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Technology for Language Learning
TRADOC Daily News - With a pressing demand for personnel able to communicate and interact in a culturally appropriate way with people around the world, the U.S. military is becoming a leader in using adaptive, computer-based systems for foreign language instruction.

Together with easy online access, techniques such as virtual role playing and customized, role-based scenarios are helping service members learn new languages quicker and, perhaps equally important, retain their abilities over time and changes of station. One company is even experimenting with talking robots, although not yet for the military.

To be sure, the military has long recognized the importance of foreign language capabilities, with the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center serving as the premier language provider to the Department of Defense, not only for resident instruction but also for online training materials.

The wide range of military needs for language abilities—not only for tongues from every corner of the world but also for different types of job specialties—is spurring technological innovation.

“Language skills have been a military interest for several purposes,” observed Lewis Johnson, president and CEO of language technology provider Alelo. “The military recognizes that language skills are important for certain military jobs, such as linguist/signals specialists. But they are also focusing on task-based curricula aimed at people who are going to deploy overseas. It’s related to a general area that we see in language learning, which is language for specific purposes.

“This is something that the military, particularly special forces, puts heavy emphasis on. For example, the Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, N.C., has had an ongoing language training program. They’ve been very interested in technologies that can support language learning by providing more training opportunities, as well as remote learning,” Johnson said, adding, “There is an ongoing recognition that this is a critical area where training investment needs to occur.”

“The problem is enormous,” said Michael Quinlan, CEO of Transparent Language, which supports language instruction available to all federal employees through DoD’s Joint Language University (JLU). “It is clear to everyone that the lack of language and culture training in a military that is working around the world creates risk and denies us opportunities. Language is one of the few areas in which Americans, including the military, are less capable than both our friends and enemies.

“We need more language capability for our military and intelligence operations to be successful. But language is so expensive and time-consuming to train. The only solution is to find a way to train faster and more reliably, and not fall off in your skills when you are doing something else. People realize that technology has to change the metrics of language training in terms of time, cost and where it can happen,” Quinlan said.

Unique Needs

Although computerized language programs have become popular in the consumer market in recent years, those working with military and intelligence customers say different types of curricula and methods are needed for their unique needs.

“The software you may hear about for helping consumers learn a language is completely irrelevant to the communities we deal with. Our communities are required to have language capability for professional purposes,” said Quinlan. “So how do they train faster, more reliably and visibly to their administration, and how do they do it for all the languages of interest to the government, and in particular for all of the domains and curricula? People need to excel at the course of study that they are in.

“There are 20 distinct Arabic curricula commonly used around the military. The people we deal with need to excel at that curriculum in that program and then sustain it effectively through the course of their career,” he continued.

Military needs in this area have three unique aspects, Johnson explained. “There is a need for rapid training. Schools have the luxury of time, but military members have a lot of things they need to learn, so it’s a question of how quickly people can be brought up to speed in a particular area.

“They also need task-oriented training,” he continued. “How well can the trainee apply their language skills in a certain type of task or mission? They’re also interested in general proficiency, but the task orientation is key. Finally, there is language sustainment, which is a major concern. Frequently, people will go to language school, but then something will come up and there is a gap before they deploy.”

The simulations and other advantaged technologies used by companies like Alelo and Transparent Language are well-suited to these military imperatives, as well as to the need to monitor each student’s progress.

“In terms of advanced technologies, the simulation-based approaches are very helpful for rapid and task-oriented training, as well as sustainment,” said Johnson. “By putting someone in a simulation, we can tell pretty quickly whether they are up to speed or are getting rusty. When we couple that with personalized courses of instruction, you can really get a powerful training capability that is focused on learner needs.

“For example, we are currently working on a project where we put trainees in a virtual role play, see where they get stuck or take too long to respond, and then use that information to dynamically select a set of review lesson materials for the trainee. Then we can reassess them and see if they have been able to recover those skills,” he added.

Role Playing

Virtual role-play technology is a key component of Alelo’s language and interpersonal skills training programs. It is a game-based technology in which learners are put in a situation where they have to use their language skills to communicate with an artificially intelligent role player.

