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Learning Curve

The Science of Learning Institute is fueling discoveries about the human brain
Posted July 29, 2015
Illustration by Lorenzo Petrantoni Illustration by Lorenzo Petrantoni

Through an innovative grants program, the Science of Learning Institute is fueling discoveries that range widely across disciplinary boundaries, from classroom learning to machine learning, from recovery from stroke to memory formation in the brain.

In a project funded in 2014, Whiting School of Engineering computer scientists Philipp Koehn and Jason Eisner are teaming with Chadia Abras in the School of Education's Center for Technology Education to develop a radically new way to learn a foreign language. The idea is based on macaronic language — a kind of text that mixes two languages into a Spanglish-like hybrid. While such mixing has traditionally been employed by novice speakers or for satirical purposes, Eisner realized that coupled with recent advances in machine translation, it could also help introduce learners to foreign vocabulary and syntax in a gentle and piecemeal way rather than all at once, as in a typical foreign text read laboriously with the aid of a dictionary.

To implement the idea, the researchers are developing software that translates a text progressively, with more and more of the text appearing in the foreign language as the reader's comprehension improves. For an English-to-German learner, for instance, the English phrase "a loaf of bread" could start to appear as "ein Loaf of Bread." When the reader is comfortable with reading the German word "ein" instead of the English "a," the program could progress to "ein Breadloaf," resembling German in syntax but retaining English words. The text would then become "ein Brot loaf," and finally the fully German "ein Brotlaib*." The program will intermittently assess the student's reading comprehension and ability, and tune the amount of foreign language presented to the reader's progress; readers also can direct the program to make the translation easier or harder.

Since the concept still needs to be proved, it makes an ideal Science of Learning Institute project, says Koehn. Eisner adds, "It's a bet that this will work out and will not, for example, confuse people or give them bad habits." The researchers plan to develop an English-to-German application and test it on the Web and in Johns Hopkins classes in combination with more traditional classroom and textbook instruction. If successful, the software could also be made available on the Internet for independent learners.

The project exemplifies how interdisciplinary teams can merge cutting-edge research in machine and human learning, says Kelly Fisher, the institute's assistant director and an assistant professor in the School of Education. "It's a software program that is learning itself, learning about the learner."

Check out the Hub for a behind-the-scenes look at one of the institute's Belgian Beer Events, a gathering of scientists from across Johns Hopkins designed to increase creativity and connections, ultimately leading to many projects that received funding through the grants program.

To learn more about the Science of Learning Institute, please contact:

Andrew Rentschler
Executive Director
Rising to the Challenge campaign
Phone: 410-516-0470