When I resigned from the UniLang administration in 2008 over a difference of development ideas, I still wanted to have a language community to help learners. I went back to my original website I had created back in the ’90s, itself a product of a language tutor program I had written years before, for the materials I had collected then.
I wasn’t sure how I wanted to structure the site, but I knew I wanted it to more closely link the process of learning to how many approach their own language acquisition. The people that are always teaching themselves new languages do so because it is their passion, but I believe that most of the time, people are trying gain some level of speaking because they plan to be travelling to a country where the language is spoken. That means that, rather than starting in with grammar courses, they will focus on the situations they will instantly find themselves in: navigating an airport or train station, finding a place to stay, visiting restaurants and shops, etc. In other words, the stuff they would be doing in a city or town.
With this approach, I started mapping out a list of places a person would visit, then, using the data from my old site, I began to build vocabulary and phrase lists to match. I felt reading and learning dialogues for situations were also important, so I built an interactive way for those to be used in each place as well. The readings would tell what you would do in such a place and be interactive. That is, they would be in the language the person was learning, and a translation of a sentence would be given in a popup window when the user selected it. Along with this, I devised a popup grammar system, so that a person could review grammar rules on their language without going to another part of the site.
Rise of a Town
With all this design, I still didn’t have a name for the site. I deliberately avoided anything with the word “language”, “lang” or “ling”, because those were already heavily overused. Since it was a language site, I started thinking about the word “language” in other languages, but that wasn’t much help.
Since my main interest was Italian, I decided to stick to that language for finding a suitable community name. The verb for “speak” in Italian is “parlere”, so perhaps something like “parliamo” (“we speak”). This reminded me of the name of the town Palermo, capital of Sicily, located on the island off the tip of the “boot” of Italy. A slight change from that gave a more fitting meeting while looking like a town name, and Parleremo, meaning “we will speak”, was born.
Pulling It Together
I wanted to build courses, but that takes a huge amount of time, so while I knew how I wanted those done, they were put aside for a while. I could, however, start building some interactive ways for people to use the vocabulary that had been translated, so I built a vocabulary multiple choice drill, simple flashcards, and some games, like Memory (in which a person flips card pairs, trying to match their source and target languages), Word Search (finding words in a grid of letters), Unscramble (rearranging letters to form words or phrases) and Battleship (my first two player game, based on an old table top game, in which players take turns attempting to hit hidden “ships” on their opponents grid).
One of my main irritations with UniLang was that there was little intermediary or advanced material available. If there was a course available for a language you were interested, it was normally just five short lessons. There might be some grammar information in the wiki, but that was a completely different system. After that, the learner was stuck with trying to speak it on the forum or in the chat with little other guidance.
To make up for this in Parleremo, besides building the forums and various chats, both voice and text, which were necessary to enable members to help each other, I turned to the available multilingual media available online for free. Streaming radio and television are there for people to listen to and watch from a huge number of countries, and these could help with a person’s listening skills. Newspapers and magazines are also easy to find, which would aid in reading and comprehension. To round out this group was YouTube, which offers hundreds of thousands videos which could contain songs, films and even lessons in many languages. I built systems to catalogue, search and interact with these media forms.
Up until this point, Parleremo was basically broken into two ways of navigation: a list of languages, each leading to a catalogue page, outlining the resources available online, and a list of places to visit (Airport, Hotel, Restaurant, etc.). I wanted to get closer to the actual “town” feel, and the way to do that came to me after seeing another language site offering member made “groups”. These groups were places where people could join to focus on a specific topic.
In some large cities such as New York, it is common for people that have immigrated to recreate an area like their country, complete with shops, places of worship, and entertainment from their homeland. A “China Town” is probably the most recognized of these, at least in the United States. We also have places like a “Lithuanian neighbourhood” or “Italian quarter”. This idea meshed with the group concept, so I decided to set up a series of “Districts”, which would essentially be based on language branches, with each one further being broken into “Quarters”, which would be tied to the languages of the branch. Members could then “move” into “houses” in those quarters or neighbourhoods, making it easier for them to find other people that were learning the same as them. This group of people could use the normal forum boards for their language, as well as having some specific to their quarter and district, allowing them to discuss larger things and even plan events for them to do. Special chat areas were also created.
To polish off the idea, each quarter has multiple streets, named after famous authors of the quarter’s language. Along these streets, intermingled with the members houses, would be the various places that we started with, for them to visit.
To aid them in their roaming, there are various popup tools available to them at any time. Besides the grammar, a member can access radio, TV, dictionaries, a notepad, forum chat, and map to the neighbourhood.
Helping Each Other
Of course, the biggest advantage to having anything on the internet is the ability to communicate with people all over the world, so I had to integrate that as well. The website Lang-8 is a place where people can write on any topic in the language they are studying and have other people comment on and correct their posts. For Parleremo, I created something similar, in the form of Journals. Speaking can be helped in the same way through a Recordings system, allowing members to record themselves reading a certain text and having others give them feedback on how well they did. An exchange system was also created to allow people to find others that wish to directly help each other.
Parleremo has many other resources to explore, such as an interactive reading section, places for file and link sharing, and an area for members to post reviews of just about anything. A recent addition, still in the testing phase, is an Spaced Repetition System (SRS) similar to Memrise, which enables members to learn vocabulary and phrases though a series of flashcards and simple quizzes. A plan is also being made to add member made lessons, similar to parts of a course.
The most important part of Parleremo is the members, though. It can only grow and improve with people joining and using it, contributing through resource creation or personal interaction and helping with others. Please, join now and help it flourish!