CHAT: Inquiry Education in Linguistics


CHAT ("Computational Human Articulatory Theory") is a software environment for inquiry-based education in linguistics, intended for beginning undergraduate linguistics students. Its strong points include:


Linguistics courses at Hampshire College have used interactive CD-ROM-based multimedia, developed by the investigators (and being published by MIT Press), but neither this software nor other available linguistics software supports truly inquiry-based interactivity. CHAT provides a software framework for student inquiry in introductory undergraduate linguistics; it also helps to provide motivation for formal linguistic material.


CHAT is based on a variant of the Turing test. Users participate in a chat-room-like environment in which they attempt to build grammars that will allow them to post ever more complex and interesting grammatical sentences in a natural language (English in this implementation).

The software provides lexicon and grammatical rule-building tool kits based on current Chomskyan minimalist syntactic theory.

CHAT embodies a theory of inquiry as theory/model-building. This is a more radical model of inquiry-based education than the commonly used one: students answer concrete questions about language (as in the traditional model of inquiry), but in doing so they actually create and refine a formal theory of syntax.

CHAT motivates average students to master abstract, formal material. The software's basis in natural language generation gives a concrete ground to linguistic theory: a student can understand her theory's strengths and shortcomings by examining the sentences it generates, using her native ability as an English speaker to detect ungrammaticality. CHAT's structured space for experimentation provides a naturally incremental approach to theory-building: rather than understanding all of syntax, the student's task is to account for one syntactic phenomenon in her theory, then move on to another.

CHAT allows users and instructors to collaborate or compete in various ways.

The software is intended for use in class or lab sessions, with 5-20 students (one or two students per computer) and with an instructor or TA present; but it could be used for individual experimentation or even homework assignments without networking, and the chat room is based on TCP/IP networking, so it can be shared over the Internet among users around the world.


The first versions of the CHAT software were prototyped using Macromedia Director 6 and 7 in the summer and fall of 1998 and were tested with students in the spring of 1999. In the summer of 1999, CHAT was reimplemented from scratch in Java, its user interface was redesigned, and it was extended with new linguistics, data logging, and other features.

In the spring of 2000 it underwent further expansion both linguistically and educationally; we added transformations, morphology, binding, auxiliaries, and other complex features of language to CHAT, and extended its pedagogy in new directions by including instructional agents that observe the user's work and provide feedback. The interface was also significantly improved with many new conveniences and features.

Here is a more detailed log of recent work on CHAT.

Preliminary results

Local collaboration, among students sharing the same machine, has thus far been more important than networked interaction via the chat room.

The user-constructed sentence-generator framework appears to be very successful in motivating students to grapple with difficult aspects of syntactic theory.


You can download a current version of CHAT from the links below.

Download Size and format Description
Download CHAT (513K StuffIt archive) The CHAT program -- CHAT users should download this. Last updated February 26, 2001.
Example grammar (3K StuffIt archive) An example grammar/lexicon for demo purposes. Last updated January 22, 2001.
CHAT Project (1.1MB Stuffit archive) The complete project, with source code, for CHAT's developers only. Last updated February 26, 2001.

You will need to use StuffIt Expander version 5.0 or later (free for Mac and Windows from Aladdin Systems) to decompress these files. Make sure that the JAR files (whose names end with ".jar") are not decompressed.

On a Macintosh, once the file is un-stuffed (decompressed), you need only double-click the application "CHAT" to use CHAT.

You should also install the latest version of MRJ, the Mac OS Runtime for Java, for improved speed and stability.

On another platform (Windows, Unix, or any other one) you will need to invoke your computer's Java virtual machine on the JAR file inside the download. CHAT should work with any Java 1.1-compliant environment. You may also need to know the names of the main class to invoke within the JAR archive: CHAT's main class is called "ChatApp" (in the file "ChatClasses.jar").


CHAT is not completely documented, so you may need to contact the researchers or the developers for some information.

However, documentation is available which covers:


CHAT is a project of Hampshire College's Inquiry-Based Learning: Cognitive Measures & Systems Support grant group (here is the proposal's abstract), funded by the National Science Foundation's Learning and Intelligent Systems grant program.



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This page is maintained by Lee Spector.