During a recent trip to Israel, I collaborated  with Dr. Shaunie Shammass, a linguistics experts on a project called Speaking Pal, an interactive smartphone application to teach English to non-native speakers.  Each lesson consists of an interactive video conversation. The virtual conversation partner prompts the dialogue, and the user has two options on how to reply, which they speak back into the phone.  The conversation then travels down one of many branches based upon the user’s replies. Post continues here…

Vocabulary words and grammatical structures are embedded into each lesson with increasing levels of difficulty.  Lessons include common everyday scenarios, such as meetings, job interviews, restaurants, and shopping. As their tagline suggests, one of the objectives was to make the conversations humorous and entertaining. With voice recognition, users pronunciation is also evaluated, but student’s wit is not (next version!). And because you’re speaking into a phone, you get great practice at how to walk down the street and jabber into your phone at the same time! Extra points for colliding with other pedestrians while using this app.

The dialogs needed to be funny, equally interesting regardless of the branch pursued, but incorporate specific topics and vocabulary. Working on this project re-sparked my love for writing.   Shaunie and I had a lot of fun working together, coming up with story lines and witty responses. It was both a challenging and rewarding couple weeks, with a lot of hard work and good laughs.

From Shaunie:

Brian has a flare for writing. We wanted material that was funny but could be internationally understood, light and uplifting but still pedagogically sound. Brian’s work exactly fit the bill. With some post-writing editing and proofing, we were able to use all of Brian’s material for our product. Too often, dialog material written for language training is stodgy and uninteresting. Brian made it come to life. He was able to maintain the naturalness of speech, write with a bit of an ‘edge’ but not overdone, and meanwhile incorporate vocabulary and grammar control. This is actually much harder to do than it sounds, and not everyone is capable of handling such demands and restrictions.

It is really amazing how new technology is allowing us to come up with innovative and creative products with really effective practical solutions.  So cool to be a part of this project! Video production will be taking place soon in Israel, which I may be able to come back and help with. Shaunie and I have also discussed continuing our collaborative writing for future versions via Skype. So stay tuned for more on Speaking Pal!

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