The most important feature of the system is its generative nature, which is to say that using implicit linguistic knowledge the system can produce nearly an infinite number of different examples of the 50 most common verbs in the English language. It is in essence a conjugation exercise. Incomplete sentences are presented to the user, and they are expected to enter the completed sentence below, conjugating the verb in the process.
Programs that automate the exercise of practising grammatical structures is by no means new (just look at the many CD based commercial examples around). The obvious problem with this type of system is that after the CD has been used for while it becomes obsolete. Has the student learnt the verb forms (for example) or merely learnt the examples that the system contains! The essential feature of The Virtual Verb Trainer, is its generative nature, something we believe to be a big step forward.
Interestingly enough the system does not contain a single hard coded example. Instead it contains the same linguistic rules and knowledge that the student will need to learn and dominate in order to be able to both understand and use the grammatical structures contained here. Example sentences are produced randomly, guided by syntactic rules and semantic restrictions. Since, as Chomsky argued, language by its very nature is generative, then the system can use these linguistic rules to generate a nearly infinite set of examples, combining together time clauses, verbs, subjects, direct and indirect objects, etc.
Whilst the extent to which language users are rule based animals can be debated, in this instance the question is essentially irrelevant. The two sides of the debate can be considered in terms of an adult second language learner (with presumably limited aditional neural plasticity to help!). In which case the language learning task can be conceptualised to be a question of:
Regardless of the conceptual and theoretical stance of the user regarding how language is learnt, the student can be seen to benefit from using it. The learning process can be conceptualised either in terms of a mechanical practise of pseudo-real sentences and grammatical structures or as an implicit exposure to (and the consequent repetition of the grammatically correct form) common linguistic structures.
The current version of The Virtual Verb Trainer contains a fairly basic sentence structure, that of: Subject + Verb + (Direct Object) + (Indirect Object) + Location + Company.
The interface to the system contains two text windows, a status message, two selector buttons, a help menu, and a series of buttons. Pressing the 'Give me a new sentence' button generates a random incomplete sentence which is placed in the top most text window. A sentence will typically contain three points of interest:
The user needs (depending on the answer entry option specified) to enter the complete correct sentence in the second text area below. Two important points need to be noted:
While this may appear a little complicated it is in fact very simple. Let's consider an example. The system could generate a sentence like:
'This month [1st, 06.00] he (to give) Bill's jacket to the opera singer in the city centre.'
In which case, the student can see that the time clause is 'this month' and that the observer is located on the first day of this month, at six o'clock in the morning. Therefore it is evident that we are considering a future time clause. Hence the student needs to consider one of the legal conjugations for this time clause, e.g., 'will give', and enter the correct sentence in the second text box, without the information in either the square or round brackets:
'This month he will give Bill's jacket to the opera singer in the city centre.'
To see if the student has answered the question correctly, he/she needs simply to press the 'Check my answer' button, whereupon the status of the answer will appear above, in this case:
Answer status: CORRECT, WELL DONE!
If the student is unable to conjugate the sentence correctly, he/she will be able to ask The Virtual Verb Trainer for the correct answer by pressing the 'Tell me the correct answer' button. At which point a dialogue box will appear with the possible correct answers.
If the student becomes bored of entering the entire sentence, selecting the 'Enter the verb only' option will make the system expect only the conjugated verb and not the complete sentence. In the previous example, a correct answer (remember that there is more than one) would be:
The final feature that the system has is the ability to give help to the student regarding the conjugation required. As can be seen in the menu on the right hand side of the window the 'Current level of help' is set to 'None'. Clicking on top of the menu will reveal two levels of help, which are available: 'Verb tense' and 'Verb tense description'.
Selecting either of these help levels will cause the system to select (randomly) one of the legal conjugations for the sentence and present help information about that selection. Subsequent verb conjugation by the student, will of course, be restricted to the one selected by the system. Let us consider the previous sentence as an example. If the student selects the 'Verb tense' help level, the 'Answer status:...' message will change to:
'Verb tense: modal future 'Verb tense: modal future Answer status: '
That is to say that the system has selected the modal future verb tense for the example (from the three options possible: immediate future, modal future, and modal future continuous):
At this point the student can use this message to help them conjugate the verb correctly if they know, or can remember, what form the modal future takes. If they are not familiar with this term of reference, or simple require more help, the help level can be changed to 'Verb tense description', in which case the 'Answer status:...' message is changed to:
'Verb tense: modal future (will + base verb form) Answer status: '
At which point, hopefully, the student will realise that the modal future form of the verb is made up of the auxiliary 'will' together with the base form of the verb, i.e. the verb without the 'to'. For the previous example:
The verb in its infinitive form is: (to give)
Hence the correct conjugation is: will + give