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The Bridge to China story

By Chris J Dillon, on 23 May 2014

The Bridge to China ELDG is now long spent (many thanks!), but this is a good place to write a short account of the experiment of using wikis for language learning at UCL.

The story starts with an intuition I had in 2008 and was absolutely not based on the language-learning research of the time which generally did not mention the word wiki. The intuition was that a wiki could be used systematically to arrange the formal aspects of a language – the rules, exceptions and lists that form the nuts and bolts of a language.

I was teaching myself Norwegian at the time and had run out of reasonably priced materials. I met Margrethe Alexandroni, Teaching Fellow in Norwegian in UCL’s Department of Scandinavian Studies and a gifted author of Norwegian short stories. The stories were in electronic format on floppy discs. We transferred them to the wiki and added vocabularies, grammar, exercises, a dictionary and some MP3s. It was huge fun and now represents the world’s largest free and open resource of Norwegian language learning materials.

A change of job in 2012 made Mandarin Chinese a major part of my working life. I decided that, instead of going to a language class, I would go the wiki route again. I gathered a team of about ten around me including Selina Zheng from UCL CLIE and we collected sentences which were then analyzed into categories to build a grammar.

However, we did hit the buffers in one area. We simply could not get hold of Mandarin conversations. I dashed off an application for an ELDG and was delighted when the response was yes. For the £1,000 we got fifty conversations, written by two students who had provided huge amounts of voluntary work on the wiki and so it was good to be able to say thank you in a practical way. They produced so much, Chinese transliterating, annotating and editing was coming out of my ears for weeks. Heaven!

img: Recording conversations for Bridge to China

Recording conversations for Bridge to China

And now for two hours each week students gather in my office for recordings and we are now up to conversation 27 of 50.

One suspects that this is a robust approach. If it works for languages as different as Norwegian and Mandarin. Obviously I do all I can to promote further language wikis at UCL. I have a feeling the next one may be in India or Eastern Europe and fortunately they have bears in both locations. (We used a polar bear and a panda as a logo for the projects.)

So, conclusion “Don’t worry if there’s no research, if you know it will work, just do it!” and smile sweetly at the naysayers. How else are we going to discover new things? Others elsewhere simultaneously made the same discovery and now wikis and languages have almost become respectable.

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