Learning of foreign languages can be somewhat of a challenge in the United States, partially due to proximity to countries where another language is spoken, yet global perspectives are essential and better addressed through a multi-lingual and multi-cultural citizenry. “According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, a higher percentage of students are studying a foreign language than at any time in history.” The Case for Foreign language Classes Education Week ( July 12, 2010). Students need to become prepared to conduct business and compete in a global economy, our competitors across the globe are addressing it.
Foreign language instruction is an area that can be handled effectively through virtual environment experiences. Foreign language teachers will tell you that practice in the native tongue with native speakers is a “best practice”. In real life it often includes field trips, at the very least to a local restaurant or community, students from affluent homes may participate in a trip abroad.
In a virtual environment, students can be placed in a variety of social situations, with native speakers, to practice newly acquired linguistic skills. There are instant translators available in virtual worlds that can translate written text to a limited degree, and/or students may turn on voice and actually practice speaking with individuals from another country. Environments can be constructed to elicit the practice of particular vocabulary such as sporting, arts, cultural, or social events. Students (through avatars) engaged in conversation and interaction will naturally acquire cultural lessons as well.
ESOL students could use the environment similarly. A characteristic that encourages language practice for the second language learner is the ‘security’ of the avatar. Students learning a foreign language may express a reluctance to speak, for fear of being made fun of. An avatar representation offers some shielding from potential or perceived ridicule.
A virtual setting may very well be the most ‘natural’ setting we can provide, at a reasonable cost, for foreign language instruction.
Virtual learning is not a substitute for great teaching, rather a viable compliment. I suggest that this environment can be used in at least 2 ways to enhance foreign language instruction. First for practice with native speakers or even other students and second for guided practice with a foreign language teacher. Guided practice would allow the foreign language instructor to ensure particular vocabulary and syntax are used, the environment simply provides a space where the role-playing can occur in safe and appropriate surroundings.
Thanks for the positive focus on languages! We at ACTFL agree that virtual worlds can be useful to language learning as a tool to assist a well-trained teacher. I just hope people will not think that virtual learning is a substitute for in-person learning and/or tutoring. Language learners need the human interaction with a teacher – someone educated to assist in the language learning process. Virtual environments are great, as you say, for practice. As language is the most complex of human interaction, most language learners benefit greatly from interaction with a live teacher who knows the language, not just another speaker of the language.