Reproduced here with permission from the Computer Assisted Language Instruction Consortium, from the CALICO Journal, in which this article appeared.(Volume 12, Number 4, Special Issue Summer 1995)

Frank L. Borchardt

Language and Computing at Duke University: or, Virtue Triumphant, for the Time Being

When we honor John R. Russell we honor him, to be sure, and a handful of others of his generation who opened this new field and began or advanced its cultivation. Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, this is not a wholly selfless activity. We are drawing maps by which to orient ourselves,to locate ourselves in time and the metaphorical space of our hard work. When we honor any pioneering individual and individuals we are, in the same gesture, defining our common field of endeavor. Because our work is new, our reflection upon it will also incline to be new. Its history will not provide, by itself, easy and obvious plots on which to hang the facts.

It turns out that the present writer spent eight years of his education in the care of the Jesuit Fathers. These years left indelible patterns imprinted all over his mind, among them, an inclination to look at events in time less as a continuous narrative than as a morality play. This morality play has white hats and black hats, cattlemen and settlers (can the cowboy and the farmer ever really be friends?) and rustlers, lawmen and gamblers and outlaws. The values of family and the virtues of civilization always win out in the end, and the white hat always triumphs. It is said that history is written by the victor. That is true, of course, but only when the contest has been decided. For contests not yet decided or never to be decided it is perhaps truer to say that history is written by the historian. The historian determines what meaning, if any, the course of events in time is going to have. Unless someone else comes along and rewrites this plot, the story of computing and languages at Duke University is going to be a morality play, in which, for the time being, Virtue is triumphant.

CALIS and Method

Sometime near the end of the 1970s, Leland R. Phelps, Professor of German at Duke University, and author of several widely used German readers, took notice of some CAI going on in another environment, the big introductory Economics course at Duke, conducted by Professor Allen Kelley, and thought: there's no reason we couldn't do the same thing in German. Without asking anyone's permission or consulting particularly with his colleagues Professor Phelps gathered together funding from sources at Duke (ultimately the "Commonwealth Fund") and outside (the office in Atlanta of the Consul General of the Federal Republic of Germany). With one part of this funding he supported through the M.A. a graduate student, K. Omar F. Hossain, who wrote the code for the first realization of CALIS (Computer Assisted Language Instruction System). The program was written in HP-BASIC for the Hewlett Packard HP-2000 minicomputer, located remotely in Research Triangle Park, NC, and communicating sometimes directly over dedicated lines, sometimes over phone lines connected at 300 baud to ADM3 and later ADM5 monochrome dumb terminals in the language labs. With the remaining funds, Phelps supported one of the colleagues in the German Department, Professor Helga Bessent, with a leave of absence so she could write the content, a dataset that followed chapter by chapter the elementary German textbook of choice that year. In its first incarnation, the program allowed a one-line question and one one-word answer. Care was taken to change the wording from the textbook so as not to violate copyright (Hossein, Phelps, and Bessent 1980).

In very short order it became painfully clear that this was not going to be flexible enough. Although the students took to the program at once and very favorably indeed, they objected vigorously to what they believed to be mistakes made by the program.2 This was especially embarrassing when they were right. When that was the case it was usually not because "the" right answer was mistaken or mistyped but because there was more than one right answer. The template written for authoring was immediately expanded to allow as many as five right answers.

No one realized it at the time but three critically important principles were being shaped in this episode: all exercise forms and the critique of exercise forms reflect theoretical considerations, whether conscious or covert, in the electronic medium; not only the content but also the delivery mechanism is infinitely revisable; corollary: there is no closure, the end users, teachers and students, determine how the program and the content are going to be revised; corollary: our technology will be user driven.

The theoretical considerations underlying the "one-right-answer" structure in the delivery mechanism were as follows: "one-right-answer" might be perfectly acceptable for certain kinds of learning, and if not learning, then for certain kinds of training, specifically, highly structured and optimized procedural knowledge, like learning to tie a tourniquet. Adult language learning was not perceived as fitting those categories. "One-right-answer" was felt to distort the realities of language learning as these teachers were convinced it occurred in practice.3 Multiple possible right answers at one blow asserted the premise that language was constructively redundant and rejected the thesis that a human language was a one-on-one mapping of one language on another, or the one-on-one encoding of one code in another. One layer lower, rejection of a "one-right-answer" structure denied any known language the privilege of being the "real" language, of having the power of accurate, precise, or "true" one-on-one encoding of "reality."

The relatively easy revisability of the whole enterprise led to imminent changes on a large scale, first to the delivery engine. The textbook specific content remained largely the same for a while, except for constant corrections in detail. The time and labor invested in the electronic dataset and its obvious unsuitability for other textbooks with other emphases postponed the change of adopted textbook for several years. However, the delivery mechanism, CALIS itself, underwent a major transformation immediately after the first experiment. It was express dissatisfaction with the rigidity of the first version that made the revision logical and sensible, and it was the users' comments which determined the direction of the revision.

Professor Phelps sought out a Duke alumnus, Thomas B. Clark, III, at the time a medical student at the Medical University of South Carolina, and sometime organist in the Duke Memorial Methodist Church, when he was not rewriting CALIS with a grand new vision. Clark wrote authoring templates for short answer (with error analysis), long answer, true-false, multiple choice, reading comprehension, and sentence combining exercises. He reconceived the answer judging mechanism to include "wild cards," asterisk (*) for "anything" and the "exclusive or" (XOR) function within curly brackets {} separated by vertical bars {|} for choices among alternative right answers. With these added functions it was already possible to provide a kind of pseudo-parsing for longer answers, especially considering the syntactic regularities found in elementary German. He developed routines for dividing the screen horizontally and allowing text to remain in the upper half (or be scrolled through), and questions to appear sequentially in the lower half. Randomized "praise/blame" feedback gave the machine what passed then for a semblance of humanity, while it gave concrete reality to the behaviorist presuppositions of the method.

