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MP3 Files Will Revolutionize Your Language Learning
by Reid Wilson, editor of Language Learning
First Appeared: Language Learning #22
I realize that the word "revolutionize" is overused these days.
In fact, I'm guessing that not every reader will make it this far into
the article--either some spam defense system or personal dislike for
presumed hyperbole will cut this article off before it is given a
However, I think that in this case "revolutionize" is exactly the
correct word. In fact, creating, using, and sharing MP3 files has
already had a profound effect on my personal language learning, and for
my wife, and for a friend who has volunteered to contribute an article
on this topic which will hopefully be ready for the next issue of Language
So, I make a promise to myself and to you: This is the only time in
the year 2000 that I will use the word "revolutionize" or any
form thereof in Language Learning. But in spite of this only being the
end of January, I'm excited to use this word even one time as I bring
to you a truly super-potential idea:
MP3 files will revolutionize your language learning.
1. "MP3" and "sex" are the two most common words
searched for on the internet these days. An MP3 file is a type of audio file
that can be listened to on your computer and also on portable MP3
players. Other types of computer audio formats exist, but MP3s have
become very popular because they compress audio information very well
without loosing much sound quality. For example, a typical music CD
holds around 65 minutes of music, but about 650 minutes of music
converted to MP3 files will fit on a single CD. (For more general information
on the MP3 file format, go to http://www.mp3.about.com.)
While MP3 files typically contain music, this article suggests converting
taped recordings of spoken language into MP3 files.
2. This article assumes
that the reader understands that getting tons of comprehensible input
is the primary key to successful language learning. Not only that, this
article will be the most exciting to those who are familiar with Greg Thomson's
suggestion to gradually build a fifty-hour comprehensible corpus of
totally understood recorded material in the language being learned. See
Language Learning #19: "The Comprehensible
Corpus: A Security Blanket in Challenging Language Learning Situations"
by Greg Thomson.
3. I mention several specific products by name in this
article. I'm not associated with these companies in any way
and make no money from these references. (But in the future I
may seek out a sponsor or two to subsidize my personal costs
in doing this newsletter. Ultimately this newsletter is a
hobby for me, although it of course helps me as a language
learner and as a university language teacher. I'm not in it
for the money but wouldn't mind finding a couple sponsors or
associates to help offset my costs--this will be even more
relevant when I announce a new newsletter website in the near
The Basic Idea
MP3 files are great for language learners because cassette
recordings of spoken language can be easily converted into MP3
files and then organized, listened to an indefinite number of
times, "worked through" with a tutor or friend phrase-by-phrase, and shared with other learners via the internet, e-mail, floppy disks, and recordable CD-ROMs. Translations of
the audio foreign language content on the file and information
about the speaker (dialect, etc.) can also be embedded into
file, just as song lyrics can be embedded into music files.
MP3 files can greatly increase your exposure to comprehensible
input. And getting tons and tons of comprehensible input is
the single greatest thing you can do to maximize your language
learning. In the past cassettes have been the primary means
for building a comprehensible corpus, but now MP3 files and
digital recorders will make cassettes obsolete as tools for
maximizing language learning.
Let me illustrate how MP3 files can revolutionize language
learning by discussing the language learning potential for
three different kinds of language learners.
Example #1: John, full-time learner of French, living in Paris
Let's say a guy named John is already an intermediate speaker
of French and is currently living in Paris as a full-time
language student working with a language tutor four days a
week for an hour and a half a day.
John spends a good bit of his time out and about with his tape
recorder. He regular asks different people--friends, other
people who seem pretty nice, and someone for whom he tutors
English--to say things into his microphone for him. At his
current level he's asking people to describe in detail what
they did the day before, from waking up to going to bed.
John's French is good enough that he gets a good dose of
comprehensible input during these visiting and recording
outings, but he also knows that there are many words that he
misses the first time he hears anything. But recently he's
stumbled upon a revolutionary way to increase his exposure to
French and to systematically grow his ability to understand
it: MP3 files.
