Verbal Fluency, or How to Stay on Top of the Wave?
Michael Zock
and Stergos D. Afantenos
LIF, CNRS (UMR 6166), Université de la Méditerranée
Faculté des Sciences de Luminy, France
LINA, (UMR CNRS 6241), Université de Nantes, France
Abstract. Speaking a language and achieving proficiency in another one is a
highly complex process which requires the acquisition of various kinds of knowl-
edge and skills, like the learning of words, rules and patterns and their connec-
tion to communicative goals (intentions), the usual starting point. To help the
learner to acquire these skills we propose an enhanced, electronic version of an
age old method: pattern drills (henceforth PDs). While being highly regarded in
the fifties, PDs have become unpopular since then, partially because of their lack
of grounding (natural context) and rigidity. Despite these shortcomings we do
believe in the virtues of this approach, at least with regard to the acquisition of
basic linguistic reflexes or skills (automatisms), necessary to survive in the new
language. Of course, the method needs improvement, and we will show here how
this can be achieved. Unlike tapes or books, computers are open media, allowing
for dynamic changes, taking users’ performances and preferences into account.
Building an electronic version of PDs amounts to building an open resource, ac-
comodatable to the users’ ever changing needs.
1 Introduction
To speak a language fluently is a very complex task, to do so in a foreign language
can be overwhelming. Next to cognitive overload, there are at least three reasons for
this: lack of knowledge, lack of assurance and lack of remembrance. Indeed, learning
to speak a new language requires not only learning a stock of new words and rules,
but also to have the necessary confidence to dare to speak, which supposes, of course,
quick access and remembrance of what has been learned. To achieve these goals (in-
crease/consolidation of knowledge, boosting of confidence, fixation/ memorisation) we
have enhanced an age-old method, pattern drills, by building an electronic version of it.
While the drill tutor (henceforth DT) is built for learning Japanese, we believe that the
method is general enough to be applied to other languages.
PDs are a special kind of exercise based on notions like: analogy, task decompo-
sition (small steps), systematicity, repetition and feedback. Important as they may be,
PDs, or exercices in general, are but one of the many tools teachers rely on for teach-
ing a language. Dictionaries, grammars, video and textbooks being supplementary re-
sources. None of them, except the first one will be taken into consideration here. PDs
are typically used in audio-oral lessons. Such lessons are generally composed of the
Zock M. and D. Afantenos S. (2008).
Verbal Fluency, or How to Stay on Top of the Wave?.
In Proceedings of the 5th International Workshop on Natural Language Processing and Cognitive Science, pages 159-164
DOI: 10.5220/0001742001590164
following steps: (1) Presentation of a little drama, where people try to solve a commu-
nication problem (hotel, train station, barber shop). The student hears the story and is
encouraged to play one of the roles; (2) Contrastive examples for rule induction; (3)
Rule fixation via pattern drills; (4) Re-use of the learned rules or pattern in a different
situation (tranposition / generalization). These four stages fulfill, roughly speaking, the
following functions (a) symbol grounding, i.e. illustration of the pragmatic usage of the
structure; (b) conceptualization, i.e. explanation/understanding of the rule; (c) memo-
rization/automation of the patterns, and (d) transposition/consolidation of the learned
material. Obviously, there are many ways to learn a language, yet, one of them has
proven to be quite efficient, at least for survival purposes: PDs.
Since PDs are neither a new nor an uncontroversial method, let us show how some of
their shortcomings can be overcome. Of course, people learn not only patterns, but also
the situations (context) in which they occur. The latter can be seen as goals: meeting
someone introduce oneself, hearing him ask for a favor or offering help, the learner
realizes that the person s/he is observing uses over and over the same pattern, though
not necessarily always in the same situation. Given this tight connection between means
(patterns) and ends (goals), we have decided to integrate this link in our DT: the fact that
patterns are indexed in terms of goals allows the user to choose the means (patterns) as a
function of the end (goal, input). People are generally little motivated to do something,
unless they perceive its use, that is, the purpose a given action is serving for (means).
2 An Example of the Process
Before showing how the resource is built, let us see how it is meant to work and in what
respect it differs from conventional PDs used in a language lab. Let’s start with the lat-
ter, illustrating it with the simplest case, substitution drills requiring no morphological
changes. The student receives a model, which could be composed of a question (let’s
say, “what is this?”), a stimulus (“a pen”) and the answer (“This is a pen”). From then
on, s/he will only be given the stimulus and the feedback concerning his answer (the
machine producing the correct sentence). Of course, the user has to produce the answer
in the first place.