Using the programmer's initiative Clark also provided MAIL functions, so that teachers, students, programmer, and systems administrators could all communicate one with the other. This was intended chiefly to make revision as efficient as possible, so that complaints could be recorded as their causes occurred, and the right person contacted to make the correction. A small number of "global" linguistic functions were included in this edition of CALIS, including a SYNONYM function, by which such regular equivalents as "zu dem=zum" would be allowed from the very outset across all CALIS content. This was the ancestor of such later global CALIS functions as <CAP><NOCAP> <ACCENT><NOACCENT> <PUNCT><NOPUNT> describing rigorous and lax answer judging, depending on whether the author was more worried in this activity about raw spelling than accurate diacritics. Likewise a DICTIONARY function was being developed that was to allow a student to retrieve an English equivalent for any unrecognized German word, and thus to lessen the trauma of abandoning one textbook for another. The assumption was still that German grammar was German grammar, and that therefore the only substantive differences from one textbook to the other would be vocabulary. The notion that methodologies were undergoing convulsive revolution had not yet dawned on most of those involved, even though several of them were implicated in those very changes: lexical solutions were not alone going to render datasets compatible. All of this was still taking place in HP-BASIC, on a remote HP-2000 minicomputer, and on ADM3 and ADM5 terminals, for which Clark had also to write terminal identification programs, record keeping, and housekeeping functions.

One colossal failure of this phase was the testing module. Clark developed a whole mechanism by which a midterm examination could be composed, scrambled randomly for security purposes, delivered, and automatically graded. The degree of anxiety that this generated among students and faculty alike was wildly beyond anyone's reasonable expectations. First of all students and faculty both demanded that the experiment be backed up by a print version that was actually given in class in addition to and after the electronic version. Then student performance on the electronic version was deliberately so erratic as to make the results useless not only for grading but also for scientific study. The experiment was abandoned altogether. The episode proved the following: that objective desirability of a feature and technology driven ease play no role in realization of a feature. If the feature is not initiated by or demanded by end users, it is in serious trouble to begin with. Take this instance: what is more excruciatingly time consuming than the quizzing and testing aspect of college language teaching? What could possibly be more desirable than its automation? If the end users fail to agree to this proposition, if they cannot be persuaded of the feature's utility, then it is, quite simply, doomed.

CALIS and the Industry

The phase of activities just described runs approximately from 1979 to 1982, when the development of CALIS was chiefly an internal affair. The funding was reasonable and could be accomplished alongside the normal funding of teaching and research in a relatively small academic German department. The setting in which CALIS would develop outgrew the home front in the academic year 1982/83 with a series of external events. These began with a meeting of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association (SAMLA) at which there was an unusual, all-morning panel discussion in the grand ballroom on computing in language and literature. It featured Doug Short and Sarah Burton of North Carolina State University and John B. Smith, then of Penn State, all of whom played a role at a meeting at North Carolina State University in Raleigh in June, 1983, which represented a huge step forward in the visibility of computing and humanistic work, including the visibility of computerized language instruction.4 At the first of these meetings individuals in the IBM organization first paid attention to what was going on in the CALIS project. A rather spectacular and far from conventional IBMer, Irene Copley, took the lead, brought a display of personal computing down to Duke, held out all the golden prospects which an IBM XT would open, far beyond the capacities of the original IBM PC.

CALIS still lived on an HP2000 minicomputer, located remotely at Research Triangle Park (RTP), NC. This very situation permitted a sensational display of CALIS at the 1982 Modern Language Association meetings in Los Angeles. It was the first time that IBM had appeared at the MLA meetings in force in the exhibit area. The unifying idea was: how many different ways could you use PCs to help do the work MLA members do. CALIS could not run natively on an IBM PC, but it could be made to emulate a dumb monitor. So, with an acoustic coupler, a 300 baud modem, and a hotel phone line, one PC was hooked up to the HP-2000 in Research Triangle Park, NC, and conventioneers could work their German CALIS exercises at a 3,000 mile remove. The ten year old son of one professorial colleague judged the program satisfactory and so made the enormous effort worthwhile.

Negotiations between the CALIS project and the computer industry began at this time, determined first by the needs of connectivity. Classroom based computer assisted instruction demanded the ability to perform centralized record keeping. In a real sense, this imperative has not changed, even in the days of desktop minis. In 1982, it was still hard to imagine distributed computing power, without the need of a powerful central computer and much less powerful, indeed dumb delivery stations on the periphery. The PC revolution was, however, making itself felt, so that the space seized by the dumb station was envisioned as equally well or even better occupied by some sort of freestanding personal computer that could act as the servant of a mainframe or large minicomputer located remotely.

The result of that particular configuration was negotiation with the Digital Equipment Corporation for an installation that would feature at its center a VAX 750 and at the periphery a dozen or two DEC PCs, either Rainbows or Professionals. It was a moment when competition in the desktop computer market was at its fiercest and developments at their fastest. The configuration looked like a good idea, at least for German and other western European languages.

Character Sets

The outstanding problem was the other-than western European languages with their non-Roman character sets. This problem expressed itself most audibly in the complaint of a good colleague in the Classics Department, Professor William H. Willis. He edited a journal, GRBS (Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies), which required Coptic as well as Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and the occasional hieroglyph. His printer was about to double or treble the price of laying out his journal in type, which would have caused the journal to go under. Professor Willis came by and suggested from our experience with CALIS, we ought to be able to find a way of solving his typesetting problem at a much lower price than his printer was demanding. This was sometime in early 1982. Together we surveyed the field, which was precious narrow at the time. The most flexible system seemed to be a Cyber 37 mainframe at the University of Texas using Tektronix 45 graphics terminals, on which Arabic had been taught for some years. This was hardly cheap enough to solve the current problem or fresh enough to avoid the likelihood of imminent obsolescence. By happy chance, the problems specific to classical languages had been addressed by the scion of the house of Packard (as in Hewlett Packard), David Packard, Jr., in a system he named after his cat (in turn named after the murdered Greek poet) Ibycus. The system arrived in Professor Willis's project late in 1982 and more than solved his publication problems. It brought him and his colleagues into a major project, the compilation on-line of the totality of papyrus documents available in print.