One day after John has gotten 30 to 45 minutes of recorded
French, he goes home and boots up his computer. He connects
his tape recorder to his computer with a simple cord and then
uses Syntrillium's Cool Edit 2000 (http://www.syntrillium.com)
to convert his tape into MP3 files, one file for each
speaker/topic/text that he has. (This day he makes six new
files, ranging in length from two minutes to eleven minutes.)
While doing this he listens to the texts and removes the
extraneous "uh's" and long pauses that are inevitable in
informal recording. He also gets a second, closer listening of
his new recordings at the same time.
John has developed a file naming strategy so that he can know
the speaker and the topic just by looking at the name of the
file. He also includes a code for the quality of the recording
in the filename, so that he can pass his best files on to his
After converting his taped material, he listens to it again on
his computer. He notes the relative difficulty of his new
texts and decides that three of them are perfect to work on
with his tutor now and that three are a little too difficult
for the time being. He puts these in two different directories
on his hard drive: "current" and "later".
A little while later John's tutor comes over and he and John
spend the next hour and a half working through the three texts
John has chosen for that day. He loads up the first text into
Cool Edit 2000, selects the first ten to twenty seconds or so,
zooms to view the selection, and plays that selection by
pushing the space bar. He asks his tutor about a word he
doesn't know, makes a note of it in his notebook, and then
relistens to the segment, now understanding it. He then goes
on to the next twenty seconds of the text. By simply pushing
the space bar he can start and stop the player. Sometimes he
understands the whole twenty seconds, sometimes he has to ask
for several words or phrases; either way he works through the
whole text step by step.
Once he gets to the end of the text, he then listens to it
again with his tutor and his notes, making sure he got
everything that was unclear to him. At this point he may still
not understand every word, but he understands the text as
whole significantly more than he did when he first heard it,
and he's got his notes to refer to until he does understand
the whole thing. Then he goes on to his other two texts, and
is able to finish the three texts in the hour and a half,
getting about fifty new words in his notebook while doing it.
After his tutor leaves, John loads several MP3 files onto his
portable MP3 player, with is much smaller than a portable
cassette player. (Mine is a raveMP which can be read about at http://www.ravemp.com. The Diamond Rio is the original and
most popular: http://www.rioport.com.) John's 32MB player can
hold over two hours of French at the sampling rate he saves
his MP3 files at (32K, high quality), which is more than he
needs for his 45-minute daily walk. He loads some of three
kinds of files onto it: those he already understands all of
but wants to review, those he is currently working on, and
those "on deck" that are a little too hard for him now.
John goes for his walk and listens to French, then afterwards
showers and goes to visit some French-speaking friends, where
he will spend a couple hours in free conversation. More and
more during his free conversations he notices words he's
learned from his texts showing up all over the place, and he
wonders how he never noticed or heard those words before. Over
time he is able to use the new words as well.
John is super-excited about learning French these days, and he
feels he has the technology and approach in order to maximize
his limited time in France while also creating materials he'll
be able to take with him back to the States when his current
study period is over.
Example #2: Mark, a businessman living in Paris, and a friend
Mark has lived in France for six years and speaks French
fairly well. However, he's really busy with his job these
days, and sadly for him a lot of his work is done in English.
He doesn't have much time for French study or developing
significant French friendships, and is thus delighted that
John has offered to share his MP3 files and notes with him.
Once Mark gets the files from John (either from floppy disk,
e-mail, or CD-ROM), he then listens to them on his computer
while he surfs the internet and downloads e-mail and he also
listens to them on his MP3 player while exercising. (While
listening on his computer Mark loves to use the free
MusicMatch Jukebox because he can create playlists of his
different French MP3 files, throwing in some French music that
he has as well. (You can find that at http://www.download.com.) While Mark's French is better than
John's--at the moment at least-- John's MP3 files still
contain some words that Mark doesn't know, so Mark is happy
that his friend includes a copy of his vocabulary notes along
with the files.
Mark feels that he now has a way to maintain his French in
spite of his busy lifestyle, and he's already seen increased
fluency when he uses his French with people he encounters at
the market and post office. His motivation has also increased
now that he feels he has good resources to support his
efforts, and he's hoping to make some French friends who don't
speak English, something that would be a first for him.
