Virtual worlds among latest trends in language education

Using virtual worlds to teach foreign languages holds promise, but it still is better used to complement traditional instruction until the technology can progress. Parrott and Lenze note that much of what has been written on the topic concentrates on how virtual worlds affect language instruction now and their potential to increase that impact in the future.

“Learning a foreign language, often seen as a dry and tedious process, can be invigorated by the integration of the most engaging aspects of video games,” the authors wrote. Those aspects include role-playing, storytelling, and rewards-based challenges.

Additionally, students working together toward a common goal while learning a foreign language are forced to think about the proper words and might not feel as stressed or self-conscious about their knowledge or pronunciation if they are engaged in a fun activity with peers.

The authors also address assessment and other instructional challenges, and they go on to describe a study evaluating Second Life and its foreign language instruction opportunities.

The annual SLanguages Conference, held on EduNation in Second Life, explores how virtual environments can facilitate language learning.

One session during the September 2011 conference noted that little research has been done to examine exactly how virtual worlds can affect students learning foreign language learners. To test this, researchers took students in an undergraduate Spanish course and split them into two sections—one section followed the traditional curriculum, and the other section used Second Life in its instruction.

“The Effects of Second Life on the Motivation of Undergraduate Students Learning a Foreign Language,” by Amy Wehner, Andrew Gump, and Steve Downey, appeared in a 2011 issue of the Journal of Computer Assisted Language Learning.

Researchers found that connecting language learners to virtual worlds might help to lower anxiety and boost self-confidence, leading to greater engagement and a stronger desire to learn the language.

At the V-lang International Conference in Warsaw in November, “Learning a Language in Virtual Worlds: A Review of Innovation and ICT in Language Teaching Methodology” included a number of papers concerning virtual worlds and their use in language learning.

The conference capped off a two-year project from a consortium of six institutions from Spain, Greece, Poland, Lithuania, and Germany, and it focused on presenting new and innovative foreign language instructional methods.

“In [Second Life], there works the phenomenon of linguistic and cultural immersion, which is coherent with ‘full immersion’ in foreign language, by communicating and explaining the entire virtual world only by using a foreign language,” notes Sławomir Czepielewski, of the Warsaw Academy of Computer Science, Management and Administration, in “The Virtual World of Second Life in Foreign Language Learning.” The paper is included in a collection of papers related to conference topics.

3D virtual worlds give teachers and students unique learning opportunities that are not always accessible in traditional classroom settings and with traditional language learning techniques.

“Multicultural, international, and multilingual characters of Second Life, as well as variety of communication means, make it an incredible medium for language learning,” writes Czepielewski. “Conversation with users speaking a foreign language, context recognition based on facial expression and body language, visiting different locations, facilitating acquisition of new vocabulary—these factors are priceless for linguistic education.”

Language apps for students

Outside of virtual environments, other technology-enhanced language learning tools include free and fee-based apps for smart phones and tablets, which might work well if students have access to in-class devices, have their own devices at home, or are part of a “bring your own device” initiative.

Laura Ascione

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