How e-books could revolutionize language-learning

[This article also appears in a slightly edited form as a TeleRead entry]

Ever tried learning a foreign language? Noticed how the books you could read were often boring, and the books you wanted to read were just that bit too hard to understand? Wished, you could have a quick translation of a complex passage or precise meaning of the word from the spread of twenty that dictionary entry offers?

With paper books, you are pretty much stuck. On the other hand, e-books – with the right combination of software and open formats – may soon prove to be just the solution to keep you reading and learning in the new language. And, with the language learning market attracting billions of dollars, you can be sure somebody will find a way to make the best of the possibilities offered by e-books.

So, what are the advantages e-books can bring to language learning? Let’s start from what is achievable today and progress to the possibilities further down the line.

  1. Parallel texts – Intermediate and advanced readers appreciate being able to read original text, while still having a good translation available a glance away. Paper books like this do exist, but just a few, due to a high cost of production and distributed target market.For e-books, the ever decreasing price of the storage makes the size of the download irrelevant – slashing the cost of physical production. And with electronic distribution, the market reach is as wide as the internet itself.If you still have doubts, this model is already being exploited extremely well in another multi-lingual market – bible study. There are many bible translations and scholars like to be able to read them side by side to understand the deep meaning better. A number of free eReaders exist to make this task easier, including a portable one for the PocketPC.
  2. Dictionary bundling – Continuing with the theme of practically unlimited storage, we can easily imagine a book being bundled with a look-up dictionary that is capable of prividing a translation of every word and expression in the text.This is only possible with specially adapted texts at the moment and, even then, only some words and basic phrases are provided.With e-books, it would be possible to embed invisible hints that will show the specific meaning of the phrase in the exact context of the paragraph.Again, something similar to this has been done for Bible study with Strong’s numbers, but, with good dictionaries, the concept can be extended to any text. Many of the current e-book readers allow dictionary lookups, so the basic functionality is already available.
  3. Grammar learning through real examples – Most of the texts provided for learning grammar are boring and feel artificial. How about being able to choose your own text and have the reader software automatically highlight the structures you are learning this week, whether it is colour names, present perfect constructions or conjugations of the irregular verb ‘to be’? With the material being presented completely in context, the rules will be easier to understand and recall. And even if you are rereading the last week’s passage, you are learning something new, as the highlighted parts will change.
  4. Automatic text leveling – If we can bundle additional text that does not show up in the book normally, why can’t we have the same text several times with different levels of reading difficulties. That way, a book may contain adapted/simplified text as well as an original one.Then, any number of combinations might be used, depending on whether the reader is connected to other systems or not.For example, if the book is delivered as serialised chapters from a website, there might be grading tests in between chapters with the simplification level of the next chapter adjusted automatically based on the test results. Or it could be a Choose Your Own Adventure type of book, where the language level of the ‘next’ page depends on the language introduced in pages seen before.This is not something that can be done economically at all for printed books, since they are frozen at the time of publishing, but with e-books the material can be reused in smaller chunks across multiple learners and therefore will allow for a viable publishing model. Especially, if we can throw the increasingly ubiquitous broadband wireless connection into the mix with pages arriving in near-real-time directly to the reader device.
  5. Text generation – If a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ format is suitable for language learning, why not a computer generated book all together. It is nearly possible with current technologies to create a book as a concept graph and have the computer generate the actual text. With a bit more design, the generated text will purposefully incorporate new words and grammatical structures to match the learner’s progression in the learning plan. It would even be possible to dynamically generate grammatical explanations, since the text-creation system has to figure it all out anyway to generate the sentences. Again, combined with feedback from external or on-device tests and near-real-time downloads, the text can always be just ahead of the learner’s own language knowledge.
  6. Finally, with eBooks’ texts being available in open electronic formats, it would possible to use them to generate additional contexts (such as geographic mapping) or tests based on the exact texts the learner was reading for his or her own pleasure.

There are many more possible uses of texts available in e-book rather than print form. I have just scratched the surface of what is possible.

Nor have I discussed technical details that would make each of these items really tick. Perhaps I will in a future post, if there is enough interest (vote in the comments).

For those curious now, I will just mention two concepts. They are Computational Linguistics and CALL/ATALL. Follow the directions these fields of study point out and your thinking adventures will be more wondrous than those of Alice.