While being similar to classical PDs, our approach is nevertheless quite a bit dif-
ferent. First of all, it is the student who chooses the pattern s/he’d like to work on, as
s/he knows (arguably) best what her/his needs are. Next, our patterns are indexed in
terms of goals. This is necessary in order to locate or find the pattern one would like to
After having been very popular for many years, PDs and instrumental conditioning upon
which they rely have been discredited by linguists (see Chomsky’s violent criticism [1] of Skin-
ner’s book Verbal Behavior, an attempt to provide an operational account of language), and more
directly by psychologists [2, 3] and pedagogues [4, 5]. While we do agree with these criticisms,
when the process of language production or the architecture of the human mind are at stake, we
do not share them at all when habit formation or the acquisition of linguistic reflexes, i.e. au-
tomatisms are the learning goal [6]. For this specific task, we do believe that principled ways of
staging the repetition of stimulus-response patterns together with feedback are a valuable learn-
ing method. Interestingly enough, patterns have been rehabilitated by one of Chomsky’s most
brilliant students [7].
Goal Tree (list of goals)
Sono kata wa doitsu no Sumisu desu
English pattern
Japanese pattern
2 This is <title> <name> from <origine>
Sono kata wa <origin> no <name> <title>desu
This is Mr. Smith from Germany.
Sono kata wa <doitsu> no <Sumisu> <san> desu
1 This is <title> <name>
Mr, Mrs, Dr., professor
Matsumoto, Schmidt, Tanaka, Tsuji
Japan, Germany, France
Kore wa <name> <title> desu
This is Prof. Tsuji from Japan
Sono kata wa <nihon> no <Tsuji> <sensei> desu
Provide values (words) for the variables
Choose one of the patterns
Set of possible outputs
Fig. 1. The basic interaction process between the DT and the student.
work on. With the system growing, grows the list of patterns. Hence, access becomes
an issue. Also, associating patterns with goals allows the student to realize the pattern’s
communicative function. Third, since we don’t have a parser or speech recognizer, we
have a problem concerning the user’s output. Actually, the learner does not type at all,
s/he only confirms via a keystroke that his/her mentally (or orally produced) answer
conforms to the system’s output. The reason for this is simple. The focus being on
speed (fluency), we’d like to avoid slowing down the process by having the input being
provided via the keyboard. Fourth, the system’s output is also written. This can be con-
sidered as a disadvantage, yet it can also be turned into a big advantage if, as planned,
a speech synthesizer is added. Doing so would allow not only to discover grapheme-
phoneme mappings, hence support the learning of reading and writing, but also allow
to support memorization by showing intonation curves. In addition this would allow us
to control the speed of the vocal output, which leads us to the last point. Unlike tapes,
with computers we can change at any moment parameters like (a) speed; (b) order of
examples, (c) staging of repetitions, i.e. number of repetitions after which an element is
taken from the list, to maximize presentation of problematic cases, etc.
Figure 1 above illustrates the way how the student gets from the starting point, a
goal (frame A), to its linguistic realization, the endpoint (frame D) by using the DT.
The process is initiated via the choice of a goal (introduce somebody, step 1, frame A)
to which the system answers with a set of patterns (step 2, frame B). The user chooses
one of them (step 3: B1 vs. B2), signalling then the specific lexical values with which
s/he would like the pattern to be instantiated (frame C, step 4). The system has now
all the information needed to create the exercise (frame D), presenting sequentially a
the stimulus (chosen word), followed by the student’s answer and the system’s
The latter is basically composed of a sentence (step 1), a stimulus (the lexical value of the
variable, step 2), and the new sentence based on the model and the stimulus (step 3).
confirmation/information (normally also a sentence, implying that the student’s answer
is correct if the two sentences match and incorrect in the opposite case). The process
continues until the student has done all the exercices, or until s/he decides to stop.
Note that, if the values of the variables <title>, <name>, <origin> were (professor,
Tsuji, Japan) rather than (Mr, Smith, Germany), then the outputs would vary, of course,
It should be noted that at the moment, we do not rely on any morphological compo-
nent which obviously limits the system’s scope. Any question-answer pair or sentence
transformation may require such a component, and we will surely integrate it later on.
For the time being, the idea is just to illustrate the system’s basic mechanism and the
interaction between the system and the student.
3 Current State of the Drill Tutor
The DT is a client/server web application written in PHP and sitting atop an Apache
server in a Linux machine. The DT is divided into two separate areas: one reserved
for data acquisition linking words, patterns and goals (Expert Area), the other being
reserved for exercising (Student Area). The implemented operations are as follows.
3.1 Expert Area
User Authentication. People entitled to make changes to the database (experts) have
to authenticate themselves. This is necessary to ensure that people work on their own
data and to avoid inconsistencies in the database.
Creation of New Patterns and Goals. Currently the system has about 50 patterns and
500 words.
To allow for quick access, patterns need to be indexed. This is done here
via goals. Of course, other criteria could be used. In order to provide new data (typically
a new goal and its associated patterns and words) the expert can either use the system’s
graphical user interface (henceforth GUI), or upload a file containing the necessary
information. Once this is done, the system presents the expert all possible sentences
computable on the basis of the input, allowing him to check them for well-formedness.
