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Changing the World: An Interactive Platform For Learning Ancient Languages

Mar 11, 2020 By Crissy Campbell

Written by Lauren Carlton.

Last summer Director Richard Smith welcomed MDM students to their third and final academic semester. After distributing the team and project assignments, he had one extra, unofficial request.

He challenged every team to consider, over the course of the term, how its project would change the world. Although participation in the challenge was purely voluntary, each member of the class enthusiastically agreed.

Towards the end of the semester, Dr. Smith asked me to interview each team and document their reflections. My name is Lauren Carlton; I’m a graduate of the MDM program’s 12th cohort, and I was keen to see how the teams approached Dr. Smith’s challenge while simultaneously tackling the challenges presented by their own projects.

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Historia vitae magistra. History is the teacher of life.

One of the semester’s pitch projects, Team Immersio proposed an interactive platform for learning ancient languages. The goal was to teach students how to speak Latin based on contextual conversation, a challenge considering its been a few thousand years since it’s seen any sort of everyday use. It remains (relatively) widely read in academic circles, but native speakers with whom to practice are in nonexistent supply.

One idea that would complement teaching ancient languages, was to add native indigenous languages to the project. However, the team was unable to find an expert in such a language within the available time, so it pivoted to Latin, on the theory that if it could succeed with Latin then it could succeed with anything, no matter how ancient, modern, common, or rare—including the previous goal of First Nation tongues. Although Dr. Smith’s challenge was never far from their thoughts, their goal remained the same, so they didn’t have to alter their approach.

The platform doesn’t tell users what to learn but instead makes them choose their own objectives in order to learn what they’re interested in at their own pace. Their platform’s three main features evolved into a personalized learning path and contextual conversations through voice recognition technology.

Product owner David Sigrist also had experience as a Hebrew and Ancient Greek language professor and this experience also influenced the new direction. The absence of a good app for learning ancient languages, combined with the over-saturation of tools for learning modern languages, made him realize he’d found a niche that needed filling. There aren’t many ways for students to access immersive learning environments, even for more accessible living languages—Duolingo, one of the most popular tools—has some contextual conversations, but even that falls short of being able to provide true immersion. The team’s aim is to revitalize the process of learning languages by making the experience more accessible, engaging, and memorable.

In a program where so many people are working towards a future made of science fiction, I was intrigued to find a team that had decided to focus on keeping the past alive. I was also struck by the fact that two of the three other team members (Winston Nguyen, the team’s Business Developer, and Dafne Delgado, its Interactive Designer) also have teaching experience. The team originally came together because every single member was passionate both about education and understanding the ancient world, but decided to focus specifically on teaching languages together after it coalesced.

Many people learn a language for a specific purpose, and the team decided its app must be personalized and goal-oriented in order to provide the most assistance towards achieving that purpose. Lots of language instruction doesn't teach what people want to know, even if the content they learn instead is something they should know.

Team Immersio's Project Prototypes

Hence why the team intended to make the classroom environment more fun and interactive. As with all CDM projects, the team started with a large scope of features, then narrowed it down to a much smaller focus, in this case, conversational dialogue.

Though not yet developed, the team’s eventual goal is for the app to hold AI-based conversations with the user. The team is partway there; it has implemented voice recognition, which can tell users if they are saying words and phrases correctly. The next step will be to program the ability to respond conversationally.

The team initially considered making a platform that allowed professors to provide content and students to pay for the course; current experts want to preserve ancient languages and cultures, but lack adequate tools for it. Although the team concluded it might be unnecessarily difficult for professors to use the app without special technical training, the professors the team consulted were willing to contribute their expertise to Immersio’s platform as advisors. If Immersio’s minimum viable product, or MVP, is successful, there might be a marketplace for professor-oriented content in the future.

The team’s process focused heavily on research and user testing. The first challenge was, somewhat unexpectedly, finding people to help with the research. The term took place over the summer, so the resident experts weren’t in residence to consult, making it difficult to test the effectiveness of the team’s ideas.

The biggest obstacle was the tech itself. “What we faced wasn’t about concept, or wireframes, or UX, or tests. The key problem is the technical challenge,” Winston reflected. With only one programmer on the team (Wayland Bang), who wasn’t an expert on either AI or contextual conversation, everyone knew they’d encounter lots of tech problems that would eventually block future progress.

The team, already thinking of the future, planned for this to be a project with plenty of room for expansion. If the platform works for ancient languages, it could work with modern and even endangered ones as well.

Ab uno disce omnes. From one, learn all.

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The team is part of SFU Venture Connection, UBC’s incubator program and recently presented at CDM’s Demo Day & Mixer, a chance for early-stage startup companies to connect with entrepreneurs.

CDM Demo Day 2020

Above photo from Demo Day participant VJ Terzic.

Team Immersio at Demo Day

If you are interested in contacting the team, visit immersio.io.