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Deployment of ICT-assisted applied linguistics research

A Powerful Aid to Language Learning. Crossing the language barrier with the help of computers.

Masatake Dantsuji

Masatake Dantsuji
Academic Center for Computing and Media Studies,
Kyoto University

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The poor English of Japanese people

Japanese people are not good at English. In spite of learning English for six years in junior and senior high school, and then in college, we still cannot speak it satisfactorily. The average points for TOEFL®, the global standard for English language testing, are far below those of China and Korea. Among Asian countries, Japan has sunk to the lowest rank.

One reason for the poor English ability of Japanese people is that Japanese word order differs considerably from English. In English, the subject tends to be followed by the verb, whereas in Japanese the verb usually appears at the end of the sentence. Many people in Europe can speak several languages, including English. This is because many European languages belong to the same language system, and words, phrases and word order tend to be very similar. Even among Asian languages, Chinese, for instance, word order is typically similar to that of English. That alone gives an advantage in learning English.

The second reason is the simplicity of vowels and consonants. Japanese basically has only five vowels: a i u e o. English has many intermediate tones, such as the tone between a and e. These tones are not in Japanese language vowels. English also has a greater number of consonants than Japanese. Vowels and consonants not forming part of one’s native language are difficult to pronounce and difficult to catch aurally.

Using computers to visualize pronunciation

For Japanese people, learning English thus presents numerous high hurdles. Since the Meiji era, English language education had focused mainly on learning the grammar needed for comprehension of long sentences. More recently, increasing emphasis has been put on communication ability. College admission exams are beginning to include listening tests. Previously, the only way to practice pronunciation was to repeat after pronunciation by a speaker whose native language was English. Today, efforts to climb over this hurdle are progressing with the help of computers. The system is named CALL (Computer-Assisted Language Learning).

Dantsuji Laboratory, in Kyoto University Academic Center for Computing and Media Studies, is a world pioneer in the development of CALL. Dantsuji Laboratory is a center of research on linguistics and phonology, and one of the core features in development of CALL is “voice visualization.” For example, a speaker utters the word [period] into a microphone by the mouth. The result of voice analysis then appears on the display screen, showing [ r ] has become [ l ]. This is followed by instructions on how to pronounce [ r ] correctly. The speaker again says the word [period] into the microphone. Pronunciation is now correct! In this way the system enables correct pronunciation practice of vocabulary.

The functions of CALL are of course not limited to vocabulary practice. CALL can analyze long sentences spoken into the microphone and indicate where pronunciation deviates. Moreover, a CCD camera records video of the learner’s mouth. The video can be compared immediately after on the screen with the correct mouth movement of a native English speaker.

Exercising the power of CALL in college and senior high school instruction

Students enrolling in Kyoto University may be highly capable in English reading comprehension. However, the same students are not necessarily proficient in listening comprehension or conversation. In CALL classrooms, such students are striving to acquire English language skills that will enable them to deliver presentations in overseas symposiums in the future. The CALL system is giving strong results also in learning of compulsory second foreign languages, such as German or Chinese.

The CALL system has reached the level of full practical use. It is being actively applied in English language instruction at senior high schools affiliated with the university. For example, at the start of an English language class, the 20 students each sit in front of a display for personal use, wearing headphones. The material on the screen begins with introduction of the Festival of the Ages to a foreigner. Material is purposely selected to help students learn about Japanese history at the same time as English. When the listening segment is finished, questions are asked in print on the screen and aurally through the headphones. Students type in the answers and speak the answers into their microphones. The teacher can track the work of individual students on a different monitor, and provide instruction or advice as needed. Even though 20 students are learning English, the classroom is quiet. Only voice input is heard from time to time.

Language study methods are changing fast alongside the advancement of computers.

(Shigeru Tomono December 4, 2009)