December 20, 2006

Enhancing second language acquisition with Audacity

Author: Frank Tuzi

As a language educator and IT aficionado, I am constantly searching for tools that I can use in conjunction with language education. Lately I've been using the audio manipulation and conversion tool Audacity to record and edit audio inputs and convert them into a variety of formats, including the ever popular MP3, for a number of uses in courses and course materials preparation.

For example, I use an MP3 player/recorder to record my lectures, which allows me to move around the classroom while recording. I then copy the audio file to the computer and edit it with Audacity so absent students can hear the lesson. To edit a recorded file, simply copy the MP3 file to your computer and open it in Audacity. The file will appear in spectrograph form and can be played from the interface. To delete unwanted segments, select a section and click the delete button. Cutting and pasting audio clip segments is similarly intuitive. Audacity users can even combine different audio clips together.

Teachers can also collect language samples and dialogs from native speakers and use them in the creation of listening and speaking materials. For example, I often go to conferences and collect spoken exchanges, or write scripts for native speakers to enact. I then take the audio files and edit them in Audacity to remove unwanted pauses, fillers, and coughs. Audacity can also modify other aspects of audio files, such as volume, tempo, bass, background noise, and pitch. For example, to change the volume or amplitude of a portion of the clip below, I simply selected the area to modify, selected amplify from the effects menu, and pressed OK. It was that simple. Audacity usually has a preview button for all of the effects dialog boxes, and it has undo/redo capabilities. Modifying the amplitude is only one of about 20 effects included in the program.

In addition to live recordings, language teachers can use Audacity to capture streaming audio off the Internet and local media. Teachers can record the audio of a live radio show or prerecorded radio streams, as well as local audio, such as that of a CD or DVD while it is playing. To capture a small dialog from a movie on a DVD, set Audacity to record from vol and click the record button. After the dialog is completed, stop recording. Review and edit the audio clip if necessary and save it as an MP3 file. This procedure works for any audio that runs through the speakers.

Audacity also provides an excellent opportunity to offer language students with a comparative analysis of their own spoken work with that of their native-speaking instructor. The Audacity interface includes a basic spectrograph of audio files. By loading a student's spoken audio file and a native speaker's audio file, students can listen and view the differences between the audio samples. With a visual and auditory representation of spoken language, learners can better recognize the differences and teachers can create more opportunities for students to acquire the appropriate pronunciation.

Finally, language educators can use Audacity when assigning tasks to students. Traditional language teaching focuses on grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. More recent research suggests that task-based language teaching -- teaching language by giving students specific real-life tasks -- is more effective than simply focusing on linguistic elements. I assign students a task, such as creating a commercial for a product or service, and they use Audacity to complete the audio components of that task. Audacity can also be used to develop sound effects for theatre activities or add background music over audio. With these capabilities, students can use Audacity to complete their tasks and in the process learn language.

How students can use Audacity in courses

Language students can also use Audacity to meet their own personal needs. In addition to completing any activities that their teachers assign them, language learners can use Audacity to practice their pronunciation and compare it to native speakers'. Students can also use Audacity to modify lectures they record with an MP3 player, enhancing the recording to make it easier to understand. Several of my students use Audacity to help themselves prepare for speeches; students record their speeches themselves or ask a native speaker to recite the speech, then use Audacity to compare and modify the files, and save them as MP3s to download into a player.

My students are particularly pleased with Audacity because its interface is available in multiple languages. In the lab, students save their preferences in their personal user profile, so that even there they can use Audacity in their own language.

With all of the benefits that it offers, Audacity does have one demerit: it does not work out of the box with MP3 files, due to legal issues; MP3 is a patented format. Red Hat and Fedora versions of Audacity don't even allow MP3 files to be opened. However, there are ways to get around these difficulties. The Livna repository includes a package of Audacity that allows MP3s to be opened, and the LAME encoding library enables Audacity to encode audio files into the MP3 format. LAME is included in many Linux distributions.

As a language educator, I recommend Audacity for teachers, students, and researchers. It provides a number of great tools for analysis, content creation, and learning.

Frank Tuzi is an associate professor of linguistics and technology.