No such ready solution awaited the rest of the non-Roman character sets. The DEC constellation did not address the problem, but a new competitor in the field, the Victor 9000, did. This largely forgotten but altogether wonderful teaching machine came with a 600x800 pixel monitor and a capacity to redraw the character set in character mode, to allow, say, Russian and English on the same line. It also provided an audio interface at some ridiculous price like $150. It was the ideal language learning machine, well ahead of its time, anticipating EGA standards in the monitor and Macintosh-like functionality with peripherals like audio. The Victor 9000 served our colleagues who needed Cyrillic, Greek, Coptic, and Hebrew character sets for years after the bankruptcy of the company and well into the era of the Macintosh, which substantially addressed those problems for many languages.

Experience with the Victor 9000 provided invaluable precedents for the work the CALIS project would have to do over the next few years. Much of the early work in Chinese undertaken by Dr. Richard Kunst employed the Victor 9000 as the platform. A Russian overlay was developed for the Victor 9000, which, when hooked up to the HP-2000 in RTP, would present Russian CALIS exercises properly in Cyrillic typeface. This stayed in active student use for several years until the phasing out of the Victors. The program provided at least one comical moment at the 1985 CALICO meeting when failure to find a rentable phone line led CALIS project folk to try to hook the computer to an acoustic coupler and from that to a pay phone in the lobby, thus to connect back to North Carolina. It provided an instance of the hardware disaster par excellence. The fate of Victor was not to be settled for a couple of years, and until that very moment, and even beyond, Victor seemed like a good solution for the language presentation problem.

Two additional alternatives for the character set problem appeared in these early years or shortly thereafter. The one was the Xerox Star Station, which came on loan with a huge hard disk filled with Kanji, the Chinese characters employed in Japanese, and an IBM 5550, dedicated to Japanese and in use until this very year as a word processor. Both represented, in themselves, technological culs-de-sac, even though the Xerox Star was soon to enjoy a whole new incarnation as the Apple Macintosh.

The critical development that made all the difference early, and first opened the way toward standardized, low cost computing in foreign character sets was the publication of the EGA standard and an industry ready to develop from there forward. In the wake of this development, a programmer came to the Project from the study of religion, Jeff Gillette, one who understood the needs of his teachers and colleagues when it came to the character set issue. He designed a program known as the Duke Language Toolkit by which alphabetic characters could be drawn in any number of alphabets or syllabaries, summoned to override the standard keyboard, and applied within any program that did not itself seize the keyboard. The Project had a solution for its character set needs, one that would last as long as the character based screen survived. The graphical user interface (GUI) changed all of that, yet again.

CALIS Rewritten for the IBM PC

The relentless acceleration inherent in technology has made us get ahead of ourselves. The EGA and GUI, coming as they do in the mid to late eighties, skip over several years of critical developments, chiefly at home, but also in the great world outside the university. During the explorations undertaken in 1982, it became clear that any approach to the local administration involving many hundreds of thousands of dollars would not be taken seriously if it came on the initiative of a small language department alone, German, or even of two, German and Classics. A project was therefore conceived involving a good many departments that had in common the need to manipulate language one way or the other. We more or less defined the Humanities as those disciplines that employed language as the central tool, perhaps also the central object of their investigations. Rather than engage in a fruitless controversy on the definition of the Humanities, we called the project "Computerization of Language Oriented Enterprises" (COLOE) and brought on board colleagues in substantial numbers from Asian and African languages, Classics, English, Music, Religion, Slavic, the Divinity School, the university library, and the university press. This project requested a budget of $750,000 and foresaw a solution generally on the lines of the DEC configuration.

The COLOE proposal envisioned a pyramid of users:

At the base, students in the study of more frequently taught modern languages chiefly in Roman alphabets;

Thereupon, students engaged in the study of less frequently taught languages, chiefly in non-Roman alphabets;

Thereupon, clerical users in those humanities departments employing the above mentioned character sets;

Thereupon, professorial research in the humanities exploiting those character sets;

At the peak of the pyramid, publication, that is, the ability to produce camera ready copy in all the above character sets.

The basic idea was to grab those who held the purse strings where their hearts and minds were the softest, undergraduate education, and to finance their needs generously, while allowing humanistic research to ride on the resources generated for the students.

It is possible that language education was excluded from the sentimentality of the moneybags. In any event, the proposal encountered precious little softness of heart and none of mind. It rattled around the administration for over a year. That particular fact is remembered because a letter went to the university president saying:

Dear Mr. President,
I observe with melancholy the arrival of the first anniversary of the submission of the COLOE proposal and, with it, the gradual departure of a golden opportunity for Duke to take leadership in an important and interesting new field.
Sincerely yours,
Frank L. Borchardt

In the wake of this letter, the DEC configuration started making its way through the decision process. It was on the verge of success when a powerful competitor intervened with a promise of substantial largess if this sale were scuttled. And scuttled it was. To be fair to the competitor, the official computing establishment was looking for any possible excuse to prevent that kind of money from going into a new and untested area. It was only too delighted to have an external justification for recommending against the purchase.

As a consolation prize another solution was sought by the administration and found. The President, Terry Sanford, past governor of the state of North Carolina and later to be U.S. Senator, together with his Chancellor and soon-to-be successor in the presidency, H. Keith H. Brodie, looked across the discretionary accounts of the university, found a three year computing project coming to an end, and proposed to the Duke Endowmenta philanthropy that supports Duke University but is separate from it three year funding for the Humanities computing project at the rate of $100,000 a year. This bird in the hand somehow compensated fully for the several birds in the bush represented by the DEC prospect and the competitor's promise of largess. It permitted us to concentrate on getting computers on the desks of colleagues in the humanities and to work on getting the best possible CALIS before students in German and Russian.

