CAPL, an open multilingual photo dictionary


As a language teacher, I am always making my own materials. Good language teachers do this habitually. We don't only rely on content provided to us; we constantly tinker with materials, re-form them, borrow, adapt, and use anything we can get our hands on to make the language learning process more relevant and interesting to our students. We are essentially "makers" of curricular materials.

Images do improve vocabulary acquisition and are essential for the instruction of culture. Simply put, access to good media is limited for teachers. Sure, we all have MS Clipart, but how do you explain a ticket cancelling machine in the unit on public transit with clipart? Or how do you convey what a Döner is? An image is a good place to start. Simply taking images from search engines doesn't always work. There can be too many and finding the right image is often hard when you want to convey a specific cultural idea in a different language.

In 2003 I approached a colleague of mine at W&J College about a project idea I had.

Jason Parkhill, now director of academic IT services at Colby College, worked with me to help design, program, and provide content for what we consider to be the first "authentic" picture dictionary. It is a classic academic project that was under funded, too complex for two people, and for which we were unsure of the target audience.

We went with the non-sexy name of a "pictorial lexicon" as we thought it best described our efforts to visually represent a set of words in a given language. The images in CAPL are not generic representations of objects, but are photos taken in an unaltered context. Since German is my field, I figured we would start there as a way to attack the problem I had finding high quality images for my German classes.

In designing the database, we went with the strategy of providing a limited amount of meta-data to accompany each image. We basically have two categories for each image, an English description, and a short vernacular description. In a world of too much information, limited data can be a blessing.

• Try finding an image in our database. It is fairly easy.
•Search Google images, our limited meta-data has our images appear all the time when you search, especially when filtered by license.
Browse a category if you don't know the specific word.

If you are looking for an image of a specific object in a culture, my hope is that you can easily find it there. Clearly there are other sources for images, Corbis, Getty, and Wikipedia for example, but the amount of information there can be something through which you must wade with knee high boots. Besides Wikipedia, the cost of other photo databases is prohibitive.

The German database was well received by the teaching community, logging 6 million page views in a few years. Yes, BoingBoing gets 10 million a month, but for a home grown teacher resource and almost no funding, we feel like we came a long way to make our point about visual aspects of different languages.

Last year, however, we got a grant to start to expand the database and re-program it to handle multiple languages. Two very sympathetic IT guys at the college, Jason Pergola and Brad Kita, came on board and put in a lot of time to adapt the database to handle multiple languages and keep the interface simple. We also added some new content and the new database works well. You might even find an image of a Russian banana if you desire to look at one. Once we have some content and an editor, we can expand into any language and are editing new databases currently.

Behind the CAPL database has always been the spirit of sharing content so that other educators may "make their own" lessons. We use a Creative Commons 3.0 US License to allow for free non-commercial use and adaption. We actually encourage use and adaption of the images there. Schools, universities, or any nonprofit entity or individual may use these authentic photos for a variety of purposes. Use them on a school web site; put them in a blog, print them on a credit card for all we care. The images come in three sizes from thumbnail to very large and we are constantly expanding. My college (Washington & Jefferson) has long been a supporter of this open content project. Connexions is a great resource database cataloging numerous open content projects for making your own educational materials.

My long term hope is that at some point there will be a truly authentic visual dictionary that is multi-lingual and authentic. Current search engines don't have an elegant way to sift through visual content with a cultural filter. Perhaps it could be done with geo-tagging in combination with meta-data, but for now our project does it by hand. We are trudging along with our group of volunteer experts who edit the images we have in our database. It is a type of "slow media" project. As you can see in our database list, there are some starter projects just getting off the ground with less than 1000 unique entries, and we have other languages that have many more images in the database.

For now, if you need a CC licensed photo of a particular object, try CAPL.

I recently was at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) Conference 19 talking about the pedagogical reasons for using authentic images over generic images and how teachers can use CAPL to make their own multi-media learning materials. I have provided some examples of how teachers are already using these images in the traditional language learning classroom, but I would love to hear from some creative readers what they think they could do with the images in an electronic learning environment.

How would you make a web based vocabulary learning game out of the images?

Would you adapt it for a mobile device? If so, which platform?

What are your experiences with educational media? (From film strips to pod casts)

I am exploring options for mobile learning using authentic images now and will start once we have our funding in place. In the academic world, we might say "There's a grant for that."

Knock, knock, Gates foundation.