Using Virtual Reality to Teach the English Language

Abstract

The purpose of this research paper is to present the discussion of how it is possible to use technology in teaching languages with reference to the application of virtual reality. This paper is also focused on describing the possible advantages and disadvantages of using technologies in teaching and learning languages, and conclusions are based on the recent scholarly literature in the field. In the final sections of the paper, the key principles and features of virtual reality are explained with a focus on how educators can apply augmented reality to teaching the English language. The potential benefits of this approach and possible barriers are discussed in detail. It is concluded in this research paper that different types of technologies, including virtual reality, can be effectively used in teaching and learning the English language if instructors have developed skills in organizing the studying process and utilizing specific software and devices to promote students’ motivation.

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Using Virtual Reality to Teach the English Language

The development of technology has contributed to enhancing teaching and learning with the help of providing new approaches to acquiring knowledge and developing skills. The use of different types of technology is typical of modern learning environments because young people are interested in digitally mediated modes of learning that provide them with more opportunities to improve their capacities (Godwin-Jones, 2016). This phenomenon is also associated with teaching and learning languages, including the English language. The incorporation of technology in classroom environments has led to developing new methodologies of working with devices in order to teach languages, but there is no single opinion regarding the effectiveness and appropriateness of applying technology to learning (Kessler, 2018). Moreover, in the recent literature on the adoption of technologies in learning environments, much attention is paid to discussing the application of virtual reality as an innovative approach to teaching languages. The purpose of this paper is to discuss the use of technology in teaching and learning languages with a focus on possible advantages and disadvantages and analyze the application of virtual reality to teaching the English language with reference to potential benefits and barriers.

Using Technology to Teach Languages

The use of technology in teaching languages is associated with applying a range of specific principles and rules in order to guarantee positive outcomes for learners. Currently, teaching languages, instructors choose to apply audiobooks, ePortfolios, mobile applications, presentations, blogs, websites, virtual platforms, video games, and other media in order to enhance the learning of their students and make it more instant and motivating (Golonka, Bowles, Frank, Richardson, & Freynik, 2014; Kessler, 2018). According to Chun, Kern, and Smith (2016), modern teachers need to be concentrated on the context of mediation while applying technologies to correlate the use of computers, mobile devices, projectors, recorders, screens, and software in their environment while teaching languages. Thus, technologies are typically used for improving such activities as listening, speaking, writing, composing, and reading.

If audiobooks, video materials, and presentations among other tools are viewed as common applications of technology in a language-learning environment, the utilization of blogs, websites, social media, simulations, video games, online platforms, and other similar resources for enhancing linguistic skills are discussed in the context of computer-assisted language learning (CALL). Thus, CALL allows educators to provide students with more effective and various resources to improve their learning of the English language with the help of modern devices (Golonka et al., 2014; Kessler, 2018). In this context, CALL is needed for using authentic language samples, improving learners’ pronunciation, communicating with native speakers, and practicing language actively (Lin & Lan, 2015). In addition, today, teachers often choose to expand the boundaries of their classrooms with the help of technologies, and they use different virtual platforms for participating in telecollaborative projects or imitating traveling, for example (Chun et al., 2016; Kessler, 2018). These innovative approaches to teaching languages allow for receiving authentic practical experiences.

Today, teachers use virtual learning platforms like Blackboard and Moodle, as well as such applications as Skype, Facebook, and wikis in order to organize a teaching-learning process and promote computer-mediated communication associated with the constant development of language skills. The use of these platforms and resources allows teachers to vary the media for working with students in order to improve their experience and practice of languages (Golonka et al., 2014; Lin & Lan, 2015). In this context, the application of course management systems, Blackboard and Moodle, for example, is important for changing a traditional process of studying languages in order to make them more contemporary and address current social tendencies and needs of learners.

As it is stated in the literature, using technologies, students train their skills in reading comprehension, vocabulary development, speaking, listening, and grammar referring to the most innovative approaches and techniques. However, opposite results regarding the application of technology in teaching and learning languages are also presented in studies, and they need to be discussed in detail (Chun et al., 2016; Kessler, 2018). In spite of the fact that all these available technologies and the use of computer-mediated communication in teaching languages can contribute to developing students’ literacy and linguistic skills, the process of applying digital resources and devices is often challenging for teachers. The reason is that it is necessary to effectively organize computer-based settings and processes of teaching in order to guarantee positive results.