With this substantial funding in hand the major acquisition the Project was able to grasp was in personnel: a wandering scholar with unusual experience in computers even from his graduate student days, and with a Ph.D. in German from the neighboring University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, happened by at just the right time: Dr. Peter Batke. With a full time deputy on hand to make house calls, to run things day to day, and to keep abreast of developments, the project was able to take off in several positive directions. The first and most visible of these was in the area of text accumulation through optical character recognition (OCR). The Pew Memorial Trust had just provided a major grant to the university, shepherded to success by a new assistant to the Dean of the College, Dr. Lee Willard, a Classicist. The grant was specifically for the purpose of equipment. That the purpose was actually scientific equipment for scientists was not made clear to the likes of us in the project, and we applied for the funding of a Kurzweil Optical Character Scanner. The price was in the upper five figure range and, astonishingly, our application was granted. All of this transpired in the spring of 1983. The machine came with an enormous stand-up reel-to-reel tape storage device, an H-P graphics terminal, a scanning surface, and an exchangeable eighteen inch five megabyte hard drive for the storage of troublesome data such as the Cyrillic character set for scanning Russian. It was a vastly more impressive and photogenic installation than its modern successor, which can easily accompany a normal desktop computer for far less than the price of one month of the Kurzweil service contract, and do everything, and more, that one of those mastodons could do twelve years before.

Some serious work came out of the ownership of that machine, for example, a rather good M.A. thesis on the shift in Schiller's writings from clinical metaphors rooted in his medical training to a broader, less predominantly materialistic palette.5 The machine was put at the service of the university at large and many departments took advantage of the newest in OCR, including projects in the medical division, where the transformation of typed and printed records to on-line searchable data was an obvious and pressing need. On one occasion, the Provost's office succeeded in losing weeks of work on their word processor but, thank heavens, had a hard copy, which they dreaded keying in again. They heard about the scanner, had electronic copy back in an afternoon, asked how much we charged, and were told it was gratis to the Provost.

Episodes of this kind provided credibility to the project in the university at large and away from the desks of the growing number of humanists who found computers essential to their work. These were, predictably, often editors of journals or of literary and religious documents and monuments, or authors the first editions of whose writings were still presentable exclusively in typescript or print and who wanted electronic copy simply for ease of revision. Some were beginning to be required by their publishers, even in those days, to provide electronic copy for everything, including new editions of older works. As significant as these activities were for the project, near its heart and soul, the best consequence of the Kurzweil was the establishment in the eyes of many outsiders of the validity of the work humanistic computing could do. Some seemed gradually to begin to understand that when it came to the presentation and manipulation of the languages of the world by and through computers, we were acquiring expertise that others would overlook until they needed it in an emergency. It is important to note that this insight was never shared by the official computing establishment of the university, to whom our work was and remains an inexplicable anomaly.


The outside world let itself be felt one more time at the end of this critical period where 1983 was folding into 1984. The conspicuous reality of the year was that desktop personal computers were fast rendering CALIS and its comfortable home in a mini/mainframe environment totally obsolete. The coincidence that CALICO was opening its face to the public made all the difference in the world. With that opening, the need revealed itself for a generally available CALIS-like authoring tool for the IBM PC compatible environment, not PC-PILOT, not "Private Tutor," but something reasonably feature-rich and very easy to learn and use for the teacher/author. Not only did CALICO provide in the shape of the annual symposia an open forum where such things could be learned, it also unlocked the door on government funding for all sorts of academic projects. Full-page advertisements grace the inside covers of the early issues of the CALICO Journal, inviting application for government and academy language and technology collaboratives. This was the hand of Minnie McNeal Kenny at work, and a powerful hand it was. In response to such an ad, the Duke project submitted a proposal in the Winter of 1983 suggesting the rewriting of CALIS in the `C' programming language with an eye toward its portability to all common computing platforms of the day, but especially that of IBM PC compatibles. Attention to the problems of non-Roman character set representation was included in the proposal even though the opening provided by the EGA standard was still several years away. Our experience with the Victor 9000 permitted the project to speak with some authority on this issue, while not proposing Victor or any other single brand name as the solution.

The highest levels of the university supported the proposal, principally on account of its impact on international studies. The proposal was adorned with powerful and thoughtful letters of endorsement from the hand of Dr. Brodie and A. Kenneth Pye, Director of International Studies, later to be Chancellor at Duke and, later yet, President of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. The university development office lent the help of one of its most talented officers, Myrna Jackson, to the cause. This loan included rigorous editorial supervision, instruction and modelling for budgets (about which none of us in the project had the vaguest idea), getting approvals, observing technicalities, and hands-on help with collating, duplicating, and mailing. Finally, the gentle reminders, both here and there, the follow-ups, the proprieties and courtesies attendant upon a site visit, all of these assured that everything that could be done by Duke institutionally to assure success was being done. The rest was up to the government.

The proposal rattled around government for six to eight months, when the gentle prodding of Myrna Jackson combined with a notice by Minnie Kenny that there was a proposal that needed looking at caused the document to fall into the hands of Dr. Stephen Cole at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, then a government linguist with a burning interest in ancient and less frequently taught languages. He joined a team headed by Ed Budraitis, contract manager for the National Cryptologic School (NCS), a Department of Defense training entity in which a great deal of language instruction takes place. Eventually they decided on a site visit to Duke to see just what was going on here. The team inspected the Kurzweil operation, saw H-P CALIS at work, liked the work of the Ibycus project best of all they were shown. The chief officers of the University received them cordially in interview.

It was only at one point, when the inspecting team met with interviewers from the official computing establishment at Duke, that a serious derailment was threatened. For reasons hard to fathom one of the interviewers started to invoke the abstruse vocabulary of one of the more theoretical fields of computing as a kind of a challenge or provocation. Steve Cole was up to the challenge and parried successfully, indeed more than successfully, with a razor response at the front end of cold steel knowledge and reasoning. It was a very tense moment. The mystery remains why the challenge was made in the first place. The odd behavior made it clear that reasonable cooperation from that quarter of the university was not to be expected. That unhappy news came as close to ruining the prospects of an agreement as anything that happened during the site visit.


