by Reid Wilson

Author's note: This was originally written in 1999-2000, and is the underlying inspriation for Language Corpus

Depending on the language you are learning, it's quite possible that there already exist readily available books in that language starting from very simple ones for small children to long, complicated ones written for adults, with every level in between represented as well. If so, great. Read a lot, starting with books that are at your level and building over time from there.

But what if that's not the case for you, or what if the language spoken on the street is fairly different than the written language, or what if stuff you understand when you read is still incomprehensible when spoken by a native speaker?

That's definitely the case for me, as the colloquial Arabic that I am now learning doesn't exist in written form, and the Modern Standard Arabic of books, magazines, and newspapers is about as different from the colloquial as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales--untranslated--are from the English I speak everyday.

So there's no sequence of increasingly difficult books for me, and for many like me.

But wouldn't it be nice if learners in such situations could gather and develop and even share an extensive collection of authentic spoken language, a large collection with many items being "simple" and the rest gradually increasing in difficulty from there? (And wouldn't this be nice even for those who have access to books in the language they are learning?)

With such a collection, one could incorporate extensive listening into a language learning program. This would look a lot like extensive reading, which has proven to be very effective for language learners, but instead of using books one would use cassette tapes or MP3 files. (And please note: this can definitely be a "low-tech" cassette-recorder project. MP3 files just make it four or five orders of magnitude nicer.)

For more on the potential significance of such a collection, please read "Building a Corpus of Comprehensible Text" by Greg Thomson. (At the end of this article you'll find information on how to access the articles mentioned in this article via the internet or e-mail.)

Beginning To Build a Collection of Spoken Language

Following the suggestions of two past Language Learning articles, "Maximize Your Language Learning through TPR" and "After TPR Comes the Series Method and Dialogue Generation," will get beginners off on the right foot in building a collection of spoken language. And using the ideas described in "A Simple Activity for Building Vocabulary Recognition" and "From First Recording To Comprehensible Corpus" will help them make the best use of their recordings.

Recordings from TPR, the series method, and dialogue generation can form the first chunk of a collection of spoken language, and much of that material will be relatively easy, which is great for beginning and intermediate learners. But at some point intermediate learners should start to tackle more authentic language, in other words, language that wasn't just produced to be language learning input for language learners. In addition, many language learners will make the majority of their first recordings from one or at most a few speakers. An intermediate speaker, though, can benefit greatly by having material produced by many different speakers, differing in gender, age, accent, socio-economic status, etc. Real people talking about real life using real language are needed.

However, simply turning on the radio or TV or listening to an internet broadcast in the language one is learning is often too difficult for an intermediate learner. That is, while the learners may understand some of what is heard, they aren't getting optimal comprehensible input, and thus language learning is not optimized. Much better would be to have a series of spoken language recordings which gradually move from more simple to more complicated.

Enter Project "The Story of My Life".

Project "The Story of My Life"

My wife and I have begun building such a collection of authentic spoken text through what we are calling "Project 'The Story of My Life'". We've carefully devised a series of questions which we then use to "interview" and record different speakers of the language talking about their lives. Better yet, we're getting Arab friends of ours to go out and interview and record some of their friends and family members, making the language even more natural and authentic because it is being spoken without us foreigners around.

A full interview could last up to one hour, although one can say a lot in thirty minutes. We've even broken out the tape recorder for a quick three to five minute recording session when we've had friends over or while visiting. We're hoping to get forty hours of recorded material by the end of the year, material which we are learning to understand as a significant part of our language learning program. (The other significant part is of course actually using the language, while out and about and especially by developing close friendships with monolinguals.) We've opted to undertake this approach instead of taking classes at one of the schools here, and we're finding it to be both less expensive and more effective, even when we pay friends to go out and interview and record for us.

This is key: by carefully choosing our interview questions, we are able to somewhat control the complexity of the language that occurs in the response. That is, when we ask someone, "Please tell me about yourself: your name, where you live, what you do, about your family, etc." we tend to get a much simpler response (simple in terms of language learning difficulty) than when we ask someone, "How would you describe the most important aspects of your religion?"

By developing a whole list of such questions, and by then having them asked to a whole lot of people, and factoring in the fact that some people are easier to understand than others, in the end we're getting a large collection of a wide spectrum of authentic language learning input. And from there we attack the simplest stuff first, learning to understand it with the help of our tutors, which in turn helps us understand more complicated stuff. In addition, getting many different people to talk about the same sorts of topics helps us because vocabulary begins to repeat itself. (For example, we might have thirty instances of "Yesterday I woke up in the morning....")

Note also that this is a great source of cultural information, especially as many different people get to share their views about different topics but also their life histories, which should ultimately lead to a much better understanding of the culture than we would get by just asking a couple of our more- Westernized friends questions in English. In a sense what I'm suggesting is not unlike what anthropologists call "ethonographic interviewing", although I'm interested in structuring the interview in such a way that different responses contain different difficulties of language, some of which I begin using right away and some of which I decide to save for the future, when my language ability will be better.

I can also tailor the questions to get different kinds of verb tenses. For example. asking "What did you do yesterday" and "What do you plan to do tomorrow" and "Please tell me about a typical day in your life" will generate responses with different tense/aspect/modality. (Sorry for the jargon, but my linguistic training wouldn't let me just say "tense". You get the idea even if you don't know the jargon.)

A Sample List of Interview Topics and Questions

Please consider the following sample list of interview topics and questions to be just a brainstorming start. I'm sure you can come up with more that will apply nicely to the language learning community you are becoming a part of.

I've tried to order the list from those that will typically generate the simplest response (in terms of actual language difficulty) to those generating more complicated responses. In general, they go from more concrete to more abstract.

Any given person being interviewed of course doesn't have to answer all of these.

-- A Personal Introduction (name, age, where they live, their family, what they do, etc.

-- A short history of their life (where and when born, where they have lived, highlights of their life)

-- With details, what did they do yesterday from the time they woke up to the time they went to sleep?

-- What have they done today from the time that they woke up until now?<

-- What will they most likely do from the time that you finish recording with them until the time that they will go to bed tonight?

-- What do they plan to do tomorrow?

-- Their family (with 20-30 seconds on each member, discussing as many members of the immediate and extended family as the person wants.) (Realize that in some cultures men won't want to talk about the female members of their family. For all of these topics you must be sensitive and adaptive to the cultural situation.)

-- Their country

-- Their city or village

-- Life in their country

-- The different kinds of people in their country

-- A typical day in their life (This will get different verb tenses than the above, but I'd recommend asking a couple questions in between just so they don't feel like they're repeating themselves too much.)

-- An overview of their schooling (what their schools were like, etc.)

-- A very happy day in their life (tell the story)

-- A very sad day in their life (tell the story)

-- Important events in their life

-- Things they liked to do as a child

-- Things they like to do now in their free time

-- People who have had a significant influence in their life

-- Their hopes for the future

-- Stories they enjoyed as a child (or now) (tell them)

-- Differences between their culture and yours

-- Their religion and how it is (or is not) important to them

-- What in their opinion is the noble life? (You'll have to translate the concept into their worldview.)

-- Major aspects of their religion (if the person is religious)

-- Specific questions about specific aspects of their culture and religion (Get them to talk about things that are ultimately important to them and their community.)

Organizing Your Collection and Perhaps Even Sharing It

Such a collection of recorded materials can of course be maintained on cassette tapes, although some type of cataloging/organizing system will be imperative as the collection grows.

However, for more information on a much better way, please read "MP3 Files Will Revolutionize Your Life", "Making MP3 Files with Cool Edit 2000", and "So How Do I Go about Organizing My Language Learning Tapes?".

If you do make MP3 files, we'd recommend one individual file for each response, so that a 60-minute interview could end up producing 15 different MP3 files, with different files being of different difficulty depending upon the question being answered. (We now have over 100 colloquial Arabic MP3 files, with several more tapes to MP3, and we may end up with a thousand or more different files by the time we're done. We organize them in our language learning program by using a card and envelope system, one card per MP3 file and a total of seven different envelopes, with cards progressing from "save for the future" to "review every once in a while". My wife has promised to write an article for LANGUAGE LEARNING on how she does this. (By nature she's more of an organizer than I am, so she'll write the better article. We also keep track of them in a simple computer database for which we can include information about the speaker and a translation of the text.)

One of the many advantages of using MP3 files is that you can easily share your wealth. Small MP3 files can be shared on floppy disks and e-mail; larger ones can be shared over the internet or on homemade CDs. (Using the settings we're saving our MP3 files at, about 40 hours of spoken language will fit on a single CD.)

And if you think that you might ever want to share your recordings, be sure and get permission from those you are recording to share their recordings with other language learners. And similarly, remind them that they shouldn't say anything they wouldn't want others to hear!

If you do this and want to share your materials with others learning the same language, I'd be thrilled to help you figure out a way to put your MP3 files on the internet, either on the Language Impact website or on one of the free internet "hard drives" available these days. And of course I'll announce the availability of such materials in LANGUAGE LEARNING and on the Language Impact website.

All of us together could make a quite a collection of recordings of "The Story of My Life" from languages around the world, creating a very useful and insightful resource for language learners everywhere.