Follow-up workshop:
Discussion of value of the application and best classroom practices
Results of early evaluation

January 2020
Project End

October 2020 or 2021

Possible dissemination workshop

Dissemination Strategies

Carleton intends first to make Language Lesson available to the project team schools through access granted to the Carleton-hosted system – an easier path for both adoption and maintenance of the application.  The application’s flexibility and user­-friendliness will make possible its adoption by those teaching a variety of languages and using a range of resources and methods.

Language Lesson is designed specifically to integrate smoothly with learning management systems, such as Moodle, and could also be configured to be accessed through a Google login.  However, since Carleton cannot directly support all users of the application, the project team will stage a workshop for prospective adopters of the application.

This workshop will be hosted at Carleton and open to faculty and staff (such as language department staff and academic technologists); to manage costs, we expect to target faculty and staff at the nearest ACM schools: St. Olaf, Macalester, Luther, and Grinnell.  A combination of live­-streaming/recording and online resources may make remote participation possible as well.

To achieve the goal of facilitating the adoption of the application in language classrooms, the workshop will provide participants with sample lessons and assignments, use cases, and other materials, as well as a small network of users to consult.  We feel, finally, that Language Lesson and the wider space it shares with other language-learning tools may well be a good topic of a future ACM FaCE conference, possibly in 2020 or 2021, after further development of the application.

Outcomes and Significance

The main outcome of the proposed project is the development and wide rollout of the Language Lesson application, which will be assessed by comparing the application’s functionality at the end of the grant period to the features that have already been identified as key.  Carleton intends to realize all of these features, but recognizes that some features (e.g. integrated pitch detection and comparison) are more critical than others (e.g. compatibility with mobile devices), and would thus prioritize “must” features over “should” features so as to launch an application of value to language instructors and learners.

Born and the team of language instructors will set these priorities, balancing pedagogical needs and wishes with technical possibilities.  Born and technical lead Andrew Wilson will assign these tasks to the contractor, Sglodion Cyf, a firm which has already donated considerable work on the application.  Wilson will then supervise a small team of student programmers who will adapt the contractor’s code to the academic contexts (e.g., Moodle integration), allowing Born and the language faculty to iteratively test and improve the application in introductory and intermediate language courses.

Born has deep experience and expertise in working with language faculty on digital tools like LL, and will serve as a bridge between the faculty users, technical lead Andrew Wilson, and the contractor.  A secondary outcome of this project is the dissemination of the application to language faculty at other ACM institutions through a workshop to be held at Carleton by project members, described below.

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