Virtual worlds among latest trends in language education

Students can ‘meet’ native speakers and converse informally in virtual worlds.

Learning a foreign language has long been a high school graduation requirement, but technology has taken language learning to new levels with the availability of interactive websites, apps for handheld devices, and software that can target students’ weak spots.

Technology changes quickly, and recently, a new way of teaching and learning foreign languages has emerged: using virtual worlds, such as Second Life, to increase student engagement and confidence as they build new language skills.

Virtual worlds present a relatively new avenue for language learning, although groups and conferences have focused on this instructional method for the past few years.

Proponents say that letting students explore virtual worlds while learning a new language is beneficial in many ways:

  • Students can meet native speakers and converse formally and informally.
  • Teachers can organize virtual field trips to monuments or other sites associated with the language, prompting students to discuss aspects of the field trip in the new language.
  • Students can create their own avatars, environments, etc., and can apply newly-acquired language skills to those personalized creations. For instance, students might have to limit their clothing choices to items whose words they are able to identify in the foreign language they are learning.

Aside from Second Life, other virtual worlds include There, Entropia Universe, and ExitReality.

Emerging research

“The Risks and Rewards of Language Instruction in Virtual Worlds: An Overview of Current Literature and Praxis,” from Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s David Parrott and James Lenze, examines virtual worlds and their usefulness in language instruction.

The paper was part of a collection of selected papers from the 22nd International Conference on College Teaching and Learning in 2011.

“Educators have noted some advantages to virtual worlds which relate to the fact that they are artificial environments, so the anxiety of learning a foreign language in a stressful real life situation can be lessened,” Parrot and Lenze wrote.

The authors note that a wide range of learners and learning styles can benefit from language learning in virtual worlds, including college-level students, those who already interact with others in virtual worlds, and young children who can easily adapt and pick up on a new language in such an environment while under adult supervision.

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.

For instance, Wonder Kids, an app for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch, offers foreign language instruction for toddlers, preschoolers, and elementary students in five languages: English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. The app features an audio-visual approach using flashcards, in addition to games such as puzzles, drawing, and matching. The app is free, but it offers in-app purchases.

Disney’s Learn Chinese: Toy Story 3 is a story-driven app for the iPad and costs $4.99. The app uses a read-along format and is based on Diglot Weave, an international teaching method. The app works by telling a story in the learner’s native language as well as in the language being learned. As the learner’s comprehension increases, more of the story is told in the new language.

Busuu offers free and paid iPhone and Android versions of its language learning app, which can be synched with, an online language learning community. Features include key words and phrases, different topics that use day-to-day situations, and full language learning units.

iStart Spanish! is one in a series that also includes iStart Japanese! and iStart Chinese! The apps feature quizzes, flashcards, and rewards for beginners. Lessons include alphabets, pronunciation, and syllables, as well as a tutor that uses text message-like prompts to ask users to translate phrases.

iTranslate is a free tool for Apple products in a wide variety of languages, including English, Arabic, French, German, Korean, Spanish, and more. Users can translate written languages, and some languages offer text-to-speech abilities. The app features purchase options such as voice recognition.


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Laura Ascione
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