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New Technology in the ESL Classroom

The repercussions virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) have had on language learning are difficult to overstate. At a time when Google’s Pixel Buds earphones can translate conversations between languages in real time, some are asking whether humans even need to “learn” new languages at all.

Almost all linguists agree that VR and AR aren’t making language learning obsolete. There are cultural and social aspects to language that technology has not successfully translated. But VR and AR are changing how people learn languages, including English as a second language (ESL) learners. Professionals considering a Master of Science in Education in TESOL online need to keep informed of these tools as potential resources for their ESL classrooms.

In fact, such technologies reinforce what language learners know: Immersion is the best teacher. VR and AR create worlds that are not physically there, and in this way, they can assist ESL learners in real-time conversations and interactions that build and retain language skills. As researchers from Russia’s Samara State Technical University stated in the Proceedings of the International Conference on the Theory and Practice of Personality Formation in Modern Society: “Phenomena and situations that cannot be understood and explained in the traditional techniques become part of the real world through the simulation.”

Why Is New Technology Needed?

One of the core advantages of VR and AR technology is the expansion of language learning beyond the traditional classroom’s confines. For ESL learners, this technology creates an immersive, interactive space to practice English, which could be especially important in offering students an opportunity to practice English conversation outside of regular class hours.

There is also evidence to suggest such technologies can increase the motivation to learn ESL. Some language-learning AR apps like Mondly “gamify” the experience of language learning, making it feel more like play than homework. A few studies conducted in 2011 and 2014 found that VR and AR technology increases motivation among college students learning English.

How Will It Affect Learners?

In a 2018 paper published in the journal Childhood Education, Rene Gadelha writes of the ways VR and AR technology may help students concentrate on language learning lessons: “By blocking out visual and auditory distractions in the classroom, VR has the potential to help students deeply connect with the material.”

It can also make abstract language concepts seem more tangible. VR and AR apps that manipulate users’ surroundings bridge the gap between subject matter and students’ real lives. This makes ESL lessons feel real — as relevant as learning the English words for furniture in your own room.

This technology can also provide immediate feedback that a traditional classroom setting might not. A teacher can only converse with one or two students at a time, while a virtual assistant can interact with every student individually, providing real-time feedback. Mondly, Duolingo and Busuu’s Alexa plug-in all offer these types of personal, virtual assistants, with variations between the different apps.

What Challenges Will Teachers Face?

There are many challenges to implementing VR and AR for ESL learning. First, technology is not always easy to use or accessible. VR and AR headsets can be expensive to purchase for a large classroom group; smartphone-based apps require students to have smartphones and internet service to run online programs. VR and AR programs also raise distinct privacy and safety concerns that other online apps don’t such as online bullies or harassers. Plus, as with any technology, users need time to use new VR and AR programs confidently.

The second set of challenges is more abstract. James Rohrbach, CEO of language training organization Fluent City, cautioned in an article for Forbes that technology should not be allowed to remove the human and cultural element of language learning: “The real challenge isn’t how great tech can teach people languages, but rather how can great tech supplement, extend and scale the human interaction that is at the core of language learning?”

In essence, ESL learning cannot rely only on VR and AR technology. It must also incorporate cultural and social lessons that deepen understanding of other communities and encourage dialogue and sharing.

Learn more about the University of Southern Maine online Master of Science in Education in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) program.


Atlantis Press: Proceedings of the International Conference on the Theory and Practice of Personality Formation in Modern Society

Forbes: How New Technologies Are Changing Language Learning, for Better and Worse

Insider: We Put Google’s New Language-Translation Headphones to the Test with 10 Different Languages — Here’s How They Did

MondlyAR: Learn Outside the Books

Teaching English with Technology: Augmented and Virtual Reality in the Language Classroom: Practical Ideas

The Conversation: Translation Technology Is Useful, but Should Not Replace Learning Languages

The Learning and Technology Library: Revolutionizing Education: The Promise of Virtual Reality

The Pie News: Busuu Plugs Into ‘Intelligent Assistants’

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