Once such a morphological component is added, conceptual input would take place in three-
steps: at a global level the learner chooses the pattern via a goal, next s/he provides lexical values
for the pattern’s variables, to refine then this global message by specifying morphological values
(number, tense). This approach would be much more economical for storing and accessing pat-
terns, than storing a pattern for every morphological variant. It would also be much faster than
navigating through a conceptual ontology.
Actually, the number of patterns and the size of the vocabulary is not really what counts at
this stage, as the focus is on the implementation of an editor designed for building, modifying
and using a database. Also, while it would have been easy to copy patterns from one of the many
textbooks [8, 9], we have refrained from doing so, not only for reasons of copyright, but also
for reasons of metalanguage. The terms in which these patterns are defined are neither always
consistent nor very felicitous.
Structuring Goals into Trees. Learners knowing their needs prefer to make their own
choices rather than being told what patterns to work on. To do so, we must give them the
means to express their needs, or, in this particular case, to locate the relevant patterns
in an ontology or goal tree (see also Figure 1). To enable the system to create this kind
of structure, experts have to state with their input where in the hierarchy fits their new
goal and its associated pattern(s). This is done via the parent node.
Modification of Goals. The data given to the system (goals, patterns and lexical values)
can be modified at any time. In other words, experts can add, delete or modify the
patterns and values for any goal inserted.
Visualization of the Database. The data given can be visualized as a table which can
be useful for checking completeness and consistency of the patterns, or for appreciating
the adequacy of the metalanguage.
3.2 The Student Area
Working on the Exercises. The students can choose the pattern they’d like to work
on. To find the wanted pattern they navigate in the goal hierarchy. Once they’ve found
the goal they will be presented with all its associated patterns, meaning that they have
to choose again, though, this time from a much smaller set. The process develops as
follows. First, students are shown an example sentence (model) in which a single ele-
ment will be replaced. In the simplest case (substitution drill), only one element will be
replaced, no morphological changes taking place. Next are given, in random order, the
elements (stimulus) to be inserted into the proper slot. Doing so should help the students
not only to memorize words, but also to use (or to produce) them in the proper syntactic
context. Finally, students are shown the correct sentence both in roman characters as
well as in their transliterated Japanese form (for the time being only in Hiragana). The
process iterates until the student has acquired the patterns or has decided to stop.
These are the main steps of the process. In addition, users are allowed to define key-
board shortcuts, using keystrokes rather than moving the mouse over radio buttons. This
increases speed and confort for telling the system that one has been able to produce the
expected output, information necessary to decide whether a given combination (pattern
+ specific word) should be kept on the exercise list. Students can also choose their own
metalinguistic terms and interface language. This allows people to study Japanese via
a language they feel most comfortable with. Language specific problems like counters,
time and family relations are dealt with via specific exercices.
Evaluation. Of course, the whole process would be of little use if the students were
not given some means (feedback) to assess the quality of their work. Actually, the sys-
tem keeps track of the users’ performance (errors made during the training session),
allowing thus to allocate more time to problematic cases (optimization of memorisation
schedule). A problem that remains though is the fact that the user’s output is purely
quantitative: congruency of his and the system’s output. Not having access to the con-
crete form of the output, the system cannot fully interpret it (What went wrong? Why?
How to correct the mistake?) and provide explanations.
4 Conclusions
Becoming fluent in a language requires not only learning words and methods for access-
ing them quickly, but also learning how to place them and how to make the necessary
morphological adjustments. This is not a small feat, considering that all this has to be
done fast, and on top of it, content must be planned.
The work presented here is the result of less than 12 months’ work. It is imple-
mented in PHP, and the supported languages are English at the interface level and
Japanese as the language to be learned. We plan to add other languages, a speech syn-
thesizer and a morphological component. We also intend to make the system available
on the web in the near future.
Having linked patterns to goals should help users to perceive the function of a given
structure (i.e which goal(s) can be reached by using a particular pattern). Yet, most
importantly, this linkage offers the possibility to get instances of the pattern from a
document (corpus). This is interesting not only for data acquisition (building the re-
source by feeding it with lexical entries likely to occur in a given pattern), but also for
remembrance. In addition, presenting patterns with new material allows expanding the
learner’s experience of the language. The fact that most goals are associated with mul-
tiple patterns allows to extend the range of the exercise, reducing thus boredom. Instead
of drilling one single pattern in response to a chosen goal, the system can prompt the
user by presenting him various patterns.
Obviously, PDs are not a panacea, yet used in the right way they can do wonders.
Just like a tennis player might want to go back to the court and train his basic strokes,
a language learner may feel the need to drill resisting patterns. We must beware though
that patterns are just one element of a long chain. They need to be learned, but once
interiorized they must be placed back into the context where they have come from, a
real communicative scene. Without this additional experience they will simply fail to
produce the wanted effect, that is, help us achieve our communicative goals.
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