Virtual Language Learning

Conversation tool meets needs of global market

One of the challenges of learning a second language is finding opportunities to practise. SSHRC-funded research has led to the development of an innovative online tool that helps language learners do just that.

With the aid of a $75,000 Insight Development Grant, Juan Luis Suarez, professor of Hispanic studies at Western University, along with two researchers and six doctoral students in his CulturePlex Lab, created a prototype called the Virtual Language Laboratory (VL3), which gives students the chance to text chat in Spanish with an online avatar, in scenarios such as meeting someone for the first time, or ordering a meal at a restaurant.

“We’ve reached students through technologies they’re familiar and comfortable with,” says Suarez.

The researchers used artificial intelligence technology to “teach” the computer how to speak in specific contexts, giving it the vocabulary, grammatical structure, questions and expected answers. The researchers collect data from the chats in real time, to improve the learning process.

One of Suarez’s researchers, Camelia Nunez, a PhD student specializing in second-language acquisition, was so excited about VL3’s potential that she pursued a master’s in business, entrepreneurship and technology at the University of Waterloo to take VL3 to market.

By May 2013, VL3 won a spot at the Accelerator Centre, a technology startup incubation facility in Waterloo, Ontario. The project received further funding from the Ontario Centres of Excellence and FedDev Ontario.

Today, VL3, now called Milao Language (“milao” is a modern Greek word for “to communicate”), employs eight people. Over 200 students in the University of Waterloo’s first-year Spanish class are beta testing Milao before it goes to market—complete with a mobile app—in early 2014.

“Language learning is a $58 billion market worldwide,” Nunez says. “Universities and colleges are looking for learning tools for their students as are corporations with language learning programs for their employees. It’s a huge market.”

Future plans include making Milao available in other languages—starting with English and French—and using speech recognition technology for voice chats.

Research funded by SSHRC: A Virtual Language Learning Laboratory