by Reid Wilson
Author's note: This was originally written in 1999-2000, and is part of the underlying inspriation for Language Corpus
I realize that the word "revolutionize" is overused these days. In fact, I'm guessing that not every reader will make it this far into the article--either some spam defense system or personal dislike for presumed hyperbole will cut this article off before it is given a chance.
However, I think that in this case "revolutionize" is exactly the correct word. In fact, creating, using, and sharing MP3 files has already had a profound effect on my personal language learning, and for my wife, and for a friend who has volunteered to contribute an article on this topic which will hopefully be ready for the next issue of Language Learning.
So, I make a promise to myself and to you: This is the only time in the year 2000 that I will use the word "revolutionize" or any form thereof in Language Learning. But in spite of this only being the end of January, I'm excited to use this word even one time as I bring to you a truly super-potential idea:
MP3 files will revolutionize your language learning.
1. "MP3" and "sex" are the two most common words searched for on the internet these days. An MP3 file is a type of audio file that can be listened to on your computer and also on portable MP3 players. Other types of computer audio formats exist, but MP3s have become very popular because they compress audio information very well without loosing much sound quality. For example, a typical music CD holds around 65 minutes of music, but about 650 minutes of music converted to MP3 files will fit on a single CD. (For more general information on the MP3 file format, go to http://www.mp3.about.com.)
While MP3 files typically contain music, this article suggests converting taped recordings of spoken language into MP3 files.
2. This article assumes that the reader understands that getting tons of comprehensible input is the primary key to successful language learning. Not only that, this article will be the most exciting to those who are familiar with Greg Thomson's suggestion to gradually build a fifty-hour comprehensible corpus of totally understood recorded material in the language being learned. See Language Learning #19: "The Comprehensible Corpus: A Security Blanket in Challenging Language Learning Situations" by Greg Thomson.
3. I mention several specific products by name in this article. I'm not associated with these companies in any way and make no money from these references. (But in the future I may seek out a sponsor or two to subsidize my personal costs in doing this newsletter. Ultimately this newsletter is a hobby for me, although it of course helps me as a language learner and as a university language teacher. I'm not in it for the money but wouldn't mind finding a couple sponsors or associates to help offset my costs--this will be even more relevant when I announce a new newsletter website in the near future.)
The Basic Idea
MP3 files are great for language learners because cassette recordings of spoken language can be easily converted into MP3 files and then organized, listened to an indefinite number of times, "worked through" with a tutor or friend phrase-by-phrase, and shared with other learners via the internet, e-mail, floppy disks, and recordable CD-ROMs. Translations of the audio foreign language content on the file and information about the speaker (dialect, etc.) can also be embedded into file, just as song lyrics can be embedded into music files.
MP3 files can greatly increase your exposure to comprehensible input. And getting tons and tons of comprehensible input is the single greatest thing you can do to maximize your language learning. In the past cassettes have been the primary means for building a comprehensible corpus, but now MP3 files and digital recorders will make cassettes obsolete as tools for maximizing language learning.
Let me illustrate how MP3 files can revolutionize language learning by discussing the language learning potential for three different kinds of language learners.
Example #1: John, full-time learner of French, living in Paris
Let's say a guy named John is already an intermediate speaker of French and is currently living in Paris as a full-time language student working with a language tutor four days a week for an hour and a half a day.
John spends a good bit of his time out and about with his tape recorder. He regular asks different people--friends, other people who seem pretty nice, and someone for whom he tutors English--to say things into his microphone for him. At his current level he's asking people to describe in detail what they did the day before, from waking up to going to bed.
John's French is good enough that he gets a good dose of comprehensible input during these visiting and recording outings, but he also knows that there are many words that he misses the first time he hears anything. But recently he's stumbled upon a revolutionary way to increase his exposure to French and to systematically grow his ability to understand it: MP3 files.