“It’s particularly effective in the language learning area because we incorporate speech-understanding technology, so the virtual characters can understand what the learner says and respond,” Johnson explained. “We have dialogue technology for virtual role play—specialized speech recognition that we teach to understand language learners, as opposed to native speakers.”

Alelo integrates the technology with other types of learning activities, such as online courses and immersive training. For example, the company offers a plugin for the Army’s flagship training environment, Virtual Battlespace (VBS), called VRP Mil, which makes it possible to populate a VBS world with virtual role players, so trainees can employ their language skills as part of carrying out a military mission. “This is unique and addresses what we see as a military need to enable trainees to apply their language skills as part of simulated missions,” Johnson said.

Alelo is currently experimenting with lifelike robots as a language learning technique at a school in Virginia, and sees interest in such capabilities in mixed live, virtual, constructive training for the military. For example, he noted, a training range could have pop-ups representing people whom trainees would talk and interact with as in a real environment.

“The general theme we have been concerned with is how we can integrate language training better into the way the military trains. It’s not something you do off in the schoolhouse, but part of the overall training and readiness activities that units engage in before deployment,” Johnson said.

As they go through these activities, the learners are constantly being assessed as to their mastery of different communicative competencies, and Alelo is using that information to provide tailored programs of instruction that address those competencies. “We find this to be particularly useful in providing refresher training. A big problem in the military, which school education does not look at much, is how to help people retain skills over time. You don’t repeat the language class they had, but instead provide them with tailored activities that focus on the particular competencies that they are starting to lose,” he added.

Declarative Acceleration

The prominence of Transparent Language’s core product, the CL-150 Technology Matrix for Critical Languages, got a boost last summer when it was announced that all federal employees and programs had free access to it through the JLU. Previously, it had been licensed only for language-intensive agencies such as the Defense Language Institute and Special Operations Command.

The CL-150 offers a variety of content and capabilities in over 120 languages. Material is oriented to both general proficiency and dozens of specialized government purposes, such as humanitarian relief. It offers a broad set of resources for language learners, instructors and program administrators.

The program incorporates the concept of declarative acceleration, which Quinlan described as allowing students to be assigned to learn words, phrases and short sentences associated with a lesson that a unit is about to study, and then using the computer to deliver mastery of that lexicon.

“We have computers do what they do well, which is to drive mastery of the lexical stuff needed for the lesson. Then we deliver students to a classroom, where all that lexicon and prior lexicon they learned is exercised by communicative and task-based and peer-based activities. Students who go through a methodology like this know more lexical material, which is vital to language proficiency, but their skill training is also stronger,” Quinlan said, adding, “We think that is the best way to learn a language using technology.”

Transparent Language works closely with language professionals in the military, intelligence and other communities with language requirements for acquisition, sustainment and enhancement, according to Matthew Carr, the company’s director of defense initiatives.

“Our technology is oriented toward those communities. It is the infrastructure that supports interaction between instructors and students in the classroom, and the students after graduation, to sustain and enhance their skills. We spend most of our time doing training or orientation with the instructor community, which includes thousands of people and scores of languages. The more the instructors understand how to use our tools, the better they adopt them in the classroom,” Carr said.

That environment is likely to encourage further innovation, he added. “The long trend is toward rapid improvement. When I look at the government language space as an ecosystem, it is a perfect incubator for coming up with emerging best practices.

“Anybody who deploys has a language requirement. We know what those requirements are in terms of outcomes. The traditional methodologies for developing proficiency take too long. There are thousands of people who are experts in this area who are constantly looking at this problem. A lot of best practices are being developed in this ecosystem because there is such an extreme need for it.”

Quinlan also sees a bright future for language instruction technology.

“In the areas where people need language for professional purposes, we are getting to the point where you will be able to do that learning as quickly as your brain can absorb language,” he predicted. “There is a minimum time for learning a language because you have to change the connections in your brain. But wherever you are and whatever language you need to learn, technology like ours is going to deliver the memorized information you need, as well as the collaborative experiences with instructors and peers that you need. You will be able to optimally put that together to build your language capability as fast as you are capable of doing it. In addition, the people who are telling you to do that are able to see that you are doing it successfully. That’s a transformational change.”

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