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The Pros and Cons of Using Technology to Teach Languages: Different Views

Although the use of technology in teaching languages is used as an important step toward motivating students, developing a learner-centered education, and addressing the trends of the modern world, there are different views regarding this practice. Those researchers and instructors who support the use of technologies for teaching languages, including English, mention the following arguments: students’ increased attention, improved vocabulary knowledge, and the focus on meaningful learning among others (Chun et al., 2016; Freina & Ott, 2015). It is also possible to pay attention to such advantages of using technologies in teaching languages as the development of students’ creativity and intellectual skills depending on their personal learning style (Kessler, 2018). Other advantages of applying technology for teaching language learners include the possibility to realize distant communication with the help of a possibility to interact both synchronously or asynchronously in order to achieve better results (Chun et al., 2016). From this perspective, many researchers seem to agree that technological innovations are effective to influence students’ motivation and interest in learning the English language, as well as other languages, with the help of a variety of offered digital tools.

While referring to the other arguments of promoters of CALL, it is important to note that the strengths of technology application to teaching languages are mainly associated with providing educators with a variety of tools and methodologies to stimulate their students to learn. The process of learning a foreign language is often viewed as challenging, students often cannot concentrate on tasks, have problems with remembering words, lack practice in pronouncing and listening, and cannot easily communicate with each other (Chun et al., 2016; Golonka et al., 2014). According to Kessler (2018), the use of technologies in addition to paper books and traditional resources can help educators overcome most of these issues while increasing students’ interest in learning. As a result, language teachers try to apply computer-based approaches to language learning for the purpose of encouraging students’ active involvement in the process with the focus on their motivation that allows for developing their communicative competence.

Technologies allow for focusing on such critical aspects as social interactivity, availability, portability, and context-sensitivity in learning languages. As a result, using their mobile devices, students can be involved in learning English any time they want without being dependent on their location (Bonner & Reinders, 2018). From this perspective, technology-enhanced language learning is viewed by researchers and practitioners as an essential step toward modernizing the approach to teaching students (Chun et al., 2016; Golonka et al., 2014). In this context, the focus is on stimulating learners’ active communication and studying vocabulary and grammar within a positive and learner-centered computer-mediated environment.

However, there are also opponents of the extensive use of technology in teaching languages who support traditional approaches and techniques. One of the reasons for opposing the active use of devices and digital resources in the language acquisition process is a possible negative effect of using technologies on learners’ literacy and independent thinking (Bonner & Reinders, 2018; Golonka et al., 2014). Causes of decreasing literacy and critical thinking skills in language learners can include the unlimited access to information available online that does not contribute to students’ thinking and problem-solving. In addition, according to the results of the study conducted by Golonka et al. (2014), there is limited evidence to support the effectiveness of using technologies in teaching languages, and only some of the offered techniques can really contribute to improving students’ results. These techniques and approaches include the use of computer-based pronunciation training and the use of chats (Golonka et al., 2014). Thus, it is rather problematic to assert that all technologies can have a similar positive effect on teaching and learning languages.

Critics of the idea of using technologies in educational environments for teaching languages state that a high number of devices, gadgets, and other digital resources involved in a teaching-learning process can be distracting for students who can be concentrated on the form of used media rather than on content. This idea is in disagreement with the results of other studies where a positive impact of technologies on learners’ concentration is indicated (Chen, 2016; Golonka et al., 2014; Kessler, 2018). In addition, the problem is that many educators lack developed skills in order to effectively integrate technologies into their class activities while decreasing their efficacy (Bonner & Reinders, 2018; Golonka et al., 2014). One more point discussed in the literature is that teachers require additional training in order to work with innovative technologies, but there are limited resources to provide them with this opportunity (Kessler, 2018; Merchant, Goetz, Cifuentes, Keeney-Kennicutt, & Davis, 2014). Consequently, the use of new technologies in a teaching process can lead to affected interactions, a distraction from tasks, and students’ inability to learn a language appropriately if teachers have no required training and practice in using digital resources.

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What is Virtual Reality?: The Definition and Principles of Virtual Reality

Virtual reality is also known in education as augmented reality that is characterized by creating a contextual place where different characters can interact within a certain virtual space. Speaking about virtual reality, researchers mean the use of “any simulated, artificial, or synthetic environment that creates a convincing presentation of the desired space” (Kessler, 2018, p. 213). From this perspective, the main idea behind virtual reality is the creation of a simulation for learners in order to contribute to developing practical skills in a particular context (Fowler, 2015). As a result, the principle of virtual reality is actively used in different disciplines, including languages, mathematics, physics, and medicine among others, for the purpose of providing learners with experiences that they can get only while practicing.

