Carnegie Mellon University

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Episode 6

Scheines and van Compernolle

Episode 6: Language Learning in Real Life

Rémi Adam van Compernolle explores sociopragmatics — the roles that language use and language learning play in everyday social practices. In this episode, he describes how he studies second language development in classroom settings and via technology. A faculty member in Second Language Acquisition and French and Francophone Studies, van Compernolle once thought he’d study music performance or communication design, but a human behavior course helped him to discover what he could become passionate about.

Transcript

Full Episode

Transcript

Richard Scheines: Hello and welcome to the On Humanity podcast. I'm Richard Scheines, the dean of the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University. With me today is Rémi Adam Van Compernolle from our Department of Modern Languages. Rémi is the brilliant William S. Dietrich II Career Development Professor of Second Language Acquisition in French and Francophone studies. Welcome, Adam.

R. Van Compernolle: Thanks for having me.

Richard Scheines:  Great to have you. So Adam, you're in an area that's called second language acquisition. Give us some sense of what that's about generally before we ask where you fit in that space.

R. Van Compernolle: So, second language acquisition is part of a bigger applied linguistics field that looks at real world problems dealing with language. Second language acquisition is specifically looking at how people – and I focus on more adults – develop abilities in a language beyond their first language, so usually college students or adults learning in instructed settings how to use, think through, understand additional languages.

Richard Scheines:  So you can think about that from a lot of different perspectives. We could look at how the brain works for a first language and how it works for a second language. We could look at it cognitively, we could look at how one thinks of a second language. What is your particular role in that space?

R. Van Compernolle: So, I say that I'm kind of a socio-cognitive in that I'm interested in the psychology of additional language learning but situated squarely in the social environment of that development, and basically what I look at are issues of thinking and speaking, concept formation in a second language, as well as kind of the moment to moment cognition on the ground, as some people call it, as people are engaging in learning activity.

Richard Scheines:  So for example, when everybody learns a language for the first time my impression is that they always go through a phase where they're translating the second language into their first language figuring out what they want to say in their first language and then translating back.

R. Van Compernolle: Right.

Richard Scheines:  Is there a certain stage at which, okay, I'm going native now, I'm going to think in the second language itself?

R. Van Compernolle: So, there's –

Richard Scheines:  Does that actually happen?

R. Van Compernolle: I think there is some different – I know there's some kind of experimental and psycholinguistic evidence looking at when a second language system is completely internalized. There's also evidence in bilingualism and multilingualism that if you have more than one linguistic system you're actually in a hybrid space and you're not necessarily switching one off and turning the other on, and so some of the work of Aneta Pavlenko, for example, looking at Russians and learning English you can do these color experiments where they need – Russian has light blue versus dark blue as a necessary or obligatory distinction, whereas it's all blue or shades of blue for English, and showing that Russians, for example, who learn English start to actually blur this distinction where monolingual Russians are – you know, if you show them a color spectrum they agree almost 100 percent on where that division is between light and dark. With English speakers they'll say, "Well, over here's much lighter, over here is much darker but it's all blue," and the bilinguals are just kind of somewhere in between.

Richard Scheines:  Well, that's really interesting. So there really is sort of a merging of your way to think of the world when you learn a second language.

R. Van Compernolle: Yeah. And one thing that we get with – I teach a lot of French – are problems with emotion events, that different languages encode emotion in different ways. So you'll have English speakers wanting to run down the stairs and you can't do that in French because you have to descend the stairs, and you can do it while running but you can't actually run down the stairs, and so French and English speakers conceptualize those events in different wants.

Richard Scheines:  Interesting. So, what are the particular problems in that space that you have worked on and found really interesting?

R. Van Compernolle: Most of my work has been in pragmatics and sociopragmatics, which is less about being correct in terms of the forms and more about using forms appropriately in social context, in ways that index aspects of social relationships and identity.

Richard Scheines:  So more about communicating what you actually mean as opposed to using syntax properly.

R. Van Compernolle: Right.

Richard Scheines:  Grammar properly, et cetera.