The prospects were, however, finally not ruined and beginning in FY (fiscal year) '85, the Duke Project began to receive generous funding first to write the port of H-P CALIS to the `C' programming language and to accommodate CALIS to non-Roman orthographies. Jeff Gillette of the Duke Language Toolkit was brought in as chief programmer, and others were brought in, at first part time, to help with newer tasks. Bob Gerstmyer, also a student of Religion, came on board with the job of automating as well as one could the cascade of new features which were, perforce, making CALIS, to be sure, more powerful but also harder to use. As the new PC version of CALIS began to respond to the needs of the language teachers and become thereby self-conscious of methodology for the first time, more and more features got added, some in the areas of answer processing and housekeeping, others in the area of conditional processing ("branching"), but most in the area of screen design.

"Can we scroll through texts larger than a screen? What can we do about skimming when it comes to reading comprehension? What about scanning? Can't we automate lexical chaining? Can't we automate CLOZE exercises? How about answer processing for language production? How about stressing recognition?" As each of these expectations began to be met, the initial simplicity of CALIS was sacrificed and the need for a simple interface grew more and more acute. The work of a Bob Gerstmyer came more and more in demand: how does one add complexity and yet conceal it to provide the continued illusion of simplicity? The result was the first generation of the AUTHOR program, by means of which a relatively straightforward markup scheme could transform a text into several kinds of CLOZE exercise or variations, such as a chaining exercise.


These early years of government funding allowed a great deal of flexibility and the project started to support a greater array of activities. Onto the CALIS agenda came Amharic, the language of the ruling caste of Ethiopia, as a "worst case." The language has slightly different symbols for each vowel consonant combination, resulting in some 283 distinct characters. CALIS needed to be able to represent them all as well as the Roman alphabet and enough of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to describe the Ethiopic sounds. The first time we showed the screen alphabet to a native speaker and printed it out, we received the strangest reaction. The individual seemed deeply moved. It was clear that his relationship to the written language was far different from ours to our own. In his case the letters belonged somehow to the realm of the sacred. He did not seem to think that technology was profaning them, rather that they were in some way sanctifying the technology.

To complicate matters, a search was undertaken for some reasonably effective audio device. A decision made in favor of a board manufactured by the Dialogic Corporation. The Amharic sound set was recorded digitally and presented in exercises to learn the character set. These were assembled by a remarkably talented Durham resident and native speaker, Tekola Fisseha. All the pieces were combined, with the Amharic character set on the screen with Roman and IPA transcriptions and the sounds of the language emanating from an attached speaker. This early instance of multimedia, still in the DOS world of IBM PC compatibles, was presented to the government authorities in Linthicum, Maryland, on January 28, 1986, who seemed well pleased with what the taxpayer's dollar had bought. Alas, the day was that on which the Challenger went down and deeply grieved the local personnel, many of whom had worked at NASA or had good friends there.

In addition to Minnie Kenny, Steve Cole, and Jeff Knisbacher, who saw the Project through its first period of government support, a cast of other characters touched the workings of the Project over the years. These included Sally Schwarzkopf, Galen Clark, Bob Cullen, Carolyn Crooks, Pat Fisher, Whitney Reed, Bill Tobin, and Sally Garner. To each of these names one or more anecdotes could be attached demonstrating the instructive but also colorful and adventurous character of the complex relations that constitute a serious project in its many facets and activities.

In the summer of 1986 the Project conducted one of that early sequence of CALICO workshops, participation in which seemed to determine a large fraction of those individuals who would remain actively involved in the field of CALL, the other venues being Brigham Young University, Middlebury College, and University of Michigan, before the tradition wore down. The neighborly generosity of the training division of the Northern Telecom Corporation provided the project with an Ashton videotape interface. With this device and a version of CALIS tailored for video, it was possible to prove that some impressive multimedia materials could be developed on the fly, by an independent teacher with a bit of enthusiasm and without the support of a six or seven figure project. Gary Smith of the College of William and Mary, and Jeff and Anita Knisbacher, government linguists, were among the instructors and participants who were exploring the range of video interfaces available at the time to put interactive video into the hands of the classroom teacher. It was again a question of trying to make inherent complexity seem easy and straightforward.

The long promised largess of one of the industry leaders at last appeared on the books in 1986 in the shape of a three year contract worth, to begin with, $250,000. It was scheduled to provide a PC based, user-friendly interface for the work that humanists would be doing chiefly at remote mini/mainframe sites, such as concordancing, text analysis, and "corpus linguistics" (the term was not current locally in 1986, though the activity was). This arrangement brought some new technology to the project in the shape of PC XTs for users and the wonderful new PC ATs for developers. Even though the COLOE project was the designated agent for fulfilling the contract, all the operating funds were coopted by an office of the computing establishment and directed instead to an undergraduate-focused project to reinvent Borland's Sidekick for the student market. At its conclusion, the project was to supply a diskette that would be given to incoming students for quick installation of their PCs. The diskette would include a memory resident address book, telephone book, phone dialer, calculator, editor, and, most importantly, calendar and scheduler that would somehow take advantage of the university's registration mechanisms. This part of the project might have succeeded had the officer in question not decided to assume personal oversight and assign a student as deputy for day-to-day operations.

The COLOE project met its obligations by constructing a menu with automatic communications utilities by which a scholar could employ machines arrayed in the language laboratory and with menu choice instantly hook up to the central mainframe computing service of the local universities and perform a variety of tasks. These might be to summon H-P CALIS or its record keeping function to check on the work of one's students or to employ John Smith's ARRAS program or the Oxford Concordance program and to do statistical work on such texts as were available electronically at the time. This activity imagined that mainframes would continue to have a role to play in the routine computing of teachers and students, which in 1986 was still a reasonable assumption, though growing less so month by month.

The rest of the year 1986 brought with it a quantity of presentations around the country as institutions were struggling between the desire to get informed, the fear of being left behind, and the overpowering inertia of wishing to keep things as they are. Of these presentations the most gratifying was at the Ethiopian Studies Association, meeting at Georgetown on October 4, where the work we were doing in Amharic was appreciated mostly for the possibility that it might slow down the process by which their childrenthey felt somehow uniquely among immigrants were losing the mother tongue. It was a fascinating opportunity to observe the culture and interaction of a community in exile and how technology was being absorbed to serve its needs.

