MABLE addresses problems of business communication in the banking and export fields. It is developing an application to assist in the process of writing business letters in a foreign language imperfectly mastered by their writers. The application will guide, interrogate, and correct users in their own language so that their foreign language letters are of high quality and sensitive to both linguistic aspects and variations in commercial practice. An extensive grammar and lexicon of the target language will also be available where free text is inputted. The final system will be multilingual and available on PCs as an extension to popular word-processors.
Summary of the Year
The project has carried out a user requirements study leading to the development of an in depth technical specification. Work has also started on implementation, leading to an alpha prototype. This is intended to focus users on the capabilities of MABLe, to elicit feedback, and better focused requirements.
MABLe's initial prototype examines the issues of: integration with MS Word, the creation of a multi-lingual corpus of business letter phrases, and the creation of a grammar of business letters.
MABLe has been designed to be tightly bound to Microsoft's Office Suite (in particular MS Word for letter generation and MS Access for data storage) and is composed of six modules:
1) a database of business letter phrases
2) a business letter grammar
3) a free text entry component
4) a grammar traversal component
5) the user interface
6) a help system.
The letter grammar, which is stored in MS Access, describes how and where variable portions can be inserted into a letter. A 'Treewalk and Generate' module controls the user guidance over the letter grammar and inserts the phrases necessary to construct the business letter into MS Word. The user interface handles the user's responses to options in the letter grammar traversal and any requests for help with either calls to the database or a MS Windows help file.
The MABLe letter grammar is the core component of the project. It is the language resource that aims to capture the world of business letters as a 'Text Grammar'. The grammar itself consists of a set of re-write rules stored both as an SGML Document Type Definition (DTD) and in a database format. 'Component' rules divide a linguistic unit into its immediate constituents whilst 'Alternative' rules define alternative realisations of terminal or non-terminal units, with letter-text portions making up a set of terminals.
These text chunks may contain variable portions (VAPS) which allow product types, dates, methods of shipment etc. to be input into the text in a controlled manner. The development pattern chosen for MABLe, i.e. the elaboration of successive prototypes, requires a text-grammar that evolves in a similar fashion. So the current grammar includes such VAP slots, although the VAP technology is to be incorporated at the next development stage.
MABLe's database had to satisfy a number of different requirements:
- it should provide (or facilitate) access to local or external databases;
- the implementation should be easily ported to any alternative relational database management system;
- it should operate on common PC platforms using Windows for Workgroups;
- it should co-exist with Word for Windows;
- it should store linguistic data in Greek, English and Spanish;
- it will have to store both instructional and help text;
- it should store generated letters.
The designed system uses an Access database to store the information with an Application Program Interface (API) for data access. It was chosen since it is low cost, royalty-free, satisfies all of the above requirements and an interface for it can be developed using standard SQL, which means that it can be easily ported to run with other potential databases that could exist in clients environments such as Oracle, Ingress, etc.
User Groups, Promotion and Awareness
Project partners carried out several user studies, using a combination of questionnaires, interviews and field observation. A good range of companies were interviewed, with representatives of most of the target sectors for MABLe included. The majority of Greek companies were export/marketing companies. The result was that, in summary, the consortium must maintain and grow the encouraging initial interest in the MABLe project. The project will, initially, focus on import/export and the associated purchasing, shipping, sales and marketing activities, with additional work on the Greek legal market.
MABLe is ever mindful of other, less complex business letter software that has recently appeared. For example, TRANSWRITE by Kasper Boon of Maastricht University (distributed by PROLANG-Interactive in the UK) has recently appeared. This is a stand-alone database product that allows the user to construct a letter from a bank of approximately 2,000 phrases and then 'translates' the letter by replacing the source phrases with a selected target phrase. It is similar in principle to "Eurobrief", by Gesellschaft fuer Technologie und neue Medien GmbH., Wuppertal, but more polished. MABLe has the advantage over these products of a grammar of business letters to provide good letter structure.
The Way Ahead
As the project moves into its second year, the user studies will be verified against the first prototype. This will be used to give users a clearer idea of what we mean MABLe to do, and better focus their suggestions for improvement. Development will focus on the variable portions module. This will allow modification of phrases whilst maintaining correct number and gender for example, and is a syntactically motivated feature not considered by our nearest commercial competitors.
In the year to come MABLe will increase its competitive edge with an enhanced grammar to provide better letter coherence and style uniformity.
MABLe is aimed at writers with some knowledge of the target language, but who are not sufficiently fluent or knowledgeable to produce business letters of the necessary quality. The project is aimed at business-to-business correspondence.
Current products take the form of automated versions of bi-lingual books of business letters. Letters are formed from templates, and completed with phrases from databases. No current product shares MABLe's objectives.
MABLe's aim of producing high quality, stylistically and linguistically correct business letters.
MABLe will extend Microsoft WORD with Language Engineering Technology from the University of Heidelberg.
MABLe will be prototyped in the financial/business domain and will include common themes, such as letters of credit, credit chasing letters, and orders.
Progress and results
The project will make its public deliverables available on the Internet World Wide Web (http://www.mari.co.uk/~mable/). This will be the public results forum.
There will be an in-depth demonstration at Month 21, and associated public demonstrations will be announced on the Web site.
The project is committed to commercial exploitation. User groups will be set up both in Greece and Spain to ensure that development matches user needs. Approaches from companies wishing to join these user groups will be most welcome.
Funding SchemeCSC - Cost-sharing contracts