R. Van Compernolle: Right. And the syntax in grammar participate in that, but you might have something – like in French, one of the main areas that I've focused on for a number of years is the second person address system. So in French, like Spanish and German and a number of other languages, you have to make a choice when you say you, so we have _____ [0:04:48, foreign language spoken here] in French and usually in textbooks it'll be described as informal versus formal.

Richard Scheines:  Right, same thing in Spanish. Right.

R. Van Compernolle: Something like this, yeah. And the problem is that's not actually how it works. The way that it works is that when you – it's what's called a double indexical, and so it says something about you, the choice that you make, as well as how you perceive the relationship between you and the person you're talking to or addressing. And so the concept that we're actually trying to make explicit and available to learners so they can navigate this system, because you can't just write out a list of rules, is that on one side you're reflecting yourself as being maybe a little bit more relaxed or a little bit more formal but on the other side you're telling the other person the way that you conceptualize the relationship as being potentially close versus distant, and then the negotiation with another person, if you're having a symmetrical relationship, means that both of you use the same pronoun.

 That puts you kind of on an even playing field as opposed to having an asymmetrical one person saying _____ [0:05:53, foreign language spoken here] and the other person saying _____ [0:05:54, foreign language spoken here]. It really highlights some kind of status difference or a power dynamic.

Richard Scheines:  Is there an analog in English?

R. Van Compernolle: I mean –

Richard Scheines:  People refer to each other as sir sometimes or –

R. Van Compernolle: So it could be something like in a university setting undergraduates calling professors Dr. Last Name, and the professor saying, you know, Tom or something like this, right? And that would kind of be an analog in French –

Richard Scheines:  The formal.

R. Van Compernolle: Yeah, of professors saying _____ [0:06:24, foreign language spoken here] to a student and, you know, requiring _____ [0:06:27, foreign language spoken here] in return. Yeah.

Richard Scheines:  Got it. So if you refer to someone by their title that's the analog to the formal.

R. Van Compernolle: Yeah, yeah.

Richard Scheines:  And how do you teach that? So when you're teaching with students that seems to be very sensitive to context and very sensitive to having a fairly sophisticated grasp of what the expectation is about formal relationships or power relationships.

R. Van Compernolle: So the way that I've gone about teaching this and what a lot of my research has been on is teaching us through the concepts of self-presentation, social distance and power, and rather than teaching rules for when to use one or the other, because those actually start to come in conflict, 'cause you'll have a rule like use _____ [0:07:10, foreign language spoken here here] with people your own age and use _____ [0:07:12, foreign language spoken here] with people you don't know, and so what do you do when it's someone your own age that you don't know, right? We'll teach the concepts of self-presentation, social distance and power and how they work together as a system, and so we have a lot of explicit instruction about the categories of meaning that you can point to when you use these pronouns and try to get them actually to go through problem-solving activities.

They'll do kind of language worksheets basically where they'll be presented with different situations and they have to figure out which pronoun they would do not because it's the right answer but the meanings that they could be indexing by doing something.

Richard Scheines:  So you're teaching problem-solving in context.

R. Van Compernolle: Yeah.

Richard Scheines:  What series of steps or questions to ask to get to the place they need to get to?

R. Van Compernolle: So the first thing we do is we teach the concepts and we actually give them diagrams, so I use pictures. So the self-presentation is a picture of t-shirt and jeans versus being in suit and tie, social distance is two people being close together versus far apart, and power is two people at the same level versus people at different levels, one above the other, and we ask them to use those diagrams to solve a communication problem. So we'll start off with really straightforward situations; you know, you're at a party a friend. What do you say to him, right? And they'll say, "Oh, well, you know, t-shirt and jeans applies, closeness applies, and there's no power difference."

But then we start introducing different degrees of ambiguity. So one of the situations I like is an age peer but it's a service encounter and you don't know the person, so all of a sudden you have these three different competing rules because –

Richard Scheines: You don't go to a restaurant and they're the waiter.