It turns out that there is something about the combination of languages and technology that seems to seek out traditional obstacles and to take especial pleasure in blasting them away. The function of languages as communication has, of course, a great deal to do with it, but the excitement generated by the technology also seeks propagation and hates barriers. The international dimension of the project was making itself felt not just among foreigners here at home, but also abroad. In 1986 CALIS was adopted on a national basis in the Netherlands and released in a very handsome spring binder with documentation in Dutch and examples of exercises in English, French, and German. The Institute for Curriculum Development in Enschede undertook the initiative. They followed with a second edition in 1988. In 1989, the Danes undertook a comparable adoption and publication, the work done at Orfeus, a curricular counseling service in Århus. The CALIS project at home took a cue from what the Europeans were doing and assembled a release of CALIS with full documentation, also in a ring binder and sample lessons in print and on diskette. In the long term, hard copy turned out to be too costly, and the same materials are now distributed in electronic form in the release of text based CALIS. But somehow, it is not the same as having the consolation of the printed page.


Superficially, the year 1987 was one of transition, in which the work of the project was being disseminated by the means usual in academic life, talks and workshops (at Transylvania University, American University, UCLA, and CALICO Monterey). Beneath the surface, text based CALIS was maturing into a finished drill and practice engine, in combination with the Duke Language Toolkit, for the languages of the world. The features being demanded now had much more to do with record-keeping and networking than with pedagogic function. "Intelligent" tutoring and multimedia were still incomplete enough to warrant investigation and new effort.

At the time, multimedia could be dazzling, but the technology was still clumsy, especially when video was involved. The multimedia towercomputer, videotape or videodisc player, internal or external interface, InstaVox (random access analogue sound recording device, chiefly for providing speech at instructional speeds), and monitor (sometimes two monitors, one for text, one for video)was a Rube Goldberg device requiring million dollar expertise to run. Every strand of cable cluttering up the back of the tower begged for catastrophe. The reduction of this monstrosity took developments in two areas, storage and bandwidth. The multimedia station of the mid 1990s has largely solved those problems.

Perhaps the freshest breeze of 1987 blew across the Project from San Diego and the meeting of the First International IEEE Conference on Neural Networks. It was an astonishing event which attracted thousands of participants from industry, government, and university. Peter Batke noted wryly that humanities computing, which had been around in organized fashion for more than a decade, was able to attract about two hundred and fifty participants to its biennial meeting, while neural networks, which no one was entirely sure existed, was able to attract thousands at its very first. This meeting restored to professional respectability a metaphor for computingthe nervous system of living creaturesthat had fallen out of scientific favor some eighteen years before. This restoration brought (back) into the arena a serious competitor for the rule based, deductive parsing systems that had dominated artificial intelligence for decades. Neural networks were not supposed to distribute data according to a priori rules but rather to extract patterns from data (Borchardt 1988).

Artificial Neural Networks (ANNs) added some zest to the work of the Project. Several experiments were undertaken to see whether these concepts could be applied to the realities of classroom instruction. One of the earlier attempts addresses the phenomenon of "bogus input," that is, the bad habit certain students had of in keying nonsense in order to "give up," have the program reveal the right answer, and doing the exercise over again perfectly from their notes. An ANN was trained on hundreds of instances of genuine and bogus attempts, tweaked in favor of tolerance toward bogus input, so that it would never misconstrue a genuine attempt for a bogus one but might miss one or two out of three bogus attempts. The important outcome would be that sooner or later the network could identify a bogus attempt and warn the student: "CALIS knows what you're doing and doesn't like it." It was eventually decided that this strategy was perhaps too Big Brotherish, and so it was never implemented. We felt, however, that we had proven that a useful application could be found for ANNs, that if they could learn to distinguish between legitimate and bogus input, they could learn other important patterns and distinctions (Borchardt, Geyer-Schulz, Janko, Staddon, and Wang 1991).

A student of CALICO member and colleague in the German Department at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, struggling with the gender of German nouns, devised a network which he trained to recognize the gender of a random half of the nouns in his textbook (McKee 1987). This it did very well, learning over 98% of what it had been taught. He then tested the network for what it had learned on the other half of the nouns, and it got almost two out of three correct. And the mistakes that it made were rather like those students would make (chiefly, overgeneralizing).

One disturbing result of this experiment was the "secondbest guess" phenomenon. If the network's highest certainty level was wrong, its second highest level was almost always right, and it had near zero certainty that the third alternative was possible. In all but one or two cases (das Ende), the network consistently guessed right about which gender the noun was not. This experiment and its variations were shown over the years to many visitors. One of these was the brother of the President of the Czech Republic, Dr. Ivan Havel. He was equally disturbed by the "second best guess phenomenon" and tried to force the network to reveal its reasoning by inputting slight variations of such a word, one vowel off or one consonant off, etc. The network, not surprisingly for people familiar with them, revealed no consistent pattern to these stimuli. In frustration, Dr. Havel input a Czech word. The network responded after some "thought" (processing): "I am near 0% certain this is masculine; I am near 0% certain this is feminine; I am near 0% certain this is neuter." In sum, the network recognized that the input string was nothing like anything it had been trained on, that is, that the string was not German. We are calling this "the Havel Result." It suggests that an Artificial Neural Network is capable of distinguishing one language from another, at the very least, negatively (Borchardt and Andrews 1993). Frankly, this capacity is not unlike recognizing bogus input and distinguishing between it and legitimate input.

In collaboration with colleagues in the Slavic Languages Department at Duke, the Project undertook an experiment to compare the performance between human informants and an ANN when it came to nouns of ambiguous gender in Russian. The experiment seemed to prove that formal marking, morphology, something the ANN could learn from, while systematic and not random, was by itself insufficient to determine the gender of ambiguous Russian nouns, that phonetics (stress), perceived origin, and semantics were at least equally influential in human beings making gender assignments (Borchardt and Andrews 1993).