One day after John has gotten 30 to 45 minutes of recorded French, he goes home and boots up his computer. He connects his tape recorder to his computer with a simple cord and then uses Syntrillium's Cool Edit 2000 (http://www.syntrillium.com) to convert his tape into MP3 files, one file for each speaker/topic/text that he has. (This day he makes six new files, ranging in length from two minutes to eleven minutes.) While doing this he listens to the texts and removes the extraneous "uh's" and long pauses that are inevitable in informal recording. He also gets a second, closer listening of his new recordings at the same time.
John has developed a file naming strategy so that he can know the speaker and the topic just by looking at the name of the file. He also includes a code for the quality of the recording in the filename, so that he can pass his best files on to his friends.
After converting his taped material, he listens to it again on his computer. He notes the relative difficulty of his new texts and decides that three of them are perfect to work on with his tutor now and that three are a little too difficult for the time being. He puts these in two different directories on his hard drive: "current" and "later".
A little while later John's tutor comes over and he and John spend the next hour and a half working through the three texts John has chosen for that day. He loads up the first text into Cool Edit 2000, selects the first ten to twenty seconds or so, zooms to view the selection, and plays that selection by pushing the space bar. He asks his tutor about a word he doesn't know, makes a note of it in his notebook, and then relistens to the segment, now understanding it. He then goes on to the next twenty seconds of the text. By simply pushing the space bar he can start and stop the player. Sometimes he understands the whole twenty seconds, sometimes he has to ask for several words or phrases; either way he works through the whole text step by step.
Once he gets to the end of the text, he then listens to it again with his tutor and his notes, making sure he got everything that was unclear to him. At this point he may still not understand every word, but he understands the text as whole significantly more than he did when he first heard it, and he's got his notes to refer to until he does understand the whole thing. Then he goes on to his other two texts, and is able to finish the three texts in the hour and a half, getting about fifty new words in his notebook while doing it.
After his tutor leaves, John loads several MP3 files onto his portable MP3 player, with is much smaller than a portable cassette player. (Mine is a raveMP which can be read about at http://www.ravemp.com. The Diamond Rio is the original and most popular: http://www.rioport.com.) John's 32MB player can hold over two hours of French at the sampling rate he saves his MP3 files at (32K, high quality), which is more than he needs for his 45-minute daily walk. He loads some of three kinds of files onto it: those he already understands all of but wants to review, those he is currently working on, and those "on deck" that are a little too hard for him now.
John goes for his walk and listens to French, then afterwards showers and goes to visit some French-speaking friends, where he will spend a couple hours in free conversation. More and more during his free conversations he notices words he's learned from his texts showing up all over the place, and he wonders how he never noticed or heard those words before. Over time he is able to use the new words as well.
John is super-excited about learning French these days, and he feels he has the technology and approach in order to maximize his limited time in France while also creating materials he'll be able to take with him back to the States when his current study period is over.
Example #2: Mark, a businessman living in Paris, and a friend
Mark has lived in France for six years and speaks French fairly well. However, he's really busy with his job these days, and sadly for him a lot of his work is done in English. He doesn't have much time for French study or developing significant French friendships, and is thus delighted that John has offered to share his MP3 files and notes with him. Once Mark gets the files from John (either from floppy disk, e-mail, or CD-ROM), he then listens to them on his computer while he surfs the internet and downloads e-mail and he also listens to them on his MP3 player while exercising. (While listening on his computer Mark loves to use the free MusicMatch Jukebox because he can create playlists of his different French MP3 files, throwing in some French music that he has as well. (You can find that at http://www.download.com.) While Mark's French is better than John's--at the moment at least-- John's MP3 files still contain some words that Mark doesn't know, so Mark is happy that his friend includes a copy of his vocabulary notes along with the files.
Mark feels that he now has a way to maintain his French in spite of his busy lifestyle, and he's already seen increased fluency when he uses his French with people he encounters at the market and post office. His motivation has also increased now that he feels he has good resources to support his efforts, and he's hoping to make some French friends who don't speak English, something that would be a first for him.