R. Van Compernolle: Yeah.

Richard Scheines:  Right.

R. Van Compernolle: And that's the thing, so age peer, that should be _____ [0:08:57, foreign language spoken here] but it's a service encounter so _____ [0:08:58, foreign language spoken here], plus you don't know them, so maybe _____ [0:09:00, foreign language spoken here], but does the age override any – you know, how does this work?

Richard Scheines:  Is it like a voting system, so two out of three? [Laughs]

R. Van Compernolle: Well, yeah, and that's – the issue is it's not getting to the right answer so much as considering what the consequences of choosing one or the other would be since we're not trying to teach them correct/incorrect. But let's say if you're indexing distance in that situation how would someone interpret distance? In a service encounter it's likely to be appreciated and seen as appropriate because you don't know them. At the same time, we do have students go study abroad, for example, and because they don't know people they start using _____ [0:09:38, foreign language spoken here], and if you're 18 or 19 talking to another student the student thinks you're putting up a barrier to getting to know them because they have potential friend status, right?

Richard Scheines:  Interesting.

R. Van Compernolle: So we try to teach them to problem solve and negotiate through the complexities of that kind of a system.

Richard Scheines:  Fascinating. So in terms of the research side of it, when you do research on these kind of issues do you do experiments like psychologists? Do you do reading like a historian? What's your evidence?

R. Van Compernolle: So we do experiments in the real world, basically, and the real world for me is the classroom, and so, yeah, we've designed these experimental classrooms usually in a real curriculum so that it's actually meaningful and there are stakes for the students because it gets integrated into the syllabus and they get graded on it, whether or not they're participating in a study or not as part of the class. And so we run the study, we collect the data, we do both quantitative and qualitative data collection so that we get things like test scores and performances, we get communication data, we get awareness data, and we also try to get to know the students and where they're coming from. In a place like CMU there's a really diverse student population who are coming from international backgrounds and other multilingual backgrounds and so it's really interesting to see how they orient to these concepts in a way that allows them to – how would I say? – instead of us dictating how you ought to be it gives them the choices actually to reflect their own identities and cultural backgrounds because they might choose to maintain a different kind of stance.

So we've seen this with Korean students, for example, who opt actually to maintain a different kind of social relationship especially with older interlocutors because that fits into their background, right? As opposed to American students who might have more of a social concept of egalitarianism or something like this, at least linguistically, who kind of go on –

Richard Scheines:  Yeah, like they call me, "Yo, Dean." [Laughs]

R. Van Compernolle: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. I was Dr. Rémi yesterday, you know? Yeah, so that's what we're trying to give them is access to this system of meanings that they can create instead of just trying to get them to get –

Richard Scheines:  And self-reflectively so.

R. Van Compernolle: Yeah. Exactly.

Richard Scheines:  Really interesting. So go back for a second, let's talk about, you know, your research. Give me an example of some question that you actually found interesting and the experiment you did in the class to examine that question and what you found.

R. Van Compernolle: Right. So based on this work in pragmatics, what I've developed is this approach to doing second language instruction called concept-based pragmatics instruction.

Richard Scheines:  Which is?

R. Van Compernolle: And what that means is that we teach these concepts of self-presentation, social distance and power to teach pragmatics, so things like _____ [0:12:38, foreign language spoken here] in French, and in this particular case we were doing _____ [0:12:42, foreign language spoken here] in Spanish, which works pretty much the same way as in French. We got to the Spanish study because in previous French studies we found that we had got to them kind of late and they had to unlearn a whole bunch of rules and things that were kind of misguiding them. So we got to Spanish one and wanted to try out and basically say, "Can we start from the beginning with this?"

You know, is it going to be too complex because this is a semantic and conceptual system that they don't necessarily have any linguistic basis for understanding? And so we did it in two Spanish classrooms in the same semester taught by difference instructors, and we integrated this concept-based pragmatics instruction into the curriculum, and what we showed is that they actually started recognizing how the pragmatics can play out in Spanish. The fun problem with the study, the fun finding I guess actually, was that the conceptual system really outpaced control over morphology, and this was something we hadn't –

Richard Scheines:  And morphology is for our listeners out there?

