Possible uses of pop culture multimedia in language study

Slashdot links today to a fascinating proposal by Ravi Purushotma of MIT (*sigh*, MIT…) concerning how video games (“You’re Not Studying, You’re Just Playing That Sims Game of Yours”), the Internet (“You’re Not Studying, You’re Just Browinsg the Web”), and other multimedia technologies (culminating in “You’re Not Studying, You’re Just Doing What You Enjoy — Wow”) can help students of language learn more effectively. (You’ll note that the article is somewhat dated; Mr. Purushotma links to an updates and comments page at the end of his piece.)

It’s all very intriguing, and it makes me wonder why stuff like this isn’t already being done. Here’s just one example, demonstrating how the technology of digital music can be used to teach:

Now that most digital songs are using ID3v2 or higher, one feature useful for language learners is that synchronized lyrics can be embedded directly into MP3 files. Combined with an OCR-capable translator, this allows learners to follow along with a foreign song as it is playing (see Figure 10). For older songs, synchronized lyrics can easily be inserted or retrieved from online databases.

In an ideal world, rather than clicking each word for an electronic translation, we would simply have a bi-lingual friend or teacher always standing beside us whenever we wanted to listen to a foreign song — ready to translate any unfamiliar words for us. While always using a friend may not be so realistic, it can be simulated practically using 3D spatialized sound technology. By delaying the timing at which a given sound is delivered to each ear, insertions can be made to songs that sound as though they are coming from a physical location different from the ambient song. This allows educators to embed instructional content directly into a song (or other audio content) while still maintaining a clearly audible distinction so as not to detract from the main song. (see Figures 11, 12, and 13).

I must admit that I am the most interested in browser-based technologies. Purushotma says:

Much like the language data for The Sims, the user interface descriptions for the latest Mozilla and Netscape Web browsers are stored in editable files. This allows anybody with knowledge of XUL, a language similar to HTML/XML, to rapidly reconfigure the layout and design of the browser interface. In most browsers, the upper right hand corner includes a logo known as a “throbber” which animates while loading a Web page. During my German class, I replaced my throbber with a small frame pointing to a Web site containing a randomized vocabulary word from the current chapter of my textbook. Instead of displaying a corporate logo, the throbber in the top right corner displayed a German word and image while loading a Web site, followed by the English translation when loading was complete.In my case, this simply served to flash new vocabulary words while I was waiting for Web sites to load, although such a system could be extended in any number of ways (see Figure 8).

There’s no mention of Internet Explorer here, but I’m long past expecting IE to do anything cool. I just use it because most websites are compatible with it. If I can figure out a way to embed Japanese vocabulary into Firefox, that may be all the impetus I need to switch to that browser. [Edit: See below.]

The prospect of “interrupting” my browsing with language study made me think of “Life Inter rupted”, the article I linked last week about the drawbacks of multitasking. Would embedding learning materials into my browser be too overwhelming? I think it could be, but I also think it could be useful. My preference, then, would be to have a way to shut it off when I felt like minimizing my inputs.

Ultimately, it’s a great article by Purushotma, and a good first step. I hope I can find some resources in this vein. If anyone knows of any, please post them in the comments! I’m primarily interested in learning Japanese, but Spanish would also be useful.

[Edit 2:26pm]: The link to the replaced “throbber” leads to Mr. Purushotma’s personal website. There, I found that there is not only a toolbar for IE, but also an entire page dedicated to his theories for and work concerning technology and language learning.