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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten

Computer Applications in Second Language Acquisition (Cambridge Applied Linguistics)

Computer Applications in Second Language Acquisition - Carol A. Chapelle As you'll see in this review, I've been working with Computer Aided Language Learning (CALL) for the last couple of years. A colleague said I ought to read Chapelle's book, which is widely cited in the field.

Well, on the positive side, it was a thorough and comprehensive study when it was written (2000) - and even though the subject has progressed since then, it still has a lot of worthwhile things to say. She is in particular good at explaining how hard it is to evaluate CALL systems objectively. If someone says their system is effective in improving your skills in a language, what is an appropriate way to justify the statement? To start with, Chapelle is obviously right in dismissing most marketing claims as nonsense. No software tool is going to teach you to speak like a native in a week. In fact, if you can get a decent grasp of some basic phrases and (harder) remember when you're supposed to use them, you're doing quite well.

So how should you look at the problem? I thought her core checklist was extremely sensible. If you're thinking of using some kind of software/website to help you learn a language, you could do worse than start here:

Do task conditions present sufficient opportunity for beneficial focus on form?

In other words, does the tool focus you on the actual structure of the language in a useful way? If you believe you can get by without this step and just "learn by doing", you're being way too optimistic. At some point, you need to do some work, though the software can make that work easier and more productive.

Is the difficulty level of the targeted linguistic forms appropriate for the learners to increase their language ability?

It's obvious, but also easy to miss. Make sure the tool is aimed at people who are at roughly your level.

Is learners' attention directed primarily towards the meaning of the language?

This is the key balancing act: you need to study the structure of the language, but if you only study grammar you'll never be able to do anything useful. Meaning has to be kept central.

Is there a strong correspondence between the CALL task and second language tasks of interest to learners outside the classroom? Will learners be able to see the connection?

It'll help a lot if the topics have something to do with your real life. Check to see if the situations being covered seem relevant to you personally, not to some generic language student.

Will learners learn more about the target language and about strategies for language learning through the use of the task?

You don't just want to pick up some phrases, you want the tool to help you understand something about the language. Not all of them do that. And ideally, it should also teach you some general skills about how to learn languages: what to focus on, how to work, how to structure your time.

Are hardware, software and personal resources sufficient to allow the CALL task to succeed?

Again, so obvious that you can miss it, but make sure you have tools you can actually use. There's no point buying a course that you have to run on your laptop when the only free time you have available is while driving to and from work. Maybe you'd do better with something you can put on your iPod.

I don't recommend reading the book unless you're a CALL professional, but her checklist is good!