[Laughter]

R. Van Compernolle: Word forms.

Richard Scheines:  Got it.

R. Van Compernolle: And so what happened was in French it didn't matter that much because French, the pronoun _____ [0:14:04, foreign language spoken here] is always present except in imperatives, so a command form. In Spanish though, Spanish is a pro drop language, and pro drop means the pronoun doesn't have to be there and they use pronouns – subject pronouns in Spanish as emphasis basically and they have a strong verbal morphology, so the end of the verb tells you if it's first, second, third person, singular or plural, and that's not the case in French. So what we found is the conceptual system was developing really well and they were able to recognize and tell us what they were trying to do in their language, how they were supposed to – trying to relate to different interlocuters and we had these role play activities as well as these other kind of tasks, and then we realized actually that the verb forms themselves were actually giving them trouble because Spanish morphology is really complicated because there are forms that look very similar to others and it takes a long time.

But the finding was interesting because usually it's actually the meaning that's really hard for students to get, so we actually seemed to reverse the process. Most people get form before meaning, and what we got them to was meaning while they were still figuring out the forms.

Richard Scheines:  So they got to the meaning faster by teaching them this concept-based approach that you've pioneered.

R. Van Compernolle: Yeah. And the idea was – our claim at least or what our question – our next question basically is if given enough time them does that make the forms just that much easier because now they have a conceptual system to fit the forms into instead of trying to have 1,000 forms and then try to figure out where they go in the system of meaning.

Richard Scheines:  Cool. So, can I ask you how technology relates to your research and how you actually view the technology that's ubiquitous now, like Duolingo, things like that? How do you use technology in your own study and research or teaching?

R. Van Compernolle: Yeah. So I guess because I would be called a digital native or a Xennial at least I think is the right thing. So I remember having an analog childhood but basically technology has just been forever part of my adult life. I use it in my research pretty ubiquitously not because I'm trying to do something with technology but –

Richard Scheines:  It makes it easier.

R. Van Compernolle: – it just happens to be the right tool. In the concept-based instruction studies we often use it for communication tasks, and this is for very practical considerations. We've used Google Chat to do kind of quasi synchronous communication, especially with beginning learners who might not be able to sustain a spoken conversation, but with that little bit of time delay, so that's the quasi synchronous time, right?

Richard Scheines:  They get a chance to compose their answer?

R. Van Compernolle: And to kind of reflect on the previous utterance and kind of break it down, and so while you might only get 40 or 50 turns in a role play over 20 minutes they've at least been able to participate in some kind of interactive discourse.

Richard Scheines:  Well, that's great. I mean –

R. Van Compernolle: So we've used it that way.

Richard Scheines:  This is problem like when you travel abroad and you decide you're going to be bold and use the foreign language.

R. Van Compernolle: Yeah.

Richard Scheines:  You know, you compose an utterance and you give it and it's fine and then they assume that you must be a competent speaker and give you back the answer in rapid fire or _____.

R. Van Compernolle: And it's ephemeral and it just goes away, right?

Richard Scheines:  [Laughs] And then you have – you know, you need 10 minutes to figure out what they said and compose your own answer and by then you're in English.

R. Van Compernolle: So that's one way we've used it in addition to kind of more standard – I mean we've used Blackboard and Canvas before for making quizzes that are part of the research and these sorts of things, but the other project that I've been working on that integrates the concept-based instruction is how to give students more opportunities to run through problem-solving, and teachers get bored with this and it's not necessarily the best use of class time, for example. But if you can –

Richard Scheines:  A computer is infinitely patient.

