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January 2018

Is Virtual Reality the Next Big Step in Language Learning?

Jumpstarting language learning with VR

Technology is exponentially advancing, and language learners can already benefit from a myriad of language technologies currently available, often at no cost. From video calls to apps that promote language exchange, it’s easier than ever to converse with a real human and practise your target language.

The human mind, however, is still as old fashioned as ever. The mental barriers that prevent us from learning at our full potential will likely always be with us. We get nervous, our egos make us fear failure, and we resist speaking with others because we’re sometimes shy. 

In a recent article from Quartz entitled, “Learning a language in VR is less embarrassing than IRL”, this may soon change with the prevalence of virtual reality (VR). VR allows us to don visors and be in new realities. While most associate VR with gaming and entertainment, the applications are really endless.

The article suggests that VR can be used with artificial intelligence (AI) to allow language learners the opportunity to emulate the experience of conversing with others. Students would speak to these non-human characters in a virtual environment within the comfort of their own homes. Because they’re speaking with non-humans, there’s less of a reason to feel embarrassed. Of course, this all requires that the computer is smart enough to understand proper pronunciation and that it can respond in a natural way.

Bridging the gap

But even without developed AI, VR can be used to connect people across great distances in a manner similar to video chat apps. Imagine putting on your VR headset and walking into a virtual conference room with avatars that represent real people from across the globe. You then sit down with a native speaker of your target language and learn as if you two were in a real room together. The environment can then be manipulated to become a restaurant or a store, making roleplaying all the more realistic.

One day, when virtual worlds exist that are robust and populated, the student could visit such virtual cities. A Spanish student could visit a Spanish virtual city and speak with people “residing” there, watch a film, play a game, or even conduct business.

Immersion is key

Perhaps the greatest factor in learning a new language is immersion. When students are forced to speak, listen, and live in their target language, they learn all the more quickly. When it comes to digital experiences, few are more immersive than VR. It involves sight, sound, speaking, movement, and, one day, feeling through the use of advanced haptic feedback.

This immersive quality of VR makes the experience more “real” than, say, speaking through video chat. The use of language is more natural, ironic as the complete experience is digital. 

Additionally, the digital learning environment could be further supplemented by educational materials that work within the virtual world itself. Imagine speaking with a native speaker of your target language with subtitles visible. Perhaps you could turn on a translation function so you can see the translated words above your conversation partner. In a virtual world, the limit is truly one’s imagination. 

How do you think VR can help with language learning? What are some creative ways you can come up with? Let us know on our Facebook Page, and be sure to “like” TELC English for more articles on language and culture from around the world!

Picture: (c) Adobe Stock, s4svisuals