For the specific work of the Project, the most important experiment was one that could be applied during the phonetic inputting of Chinese. Twenty-three word classes were distinguished, an ANN trained on several hundred pages of Chinese text, and a weight table produced which indicated for each of the word classes with what probability that part of speech or word class would follow. The network was correct in the first guess about two out of three times, in the second guess about eight out of ten, and in the third guess about ninety-nine out of a hundred. Considering that there were twenty other word classes to go, this result was considered quite satisfactory (Borchardt, Yuan, and Kunst 1994). Still on the Project's agenda is the improvement of the first guess result, perhaps by extending the window over the sentence from two words to three.6


A changing of the guard took place in 1988. Donald C. Mullen came on board as chief programmer, succeeding Jeff Gillette, with whom he had worked part time before. Albert Wolf took over Peter Batke's responsi bilities. Mary Zaim tried her hand at neural network programming. In due course, Stuart L. Dabbs came on to assist Don Mullen, and Nick Staddon succeeded to the neural network task. Ted Bebenek, the team's "fireman," network administrator, and Slavic linguist, stayed on, as did Rick Kunst, guiding genius of strange character sets and things Chinese.

The work of this team brought three innovations to the functioning of CALIS. The earliest was the application of the "edit distance algorithm" to CALIS in the form of <SPELLCHECK>. By this function, CALIS could automatically compare a student answer with an anticipated right answer and identify discretely six kinds of spelling mistakes: 1) errors in capitalization, 2) wrong letter, 3) missing letter, 4) extra letter, 5) erroneously duplicated letter, and 6) inverted letters. The implementation was the work of Stu Dabbs and, later, of Oleg Verevka, visiting from the Crimea. We remember August '91 vividly, watching with him the disintegration of the Soviet Union on SCOLA, and his wondering to what radically different universe he would one day be returning.

The second innovation was the conversion of CALIS to the MS-Windows environment, a massive undertaking, but necessary as much for the inevitable popularity of the new interface as for the promised standardization of device connectionsprecisely that which would soon render multimedia a reasonable undertaking.

The third and most far-reaching was the decision to rewrite everything in due course for the UNICODE environment. This would not actually take place until the next phase of the CALIS development, but it required an education of everyone involved in the Project. In short, UNICODE is the industry's attempt to respond to the diversity of the languages of the world, realizing that not everyone speaks English and that not every language is served by the Roman alphabet. This means in practice the evolution of a standard for the representation of characters on the screen and internally to any program, one that would advance from 7 and 8 bits, the present standard, allowing for 128 and 256 characters to 2 bytes, 16 bits, allowing for some 65,000 characters. The last 30,000 or so are reserved for Chinese and the first 30,000 or so for the remainder of the world's languages. It turns out that virtually every line of code is somehow affected by this shift, that the entirety of WinCALIS 1.0 would have to be rewritten. The role of Chinese was greatly to increase in demand on the time of the Project and its personnel.

Culpeper (and other) Visiting Scholars

The intervention of a Duke Vice President, Joel L. Fleishman, allowed the Project to apply for support from the Charles E. Culpeper Foundation of Stamford, Connecticut. The shape of that support was a three year program (1990-1993) of visiting scholars from around the world. All in all it was twelve fellows: Jack Burston, Joel Goldfield, Jurai Horáek, Wolfgang Janko, Wu Jianguo, Istvan Kecskés, Karen Kossuth, Miriam Schkolnik, Reinhard Schulz, Preben Späth, Gé Stoks, and Ben Verlinden. Their occupations included university professor (6), secondary school teacher (2), governmental or semi-governmental curriculum developer (3), language laboratory director (1). Two came from the U.S., and one each from Australia, Austria, Belgium, China, (then still) Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Israel, and the Netherlands. Student assistants for the Fellows included young people from the U.S., China, and the former Soviet Union. Almost half of the Fellows elected to extend their stays at their own expense or that of their governments. Additional visiting scholars followed in the wake of those supported by Culpeper funds: from Japan (Akira Tateno), China (Lu Zhenyun, Yuan Mei), Kuwait (Wafa Al Muzaiel), Argentina (Gabriele Bauer) and Spain (Ramon Piqué).

To say that the Project profited from their presence would be an understatement. Professor Tateno caused there to be a final debugging of the code of text based CALIS as he recomposed it for the Japanese market. Mme. Lu contributed to the formation of Chinse WinCALIS, and Mme. Yuan wrote the neural network whose results help disambiguate pinyin inputting in Chinese WinCALIS. Wafa edited Arabic WinCALIS. Mr. Piqué is helping to design the new WinCALIS interface on the twin bases of language pedagogy and the psychology of human/machine interaction. Of all the gratifying experiences associated with the many activities of the Project, the parade of visitations, brief and extended, tops the list for satisfaction and building long-term friendships.


The most recent phase of the project began with the migration of CALICO from Brigham Young University and the stewardship of Frank Otto to Duke. This necessitated a careful division of labor and a meticulous avoidance of conflict of interest. The tightrope to be negotiated ran between the technical, logistical support provided by the Duke Project to CALICO, and CALICO's neutrality over against the Duke Project. Eleanor Johnson, Laura Rhodes, and Kerrie Hudzinski embody that careful separation. Since the same hard core CALICO membership comprising Duke and its competitors and rivals has returned annually for the symposium since CALICO has come to Duke, the division of labor seems to be working.

That quantum increase in the activities in the basement of Duke's Language Center was accompanied by another changing of the guard in the staff of the Project. Venkatakrishna Kuncham came in to oversee the editor, Mohsen Mahdavi-Hezaveh the WinCALIS author template, and Raviram Medapati record keeping. Satsuki Scoville came on board for logistics and training assistance. Kunst and Bebenek provided long-term continuity in addition to their normal duties.