R. Van Compernolle: And that's the thing, a computer doesn't get bored. They don't care if you do this 900 times or something. So one of the things that I've been doing is actually using my own route of entry coding skills is building apps where the concepts – so the diagrams as well as some flowcharts are kind of built into a problem-solving game, and it doesn't look very nice right now but hopefully – you know, it's working. But the idea is that it's integrated into an app. Right now it's just on computer but it can be exported for IOS and Android as well, and essentially as we just build out more content they will have just hundreds of opportunities to go through these problem-solving activities with concept-based feedback available to them, and the idea is that we can distribute the labor in such a way where the teacher in the classroom can deal with the higher level conceptual issues, providing real-time feedback in spoken interaction, these sorts of things, and they can go home for homework and spend an hour going through this game and kind of pushing their understanding of the concepts or use of the concepts.

Richard Scheines:  I'm nodding my head vigorously because I'm involved in technology and education and I get still in 2020 people saying, "Well, isn't it just gonna replace the professor? We don't want to do that."

R. Van Compernolle: No.

Richard Scheines:  And the answer I've always given is, "No, it's going to replace the parts of teaching the professor's not good at because they're not able to actually devote the number of hours, be patient infinitely, and then allow the professor to do what they're best at," which is exactly the kind of thing you described."

R. Van Compernolle: And that's it, yeah. So the higher level cognitive issues for the teacher and then these boring, repeated exercises that the –

Richard Scheines:  Which the students need to do and they need to get good feedback on and that's the trick.

R. Van Compernolle: Yeah. Exactly.

Richard Scheines:  I'm really happy you're doing that. That's great. So that was very interesting and I could ask you many more questions about your research, but let me change topics and ask how did you come to be a professor? I mean what was your undergraduate experience like? What was the moment you decided, okay, I'm actually going to go into the academy?

R. Van Compernolle: Yeah, so that was not the original idea and came after a couple of different major changes. So I originally went as music performance, playing trumpet kind of with the backup plan was to be a band director in high school.

Richard Scheines:  So music was it.

R. Van Compernolle: Yeah.

Richard Scheines:  Where did you go to college?

 R. Van Compernolle: University of North Texas, which –

Richard Scheines:  North Texas.

 R. Van Compernolle: – if anybody knows anything about jazz and music that is one of the places to be. So the 1:00 Jazz Band, I thought that was going to be where I was and go record albums and all of that, but I switched before the semester even started because I didn't want to do the music theory.

 [Laughter]

And yeah, I wanted to stay a musician but excel in mediocrity in music because it's fun and it makes me happy but I don't want to study it. [Laughs]

Richard Scheines:  Yeah, it's interesting how working at that kind of thing can really ruin it.

R. Van Compernolle: Yeah, yeah.

Richard Scheines:  To a certain point.

R. Van Compernolle: So, yes, my first switch was to communication design, which was in the art school that had connections with advertising, and the idea was learning how to do art and design and these sorts of things for basically advertising, and so I went through –

Richard Scheines:  Which is where the money is.

R. Van Compernolle: Yeah, although not for the communication design folks, apparently. The artists are still poor and starving, apparently. But kind of like with music, at the end of the first year we had to submit portfolios of all of our samples to see if we were going to be admitted to the second year as real majors and I remember working on this 1,000 thumbnail project where I had to sketch the same thing 1,000 times on this massive kind of like three-foot-by-four-feet piece of paper, and by about, you know, thumbnail 100 I just thought there's no way I'm doing this. [Laughs]

Richard Scheines:  So I've got to stop you and say to the audience this is one of the hardest-working guys I've even seen and now he's left music and art because it was too much work. [Laughs]

R. Van Compernolle: Yeah, yeah. And I think it goes back to the idea of it's not what you're passionate about at the moment but what you can become passionate about. So what had happened is as one of my electives I'd taken a course in applied behavior analysis and really liked it, so I took – it was this intro course basically in Pavlov and Skinner, so learning about human behavior, and I thought, hey, that was kind of interesting, and my TA for that class was really cool and I thought let's go take some more classes. And I ended up declaring a major in it and getting really into it.

Richard Scheines:  In applied behavioral analysis?

