Thursday, July 08, 2004

Learning Language in Virtual Immersive Environments

Learning a language is, at least for an adult, hard. The best thing, they say, is to immerse yourself in the langauge, ideally by hearing it and speaking it everyday amongst native speakers. But if this option isn't available, the closer you can get to it, the better. The New York Times reports (reg req'd) that the University of Southern California is developing a virtual approximation of such immersive environments.

The software has been designed to teach arabic to soldiers, and its basic details are as follows. The game takes place in a realistic environment, modeled on an actual Lebanese village. The player can move their character around the village, and interact with computer controlled villagers by speaking through a microphone. The computing system uses AI to interpret the player's vocal input and determine the villager's reaction. The player also has to control their character's body langauge, such as using an appropriate gesture when ending a conversation. The player is put in situations such as "establishing a rapport with the people you meet and finding out where the headman lives".

The article doesn't go into exactly how these details are executed, nor does it give any clear screenshots, but the concept is promising. Apparently versions of the system for other languages are planned (the next likely candidates are Dari, a major language in Afghanistan, and some Indonesian language), and the researchers behind it also see the potential for using similar immersive environments to teach other types of tasks - it should be interesting to see what comes from this.

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