DH Lab Spring Project: Emerging Technologies for Language Learning

How might language learning technologies developed at a distance help shape pedagogy in a hybrid future? Approaches to this question are at the heart of the DH Lab’s current project, Emerging Technologies for Language Learning, led by our Spring 2021 Faculty Fellow, Takako Aikawa, Senior Lecturer in Japanese in Global Languages.

Aikawa’s long history with language learning technologies began during her work at Microsoft Research—a time that she still remembers as transformative. “I was literally learning something new every day,” she recalls with excitement. After joining the Natural Language Processing (NLP) group at Microsoft Research as a lexicographer in 1998, she moved to the Microsoft Translation Team as a computational linguist, before arriving at MIT in 2013. Then and now, her work bridges boundaries: previous projects have included numerous forays into multimodal language learning with the MIT Media Lab and experiments in teaching using virtual reality and AI tools.

Aikawa believes that leveraging human-computer collaboration for language learning will create similarly transformative experiences for the DH Lab’s Spring 2021 undergraduate cohort. She views this semester’s UROPs as “ambassadors” between NLP scientists and language teachers and learners. The team will learn to harness the power of computational linguistics while seeking to understand the challenges of language pedagogy from both students’ and teachers’ perspectives in order to create pedagogically valuable software. Their goal is to create a web application for remote language teaching to be used at MIT and beyond.

Already, UROPs working under Aikawa’s guidance have made huge strides building the computational linguistics infrastructure and web interfaces necessary to create the project. Over the course of the semester, the team will refine, deepen, and enrich these materials, working collaboratively both within the Lab and with further members of the MIT community to realize new opportunities for language learning at scale in environments that are evolving daily.

The frontiers are compelling to consider. In 2011, the Watson computer system “talked back” on Jeopardy! Our Spring 2021 Faculty Fellow’s project will guide the conversation of tomorrow.