An Interactive Model for Learning a Foreign Language: Japanese katakana - Page 1 of 2


1. Introduction | 2. Background | 3. Language Learning | 4. Interface Design Issues
5. Representational and Design Features | 6. Implementation | 7. Conclusions
8. References

1. Introduction

This document describes the development of a prototype interactive aid for learning Japanese katakana. In particular the role of representation in designing for interactivity is discussed.

Katakana is the Japanese script used for writing words of foreign (often English) origin such as computer, pizza and beer.

The learning aid is aimed at beginner level native English speakers, and is intended as a survival guide for the casual visitor to Japan to enable them to read a substantial proportion of restaurant menu items and to locate hotels etc.

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2. Background

As a former EFL (English as a foreign language) teacher I am interested in exploring the potential of new technology as an educational tool, particularly within the field of language learning. I believe that, when applied effectively, multimedia and the Internet can overcome a number of disadvantages encountered in traditional learning methods and environments.

Research has shown that people remember 20 percent of what they see, 30 percent of what they hear and 50 percent of what they see and hear. However they remember 80 percent of what they see, hear and interact with [Calleen Coorough].

A Chinese proverb makes the same point even more succinctly: “Tell me and I will forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I will understand.”

The advantages of computer-based learning are:

  • Learners can choose to study what they want, when they want, where they want.
  • Learning is available to a much wider potential audience than for traditional methods.
  • The learner is in control. They are able to repeat, skip and/or re-order topics to suit their own interests and needs.
  • Cyberspace offers the potential of virtual classrooms in which students from around the globe may receive tuition from those most suitably qualified. Geographic distance is no longer an obstacle to effective communication.

A number of web sites already offer resources for learners of Japanese including Japanese-online, Teach Yourself Japanese, Japanese Lessons: Katakana, Japanese for Busy People.

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3. Language Learning

The process of language learning may be divided into three stages, each of which should be represented in any computer based learning package:

  • Presentation; the learner absorbs new vocabulary and structures
  • Practice; the learner consolidates newly acquired language by using it in a highly controlled way e.g. drills
  • Production; the learner combines newly acquired language with all their existing knowledge and uses it in an authentic or simulated authentic fashion e.g. role play, debate.

Language ability requires the mastery of four skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing. Due to time and resource constraints this prototype supports only the passive components of listening and reading; however it should be noted that developments in the field of artificial intelligence may make user-independent speech recognition and natural language parsing possible in the near future. Teleconferencing technology already allows virtual classrooms in which language students can converse with remotely based native speaker teachers.

Language learning and cultural understanding are inextricably linked since language is essentially a representation of the culture from which it originated. This prototype therefore uses Japanese culture as a vehicle for presenting its educational content. Since users of such a product are likely to be planning a visit to Japan, or at the very least wish to communicate with Japanese people, discussions of various facets of Japanese life interspersed with the linguistic material would be a welcome addition.

Most contemporary thought on language learning favours the direct method, in which only the target language is used during learning sessions. Such an approach was used successfully to rapidly train U.S. army personnel to converse in a variety of languages during World War II. It is also the methodology behind major international language schools such as Berlitz [History of Approaches to FLT].

The prototype uses little or no English in its learning sections. Instead, ostensive definition is used to introduce new concepts. As well as keeping with current practice this approach is adopted out of recognition that Romaji provides a potentially confusing approximation of the underlying phonetic system, e.g. the symbol commonly written “ki” rhymes with “see” (not “pie”), there are no distinct “l” or “r” sounds in Japanese. Since the product is aimed at English speaking users some pre-lesson explanation (on how to use the application) and cultural background is provided in English.

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4. Interface Design Issues

As society becomes increasingly reliant on information technology the design of the human-computer interface has never been so crucial. Too often applications and web-sites offering valuable content and functionality remain under-exploited because most users cannot interact with them effectively. Too often applications and websites appear as a victory of style over substance because designers have been more concerned with trying to incorporate every feature available to them rather than considering the needs of the user.

Don Norman; professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego and a former executive at Apple Computer and Hewlett Packard; is a prolific writer on human-centered design. Norman defines human-centered product development as “a process of product development that starts with users and their needs rather than with technology. The goal is a technology that serves the user, where the technology fits the task and the complexity is that of the task, not of the tool” [The Invisible Computer]. Norman’s naturalness principle states “Experiential cognition is aided when the properties of the representation match the properties of the thing being represented” [Things That Make Us Smart].

The best interfaces are those which go unnoticed. Elsewhere Norman argues that computer interfaces should be designed so that the user interacts more with the task and less with the machine. Such interfaces "blend with the task", and "make tools invisible" so that "the technology is subservient to that goal" [The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design].

The importance of beta-testing a product such as that presented here with a group of target users cannot be over-emphasized. Computer specialists are the worst possible people to test products aimed at those without similar expertise, since the specialists’ prior knowledge enables them to discover features that may elude another audience.

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All information correct and links valid at time of writing, January 2001

© ( 2005