R. Van Compernolle: Yeah, applied behavioral analysis. I worked at the Texas State School for a little while as part of that program with like really low functioning adults and learning how to do different kinds of behavioral analyses and come up with intervention plans and these sorts of things, and at the same time I got to know some people who were in the foreign language department and decided to pursue French as a way of kind of recovering a heritage language. So my family is of Belgian heritage but that early 20th century – so they came over in the '20s –

Richard Scheines:  They were from the south of Belgium.

R. Van Compernolle: Yeah.

Richard Scheines:  Where they speak French, right?

R. Van Compernolle: Yes, exactly. They were good _____. They were actually bilingual, though. They also spoke Flemish. But at that time in the US when you came, one of the things was you speak English because you're going be an American now. So they got a small land grant in New Mexico and stamped the Flemish and French out of the family, and so I thought that would be fun to recover and maybe go explore and do other things, you know, maybe go study abroad or something like that.

And what happened is that however the course calendars worked, by the time it came to graduating I decided – because I'd started working in French linguistics and I wanted to a masters in it, that I had to drop the major in behavior analysis because I would have had to stick around for a whole other year for a capstone class, and I thought I can just start grad school anyway, so I just took the minor instead of the dual major and went into French.

Richard Scheines:  But you knew you wanted to go to graduate school by then.

Van Compernolle: At that point, because I had met the professor who became my long-term mentor and coauthor actually, Lawrence Williams, and so I had him as an undergraduate professor and we started working on a project together and that led during my masters to a number of publications that started in pragmatics and sociolinguistics and we were focusing on computer-mediated communication. So this was in about 2004 that we started working on that and doing corpus analyses of whether it's _____ [0:25:34, foreign language spoken here] but also a number of other grammatical and pragmatic variables in French and seeing how people were using it on the internet basically.

Richard Scheines:  This is so interesting. It's so common, you know? Somebody has a mentor that they really, really resonate with and really encourages them and then they get interested almost as an apprentice and then they blossom on their own.

R. Van Compernolle: Yeah.

Richard Scheines:  So then how did you come to go to a Ph.D. program?

R. Van Compernolle: Well, it follows through with that mentoring aspect. So Lawrence was a relatively young professor when I started working with him, so I was his first grad student so I think I got extra attention for that.

Richard Scheines:  Oh, yeah.

R. Van Compernolle: Yeah, you work a little bit harder with your first advisee than everybody else. [Laughs]

Richard Scheines:  Definitely. You want them to succeed. Because then the next students know who you tutored first and said, "Oh, this guy can actually make that happen."

R. Van Compernolle: Yeah, and so since we worked on a number of projects and we published about four or five things before I went to my Ph.D., you know, basically he encouraged me to do it and I actually ended up at Penn State working under his former advisor, Celeste Kinginger, so it gets very familial, right?

Richard Scheines:  Father, grandfather, right. [Laughs]

R. Van Compernolle: Yeah. And so it was interesting, I went to Penn State then five years after he had graduated and was working with basically all the same people including one of his friends from grad school who had gone out and then had been rehired in the College of Education and was one of my supervisors on a major grant project, so that's kind of how it went.

Richard Scheines:  And then you came here.

R. Van Compernolle: Yeah.

Richard Scheines:  We were your first job out of your Ph.D.?

R. Van Compernolle: Yeah. 

Richard Scheines:  And what was it like establishing yourself as an independent researcher? I mean one of the things we always look carefully at is can people move from a graduate training context where there's a lot of support both from the intellectual direction and the details of how you get a publication to start and finish to being on your own where you have to define the problem, get it to happen and get the article out there and published. How was that?

R. Van Compernolle: So I think I was lucky because I had started so early with Lawrence publishing, so I think by the time I got here I think I had–

Richard Scheines:  You knew how to publish.

