According to a recent paper from the 22nd International Conference on College Teaching and Learning, virtual worlds offer many benefits for language education.
The authors — David Parrott and James Lenze from Indiana University of Pennsylvania — argue that the social nature of virtual worlds combined with the elements of game play make virtual worlds the best platform for learning languages on the computer.
A virtual world offers a learning environment that is “much more stress and anxiety free than being forced to speak out loud in a language that the student is just beginning to learn in a traditional classroom setting,” the authors said.
Another benefit is the variety it offers. A virtual world gives the students the opportunity to practice languages in many different settings.
“In a virtual world, there can be communication with real people that is both engaging and unpredictable and foster collaborative learning forms not found in the normal classroom environments,” wrote Parrot and Lenze.
Although Second Life eliminated its academic discount, the authors were able to identify 11 sims devoted to foreign language instruction. Eight of them employed a formal foreign language curriculum, teaching actual foreign language classes. Eight sims also provided opportunities for immersive experiences. One out of the 11 sims offered instruction in the real world while merely advertising in the virtual world. The languages offered varied widely, ranging from Arabic to Romanian to Finnish.
Of course, one of the problems with learning a virtual language through a virtual world is the challenges faced by the instructor in assessing a student’s progress, the authors wrote. However, there are ways around this problem, and “in some ways even more discourse can be analyzed in virtual worlds than in a traditional classroom.”
The authors warned that the virtual world platform can also sometimes get in the way of language learning.
“Some learners become more proficient in skills related to navigating and relating to others in the virtual environment, but do not learn much in the way of new language skills,” they said. “Others stumble over what might be termed simple tasks relating to the challenges of the use of a keyboard and basic computer literacy.”
Students may also become overwhelmed by the amount of information available in virtual worlds, and subsequently become discouraged or disengaged, they added.
Teachers may also be discouraged about creating lesson plans around software that keeps changing, they said, and “some fear might make investment in time and energy into curriculum a waste of time.”
Despite these challenges, not only did most of the sims dedicated to language learning provide instruction and immersive opportunities, but they also charged for the lessons, the authors said.
This was a surprise to them, they wrote, since they originally hypothesized that the experimental nature of the technology would result in language lessons being offered altruistically, at no cost to the students.