WaitChatter teaches you a language while you chat

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It’s every young working professional’s intention to learn a second language, but carving out time for that exercise can feel like a chore when the alternative is streaming television and Netflix.

A new prototype project called WaitChatter claims to ease the strain by injecting learning exercises into the microseconds people spend waiting for replies on chat apps like Google Chat, iMessage, Skype, Snapchat and others. The application uses the brief window when the ellipses dominate the screen as an opportunity to spring a vocabulary quiz.

“Usually when you’re bored you go on Facebook or check your e-mail again,” said Carrie Cai, a graduate student at MIT and a lead designer of WaitChatter. “It takes a lot of energy to say, ‘Oh I want to do a flash card right now.'”

So Cai and her co-authors at MIT’s Computer Science and for Artificial Intelligence Labs designed a simple Google Chrome extension which added a panel to a chat window within Gmail, and comes up with word-learning prompts while a person waits for a response.

The program is based on an educational concept that claims short doses of information in well-spaced intervals leave a more lasting impact than a long exercise done at a stretch, said Cai. On WaitChatter, words well learned show up less often, and harder words appear more frequently.

In a study with 20 people last year, Cai and her colleagues found that the subjects learned 57 words in two weeks. 
According to Cai’s early estimate, all those seconds spent waiting for a response while the “…” bubble appears in your iChat or Gchat or Skype or Snapchat window, adds up to 15 minutes of time wasted waiting every day.

Cai and her colleagues presented the concept in April at the CHI 2015, a human-computer interaction conference in Seoul, Korea this year. She says that a version of the algorithm can suggest words that are related to the conversation you’re having in the chat box. The team expects to have a free beta version of the software available to try this month.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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