The activities of these years were dominated by the rewriting of WinCALIS for the UNICODE environment. From an American or Western European standpoint dual language computing satisfies most practical day-to-day uses of computers, including computer assisted language learning. For those needs, the ASCII character set will probably suffice for the foreseeable future. Most second languages can make ASCII pose as something else, say Cyrillic or Greek or Hebrew. No uniform standards have ever been developed for this pose, and most actual solutions are unique and unportable. When the proliferation of unique and unportable solutions is no longer considered tolerable, UNICODE or some uniform standard like it, is going to have to be adopted. WinCALIS is the first authoring and presentation environment to have taken the leap. It was not easy, which is demonstrated by the slowness with which alternatives are undertaking the same revision. However, a sense of accomplishment attends the display of Arabic, Chinese, English, and Hebrew on the same screen, indeed on the same line in WinCALIS, especially since that sight is accompanied by the certain knowledge that an internal representation of these languages hides behind their display on the screen. It is that internal representation that lets the program perform all the manipulations of language necessary to help students move that next step in their learning. Adopting the UNICODE standard, in connection with "string externalization" (rendering all the English in the interface replaceable by other languages), makes it possible to use WinCALIS to teach Korean to the French using a French interface: "Press space bar to continue" ends up "Appuyez sur la barre d'espacement ou cliquez ici."

To prove that WinCALIS really worked, CD-ROMs were commissioned in Persian, Russian, and Ukrainian. The Persian, designed by Mohsen Mahdevi, turned out to be a multimedia extravaganza with video icons, calligraphy, photography, newsreels, poetry, song, and much, much more. The contents, given the sensitivities of that part of the world, are not uncontroversial, but the form is spectacular. It was an important demonstration that the program, to be sure, in the hands of a master, could do practically anything that any multimedia authoring environment could do. The next challenge would be to make it easy for other hands to do the same thing.

The Agenda

That leaves the foreseeable future to contend with. It would seem that after ten years of development the requirements should be winding down. Nothing of the kind. On the docket for the immediate future is the expansion of the on-line WinCALIS Korean dictionary to 20,000 words and the representation of the Thai language, on the screen and behind it, for WinCALIS. The languages of South Asia observe comparable conventions of representation, and the hope is that the Thai solution will be portable with ease to the languages of the subcontinent.

If all goes well, the team will thereupon be turning full attention to the composition of a UNICODE and WinCALIS compliant, "lean, mean word processing machine" that will have a significant number of word processor features, in addition to those that will make authoring for WinCALIS easier. Certain theoretic issues emerge again here, so far into the development of the program, as animation, broadly and strictly defined, rises in importance in the multimedia universe. OLE (Object Linking and Embedding) will be the core technology of the new editor, with a built in possibility of animating text ("teletype," TTY), and importing animation programs from elsewhere and running them within the editorin due course, within WinCALIS itself. Perhaps the most practical contribution of the UNICODE editor will be the throwback capacity to produce hard copy in printouts of any editorial activity, putting back into the hands of the classroom teacher Gutenberg technology for the languages of the world.

The next pressing agenda item is the completion of the record keeping module, above all, the ability to generate tests automatically, secure them electronically, grade them, generate printouts for teacher and student alike to post-process, in short, to try to reverse the disastrous failure that H-P CALIS had back in the early '80s. The hope would be to succeed finally in producing that essential piece of educational software that no teacher would want to be without because it saves so much time and does such a good job. At its best, the record keeping would be able to keep track not only of students over the years, but also of the educational materials themselves, the exercises and the test questions, to learn over time what questions were good and what answers and, by learning from correlation, just what tested what. In due course the program would be able to distinguish between and produce: 1) aptitude and achievement testing, 2) entry and exit testing, 3) placement, proficiency, and performance testing,

WinCALIS will work nicely on the MS-Windows 95 platform, but it is a 16 bit product and Windows 95 is a 32 bit environment. The rewriting of WinCALIS into version 3.0 is the next large task envisioned on the horizon. This will not be merely a technical tour de force but an opportunity to put into place the many developments in pedagogy and theory that will have been made by then. One imagines a proper "collaborative learning" engine, where the entire program is ready from the outset to accommodate solo, team, cooperative, or competitive learning tasks. Perhaps an authoring environment can be made to take instant advantage of the World Wide Web or its successor, and be as easy to use. Perhaps the work of the artificial intelligence community and its natural language processing component will at last be so economical as to be used routinely for intelligent language processing for all purposes, including intelligent tutoring and speech recognition.

There is enough to do to keep us all very busy.


1. Aus Unserer Zeit: Dichter des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts (New York: W. W. Norton, 1956); Querschnitt: Dichter des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts (New York: W. W. Norton, 1962).

2. Occasionally student response had to be gauged by what they did and not what they said: it happened that students would spend ten minutes denouncing the program to interviewers and promptly turn around and obsessively work their CALIS exercises for the subsequent forty-five.

3. While it incidentally and inadvertently supported the "Pig-Latin" hypothesis, which is often postulated by second-language learners during the early stages of their learning: "L2 is L1 perversely encoded." See the "Lexical Analogue Hypothesis" in Theodore V. Higgs, "Some Pre-Methodological Considerations in Foreign Language Teaching," The Modern Language Journal 63, 7 (1979), 335-42; and more recently S.K. Bland, J. Noblitt, et al. "The Naive Lexical Hypothesis: Evidence from Computer Assisted Language Learning," The Modern Language Journal 74, 4 (December 1990), 440-450.

4. Sixth International Conference on Computers and the Humanities, Sarah K. Burton and Douglas D. Short, eds. (Rockville, MD: Computer Science Press, 1983), at which Richard A.Kunst was already processing Chinese characters (pp. 772-80), the editor of this volume was already evangelizing Artificial Intelligence (pp. 595-99), and the honoree of this volume was already disseminating good sense (pp. 588-94) about language learning and technology. The author of this article also presented CALIS to the participants but too late to appear in the transactions: "Drilling, Testing, and Monitoring Duke's Computer Augmented Language Instructional System," June 7, 1983.

5. Wallace, William Norris. The medical metaphor in selected works of Friedrich Schiller; a computer-assisted study. M.A. Thesis. Durham, NC: Duke University.

6. We plan to continue to use ANNs for this experiment even though a consensus seems to have formed against them in favor of statistical strategies (chiefly Hidden Markov Models [HMMs]) for most pattern recognition tasks, including speech (and language) recognition. See Bernstein 1995, esp. pp. 26-7.

Reproduced here with permission from the Computer Assisted Language Instruction Consortium, from the CALICO Journal, in which this article appeared.(Volume 12, Number 4, Special Issue Summer 1995)

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