Our shiny new user forums have received their first post – chrisd has asked "where are you in the development process?". This is a big enough question to justify a blog post – on this shiny new blog.
This update includes:
Language Mentor Development
Our Language Mentor language study tool has just been released in a public beta version for Android phones. This means that it's finished enough to be usable and useful, but still has some wrinkles that need to be ironed out. I'm seeing a few small bugs but they're "non-fatal", i.e. they are either small inconveniences or can be resolved by restarting the app.
Currently Language Mentor can only be downloaded from our website. Once we've tested and polished a bit more – probably by the end of this year – we'll release it on the Android App Store.
As this is Language Mentor's first release, it is missing some non-essential features which will be implemented at some point in the future. For example:
Currently Language Mentor works on Android phones. Because we created this app with Adobe Flex and Adobe AIR technologies, it should be fairly easy for us to also create an iPhone version. Look for a public release in the first quarter of 2012. And Adobe's goal is to make it possible to release apps that are created with these technologies on many platforms. We're hoping to be able to release versions for Blackberry, Windows phones, etc. within the next two or three years.
Our primary goal is to create a platform which others can use to publish lessons – for many different languages – not to create the lessons themselves. But we obviously need some lessons in order to show how the platform works so we've been working with a few collaborators to help them create lessons. At present three Mandarin Chinese lessons have been released by Zhang Qiwei, and she, Xi Aina and Ren Huibo have a number of other lessons in the pipeline.
In general, we've found lesson development to be a more time-consuming process than expected. This is partly because we've been doing "team translation". Team translation consists of two people, one fluent in one language, one fluent in the other, working together to create high quality translations. While our collaborators' English level is quite high it isn't quite at the "native speaker" level, and my Chinese skills don't even approach that level. We spend a lot of time discussing the nuances of Chinese and English words and expressions. A person who is truly fluent in two languages could probably translate lessons in a fraction of the time that this process takes us. We plan to explore the possibility of hiring such a person or persons some time soon.
Besides translation, we've also found that the process of writing scripts has been quite time-consuming. Surprisingly, we've found that once we have a finished script the process of obtaining voice recordings, editing the audio, and doing the other tasks necessary to publish a lesson go fairly quickly. Why has writing the scripts taken so much time?
Authoring Tool Development
As we've developed lessons it's become clear that the process can be made more efficient through the development of authoring tools. We currently have a fairly simple in-house tool (which we call ScriptHelper) which a) checks script formatting, and b) converts lesson scripts into scripts for voice talent.
But it's clear that we can do a lot more along these lines. I'm not going to go into detail on all the ideas that we have in this post, but we plan on making this a primary focus over the next few years. Stay tuned.
Evangelizing the Language Mentor Platform
Our primary goal is to make this platform available for others to use – as a platform. While we like creating lessons, and plan to continue to do so, this is a secondary goal for us. Why is this?
Let's step back for a moment and look at the big picture. In our world today there are immense unmet needs for language learning materials:
We believe that Language Mentor can provide one important piece of the solution to this unmet demand – simple, free, software that evolves and improves upon current CD-based and MP3-based approaches.
It is important that such software be an open platform because the task – as outlined above – is a "world sized" task requiring the contributions of many.
And it's important that such software be open source so that contributors can have confidence that the software will continue to be available. In other words, the fact that our platform is open source provides a kind of insurance – it gives contributors the option to download its source code and tweak and maintain it if that becomes necessary.
Okay, so that's the big picture. Let's return to what we – The Language Collaborative – hope to accomplish over the next few years. Clearly, we can't hope to make more than a tiny dent in the above outlined "world needs" – in fact, it would be silly for us to try. Instead, we'll continue to produce a limited number of lessons for one or two languages (Mandarin Chinese now, English soon). These lessons will help some learners to learn language, but more importantly they will serve as models that demonstrate the simplicity and usefulness of the Language Mentor approach.
We'll also be doing our best to get the word out. How will we do this? We haven't fully figured this out yet. Do you, dear reader, have any suggestions to offer? The problem isn't a lack of ideas – the problem is that there are so many possible avenues, and we need to identify which ones will be most effective. We need to find communities of interest where word of mouth will come into play. We need to find organizations that are interested in using our free tool rather than creating something similar from scratch. And we need to learn how to communicate effectively with these communities and organizations.
How You Can Help
If you think that Language Mentor is a worthwhile approach, here are some ways that you can help: