"Pardon?" Imagine yourself in, say, France. You've had four years of college French. You can — and even sort of did — read Stendhal's Le rouge et le noir in the original. Now you're on the street and need directions to something more exotic than labibliothèque. But you're at a loss for words because you've never had a real conversation in French.
Justin Cannon didn't get a chance to speak much Chinese in his elective introductory course at MIT, either, so now he's applying his major to revitalize the way people study foreign languages. Cannon, 23, came to Cambridge from Kansas City to study computer science. Since he'd been to China a number of times, he signed up for Chinese to fulfill the MIT language requirement. The only problem: the curriculum was fixated on his textbook. No way was he going to be able to speak this tongue at the end of the course.
Long story short, Cannon and a team of like-minded MIT grads recently launched Lingt Language (lingtlanguage.com) with the idea of providing user-customizable language-learning software. Teachers are then able to set up speaking and listening homework online.
The goal isn't to eliminate or replace textbooks, but to incorporate more speaking and listening exercises in traditional coursework. "The Web is fast enough now," says Cannon, "so that there's no reason that speaking can't be integral to the classroom."
Lingt doesn't even push any specific curriculum or method. Instead, it allows teachers to create their own online assignments by using the software to record one side of a language-lab type "dialogue" between teacher and student. Students are then assigned to log on and talk back — one on one, something that seldom happens in the modern classroom.
Of course, developing the software wasn't simple. After graduation, Cannon and his crew worked 60-hour weeks; Cannon recalls subsisting on one meal a day. But the scheme is paying off. A handful of teachers are already using Lingt, and, according to Cannon, "It's working great."
"The only thing I can think is that I would have liked to have had this in the past," he laments. "All you need is a computer."