R. Van Compernolle: – fifteen or so, yeah, articles, so I knew how to do that. The challenge though was being at a new environment and not necessarily knowing kind of the ins and outs of if I want to go into a classroom who do I need to talk to and these sorts of things, because you didn't necessarily have an advisor to kind of grease the wheels a bit and make a phone call to somebody and all that. So that was – I don't know that it was challenging. We had a lot of support in modern languages from the various faculty, which has been an interesting experience that I know is not the same at other institutions where the faculty who are teaching the classes tend to be pretty open and welcoming for you coming into their class to do research.

Richard Scheines:  To do research on them and their class, right.

R. Van Compernolle: And that's been an interesting thing that's – you know, it's continued and been really helpful for my own students, most of whom do work in classrooms with senior faculty sometimes who are again willing to open up their classrooms and let us in to do things like video and audio record for an entire semester. You know, we have to record 40 hours of classroom interaction, for example.

Richard Scheines:  It takes some guts, because when you watch yourself teach it's sometimes painful.

R. Van Compernolle: Oh, it's terrible. I don't watch myself do any of this, yeah, yeah. I only watch other people.

[Laughter]

Richard Scheines:  Wonderful. Well, let me shift again to a topic about what's the future look like when it comes to second language acquisition, second language acquisition research, the sort of stuff you're doing with technology, et cetera? One of the things I'm very passionate about is really using virtual media, virtual reality, augmented reality, all kinds of different things, to help students learn about cultures, learn about language, learn language itself. What's your take on how virtual reality's gonna play?

R. Van Compernolle: So, virtual reality I think fits into this nice kind of combination and complementary approach to teaching where no technology can totally replace any other aspect of education. I think what's really exciting about virtual and augmented reality technology is it's almost just the wow factor. So one of the things that we look at in some of the technology research, and especially when we look at things like gaming versus just a tech-enhanced approach is that in itself it can be more interesting, which means that students are more engaged.

Richard Scheines:  Right. 

R. Van Compernolle: It's not that it has to necessarily totally reflect or mimic real life.

Richard Scheines:  Real interact with real people.

R. Van Compernolle: But it's just that it's neater to look at in some sense, right? And it's more engaging for that reason. Just like again it could be a board game, but that could be a board game where you're doing the same kind of problem solving as you could just have a worksheet, the board game is more engaging. I think that's kind of an interesting area for some of these technologies. From what I know what we can do with the AR and VR, the augmented and virtual reality, it's not that much different from some of the pen and paper and even tech versions of what we call discourse completion tasks, so that's basically you get – here's a statement and how do you respond, or you might even get a bigger chunk of an interaction and you're supposed to fill in some of the blanks.

Richard Scheines:  Right.

R. Van Compernolle: That's been around –

Richard Scheines:  For a long time.

R. Van Compernolle: – since the '70s at least in pragmatics research and then people have used it, just a computerized version of a text, people have used here's a video prompt, how do you respond, that kind of thing, and they're fine but the augmented and virtual reality work could be even more immersive and interesting.

Richard Scheines:  Yeah. Now there's this distinction I think you get a lot in interactive research between interfaces that truly interact and interfaces that are called Wizard of Oz, right? What that means is if I have a picture of an avatar, for example, and you are speaking into the microphone and I'm sitting on the side of the room listening to what you say I can then respond like I would as a human, but the avatar on the screen mouths the words as if I'm the one responding, but it's really me behind the scenes interacting as I would.

R. Van Compernolle: Right.

Richard Scheines:  So, that's very easy to simulate human interaction but it's quite expensive because you have to have someone sitting on the side of the room. The real goal I think to really make practice contextually rich and immersive is to have enough AI so that the machine can really respond intelligently as a human would, right, and we could put that into the guise of the human looking like they're speaking.

R. Van Compernolle: Yeah.

Richard Scheines:  I mean is that something that you're excited about or do you think it's coming?

R. Van Compernolle: I think it's coming in some form. One of the challenges is that a lot of the technology people aren't necessarily linguists or discourse analysts and have, let's say, kind of a simplistic or kind of naïve understanding of how language and communication work, or even if they are linguists, if they're not discourse analysts, for example, they don't study – they study the form of isolated sentences but not how people actually interact and negotiate actions –

Richard Scheines:  Which is rich and complicated.