Example #3: Susan, French teacher in rural Oklahoma
Susan has a B.A. in French and teaches French I, II, and III
at her town's high school. She loves the French language but
until now has only been able to travel to France for a total
of about six weeks. She rarely gets to use her French with
anyone who speaks the language well and feels that her ability
may actually be deteriorating over time even though she speaks
it to her students every day. The French language learning
tapes that she has found in Oklahoma or in catalogs were
created for beginners or sometimes low intermediates and she's
unable to find much for speakers at her level. She has found
some French broadcasts over the internet, but has to stand in
line with the other four internet users in her household, and
feels guilty for taking up the phone for so long when she
listens to them.
However, John has converted a couple of his language learning
friends in Paris into MP3 junkies, and together the group of
them are sharing their files with each other. Excited about
the potential of what they are doing, they decide to share
their files with their French teachers back home by posting
the files and notes to an internet site that allows free
internet storage with public access (such as http://www.netdrive.com,
or http://www.xdrive.com.) They e-mail their teachers about these
files, and their teachers become huge fans and ask if they can
tell their colleagues about them. They are nice people and
say, "Sure!" (A 100 MB free internet file storage site can
hold over six and a half hours of French at a 32K sample rate.
A homemade CD-ROM can hold over forty hours.)
Through this Susan hears about the internet file site and
downloads a few of the files to check them out. (Her children
are already MP3 music fans, so she is familiar with the file
type.) She loves the way that she can listen to the files
(offline) over and over on her computer and appreciates the
vocabulary notes too, so she downloads all of the files that
the Paris bunch has made available and writes them to ask them
to keep up their great work. She's currently bidding on MP3
players at http://www.ebay.com, and in the meanwhile has found
that she can record the MP3 files from her computer onto her
cassette to listen to in her Sony Walkman while she is cooking
and doing the dishes. She's especially intrigued at the MP3
files containing texts from different dialects around France
Susan is so thrilled about this new tool for her French that
she starts making MP3 files in English to share with her
computer-savvy Vietnamese friends down the street.
I've put a sample MP3 file (with no notes) on the Language Impact web
site. The name of the
file is myo006y5.mp3. It's a 398 KB file containing a minute
and forty one seconds of a friend of my wife talking in
Modern Standard Arabic about what she had done the day before.
There is much, much more that I could say. And future issues
of Language Learning will discuss many more
specifics about MP3 file creation, use, and sharing, including
some very practical how-to's.
But for now you can learn more by checking out the references
to the software and web sites given above and by re-reading
this article a couple times and thinking about how MP3 files
could support your own language learning. Especially play
around with Cool Edit 2000, not only for making MP3 files but
for listening to them one phrase at a time. The demo is free
and the full version is $69--by far the best $69 we've ever
spent on language learning.
I should also add that probably a couple of you have "GREAT
BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY" flashing in your heads at the moment.
Yes, it is. Put thirty hours of, for example, French, on a CD
with a nice user interface for starters and then create a
subscription service where you distribute ten hours of new
material (with notes, of course) every month on CD. Be sure
and include stuff for beginning, intermediate, and advanced
learners. At this moment in my life I'm not going to pursue
it, so you feel free to: Ready, Set, Go. And maybe share some
of your eventual product with me as I have shared with you,
especially if you develop CDs of MP3 files for Arabic, French,
Portuguese, and/or English!
I personally would prefer seeing groups of friends of language
learners creating collections of language-specific MP3 texts
as part of their own language learning experiences and then
sharing them for free with each other and over the internet,
and I'll talk about that more in future issues as well. (And
I'll try to be a good example of that with my own Arabic MP3
files--in fact I've started doing that a bit by burning about
four hours' worth of my files onto a CD which I then passed out
at a language learning seminar I led last week for some Arabic
learners, with the next version being targeted for some
language learning friends I have around here. If you share
them with your friends via CD, be sure and include the freely
distributed shareware programs that are needed to create and
use them, as well as copies of Language Learning too if you
If you do put your files on the internet, let me know how to
access them and I'll put that information in future issues of
the Language Learning newsletter.
Together we can fundamentally change and significantly improve
current approaches to second language learning, perhaps
enabling all of us to understand each other a little bit
this article in Language Impact's Language Learning communities.