Example #3: Susan, French teacher in rural Oklahoma
Susan has a B.A. in French and teaches French I, II, and III at her town's high school. She loves the French language but until now has only been able to travel to France for a total of about six weeks. She rarely gets to use her French with anyone who speaks the language well and feels that her ability may actually be deteriorating over time even though she speaks it to her students every day. The French language learning tapes that she has found in Oklahoma or in catalogs were created for beginners or sometimes low intermediates and she's unable to find much for speakers at her level. She has found some French broadcasts over the internet, but has to stand in line with the other four internet users in her household, and feels guilty for taking up the phone for so long when she listens to them.
However, John has converted a couple of his language learning friends in Paris into MP3 junkies, and together the group of them are sharing their files with each other. Excited about the potential of what they are doing, they decide to share their files with their French teachers back home by posting the files and notes to an internet site that allows free internet storage with public access (such as http://www.netdrive.com, http://www.freedrive.com, http://www.idrive.com, or http://www.xdrive.com.) They e-mail their teachers about these files, and their teachers become huge fans and ask if they can tell their colleagues about them. They are nice people and say, "Sure!" (A 100 MB free internet file storage site can hold over six and a half hours of French at a 32K sample rate. A homemade CD-ROM can hold over forty hours.)
Through this Susan hears about the internet file site and downloads a few of the files to check them out. (Her children are already MP3 music fans, so she is familiar with the file type.) She loves the way that she can listen to the files (offline) over and over on her computer and appreciates the vocabulary notes too, so she downloads all of the files that the Paris bunch has made available and writes them to ask them to keep up their great work. She's currently bidding on MP3 players at http://www.ebay.com, and in the meanwhile has found that she can record the MP3 files from her computer onto her cassette to listen to in her Sony Walkman while she is cooking and doing the dishes. She's especially intrigued at the MP3 files containing texts from different dialects around France and Belgium.
Susan is so thrilled about this new tool for her French that she starts making MP3 files in English to share with her computer-savvy Vietnamese friends down the street.
I've put a sample MP3 file (with no notes) on the Language Impact web site. The name of the file is myo006y5.mp3. It's a 398 KB file containing a minute and forty one seconds of a friend of my wife talking in Modern Standard Arabic about what she had done the day before.
There is much, much more that I could say. And future issues of Language Learning will discuss many more specifics about MP3 file creation, use, and sharing, including some very practical how-to's.
But for now you can learn more by checking out the references to the software and web sites given above and by re-reading this article a couple times and thinking about how MP3 files could support your own language learning. Especially play around with Cool Edit 2000, not only for making MP3 files but for listening to them one phrase at a time. The demo is free and the full version is $69--by far the best $69 we've ever spent on language learning.
I should also add that probably a couple of you have "GREAT BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY" flashing in your heads at the moment. Yes, it is. Put thirty hours of, for example, French, on a CD with a nice user interface for starters and then create a subscription service where you distribute ten hours of new material (with notes, of course) every month on CD. Be sure and include stuff for beginning, intermediate, and advanced learners. At this moment in my life I'm not going to pursue it, so you feel free to: Ready, Set, Go. And maybe share some of your eventual product with me as I have shared with you, especially if you develop CDs of MP3 files for Arabic, French, Portuguese, and/or English!
I personally would prefer seeing groups of friends of language learners creating collections of language-specific MP3 texts as part of their own language learning experiences and then sharing them for free with each other and over the internet, and I'll talk about that more in future issues as well. (And I'll try to be a good example of that with my own Arabic MP3 files--in fact I've started doing that a bit by burning about four hours' worth of my files onto a CD which I then passed out at a language learning seminar I led last week for some Arabic learners, with the next version being targeted for some language learning friends I have around here. If you share them with your friends via CD, be sure and include the freely distributed shareware programs that are needed to create and use them, as well as copies of Language Learning too if you want.)
If you do put your files on the internet, let me know how to access them and I'll put that information in future issues of the Language Learning newsletter.
Together we can fundamentally change and significantly improve current approaches to second language learning, perhaps enabling all of us to understand each other a little bit better.