R. Van Compernolle: Right. And so I do think there's some really interesting work to be done if we get people who have training – you know, like some of my training is in conversation analysis and that's one of the methods I use for qualitative analysis of human interaction and learning environments, so doing some of that and trying to understand what the different interactive as opposed to just kind of grammatical or syntactic parts of language are I think we could make some really interesting progress. At the same time, programming at the kind of utterance level could be really good for making a more closed system when you have very specific learning objectives where you wouldn't necessarily want AI to really kind of just go off into any direction, but you want it to be – especially if it's a game.

Richard Scheines:  Very specific, yeah. Like there's a really good set of programs teaching Japanese speakers, for example, the R versus the L sound.

R. Van Compernolle: Right.

Richard Scheines:  Which is extremely difficult.

R. Van Compernolle: Yeah, and this is – and in pragmatics we've had Julie Sykes at the University – well, she used to be at the University of Minnesota for her doctoral work, created something called Croquelandia which was a synthetic immersive environment, and I think AR and VR are kind of the next iteration of this idea of you have a little avatar who's going around some world doing language tasks in order to win the game or something.

Richard Scheines:  Right.

R. Van Compernolle: And the reason that it works is that if you have a specific learning objective you want lots and lots of repetition with some variation and –

Richard Scheines:  And feedback.

R. Van Compernolle: – and feedback on it so that you get lots of experience going through it.

Richard Scheines:  Is the feedback the issue, the problem? I mean in educational technology in general we know that getting students active exercises where they can do something is the key, but it's also they need good feedback.

R. Van Compernolle: Yeah.

Richard Scheines:  And that's the hard thing to get the computer to do. Multiple choice is easy. It's not worth that much. Especially in language it would seem that's the trick.

R. Van Compernolle: So that's one of the things that dovetails with some of the work I've done in assessment. A number of us work in what's called dynamic assessment, so the test actually involves feedback because what we're trying to get at is what is – in the process of formation basically, what abilities are currently developing as opposed to giving a static assessment where you're just seeing what has already developed, and so in dynamic assessment we actually integrate some form of teaching into the test itself and we've done this computerized dynamic assessment in French, Chinese, and Russian for reading and listening comprehension, and then one of my recent graduates, Chenu Chin, she actually developed it for Chinese pragmatics and developed a computerized assessment of that. And what happens is that with really – you can use really simple coding to just have a series of prompts that kind of help you, guide you to an answer that is correct, but some of the exciting work, if we can get more skilled programmers, is using adaptive technology.

So instead of just kind of the preprogrammed – you know, on the first try if you don't get it go to prompt one, if they still don't get it go to prompt two, et cetera, and you can actually program in kind of more personalized and nuanced feedback, and the idea again being that you want to give them just enough help to support them but not so much where you're just correcting them, because you want them actually to have to struggle and think about it and figure it –

Richard Scheines:  And there's a fine line, right.

R. Van Compernolle: And there's a really fine line, yeah.

Richard Scheines:  And we know that, yeah.

R. Van Compernolle: Yeah. So, yeah, you're right, the feedback or the assistance, that part is really key and that's the part that gets really difficult in a technology environment.

Richard Scheines:  But do you have hope? I mean it seems to me this is really an area where sophisticated computational technology – AI, et cetera – is really going to make a difference in the decades to come.

R. Van Compernolle: Oh, definitely. I think it really could, and again, I think the caveat is as long as the focus isn't just on the computational side but a very deep understanding of how human communication works and not just linguistics at this intentional level.

Richard Scheines:  Right. So, driverless cars and then very, very realistic pragmatically sophisticated interactive computational agents just around the corner. [Laughs]

R. Van Compernolle: Yeah, yeah. Sure. Why not?

Richard Scheines:  Well, thank you so much, really a pleasure talking to you, and we'll try to get you back here in five years when we have the computers doing what we hope they do and see what your take is on it then.

R. Van Compernolle: [Laughs] All right. Sounds good.

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