Traditional simulations and educational software used for learning languages and other activities can be currently replaced with the use of virtual reality embedded in applications to create unique virtual worlds. In spite of a comparably high price of devices and resources that are used for creating virtual realities, their costs constantly decrease along with the further improvement of technologies (Garrido-Iñigo & Rodríguez-Moreno, 2015; Morrison, 2017). Thus, educators started to use virtual reality for teaching different subjects with the help of creating and applying specific scenarios and storyboards that allow for designing a unique virtual space for learning (Fowler, 2015). From this perspective, virtual reality is perceived as a unique three-dimensional environment for young people to promote their interaction and vocabulary acquisition while speaking about learning languages and other disciplines.

Examples of virtual and augmented reality include various digital games that are similar in their principles and work to Pokémon Go or other realities created with the help of Playstation VR and HTC Vive. Moreover, Pokémon Go was even adapted to learning English by some educators because of its popularity and interactivity (Bonner & Reinders, 2018). Therefore, “many of the ways in which language teachers have enlisted the playing of the game [Pokémon Go] in the service of learning could apply to other commercial mobile games” because “this enables possible integration of learning into a fun activity in which learners are engaged by their own choice” (Godwin-Jones, 2016, p. 10). From this point of view, augmented reality, in which Pokémon Go is created, can provide learners with even more unique experiences than common virtual or mediated reality because of a close connection between real reality, real-time, and changed virtual reality in the world of games similar to Pokémon Go.

Focusing on the benefits of creating multi-user virtual environments for education, researchers state that virtual reality is important for providing students with opportunities to study in a highly contextualized setting. As a result, students become motivated and involved in collaborative learning in a common and shared virtual space without being limited by any distance (Li, Tsai, Chen, Cheng, & Heh, 2015). The use of computers, laptops, tablets, applications, and smartphones is enough to order to teach and learn any subject with the help of such technology as virtual reality and achieve high results under the control of instructors and other peers who can be located in any place of the world.

Virtual Reality to Teach the English Language

The use of virtual reality is not viewed as a conventional approach to teaching the English language; therefore, controversies are observed in research and debates on this issue. An example of virtual reality that can be used for teaching languages is the “location-based murder mystery game that was designed to teach Spanish and provide learners with a reason to engage” (Kessler, 2018, p. 213). Such realities are presented in the form of games, applications, and platforms, and they provide teachers of languages with opportunities to create a unique learning context for their students who develop skills while operating in spaces and worlds that reflect actual ones.

The reference to virtual reality is often discussed as important in order to help learners concentrate on culturally specific or authentic tasks and receive a unique cultural experience while being involved in the target language immersive context. These online or digital environments are characterized by a high level of visual appeal for English learners to provoke their interest in language-oriented activities, and they provide young persons with a variety of interactive tools to use English and cooperate with the help of their avatars in these virtual worlds (Rahimi, Golshan, & Mohebi, 2014). The creation of virtual reality for teaching English is associated with building a unique multi-user simulated environment that can have three-dimensional effects where several participants or players can easily interact, developing their language skills (Kessler, 2018; Solak & Cakir, 2015). In this case, distances cannot negatively affect their communication in a specific user-generated space. Moreover, communication in virtual spaces cannot be limited only to using texts, and audio messages can also be used on different platforms. Otherwise, communication between players can be realized with the help of applications that are similar to Skype in their work.

Nevertheless, not all researchers support the idea that virtual reality can contribute to learners’ progress more than other approaches to using technology in teaching English. According to the results of the study by Merchant et al. (2014), games can be viewed as more effective for promoting students’ learning than different types of simulations and virtual spaces. Moreover, the researchers stated that the performance of students is higher when they are involved in playing games individually rather than in a group (Merchant et al., 2014). These findings oppose other researchers’ ideas that collaborative learning promoted with the help of technologies, including virtual reality, can significantly contribute to learning languages.

In addition, while speaking about virtual reality in classrooms, researchers have opposite ideas regarding its role in contributing to students’ concentration or distracting them. Thus, according to Gadelha, “by blocking out visual and auditory distractions in the classroom, VR [virtual reality] has the potential to help students deeply connect with the material” (as cited in Bonner & Reinders, 2018, p. 36). This feature is important to assist learners to pay more attention to what they study when developing their skills in the English language. Additional contexts created with the help of virtual reality technologies allow students to focus on understanding linguistically specific details, apply their knowledge depending on simulated situations, and experience a high level of immersion.

According to the results of different studies on applying virtual reality to teaching the English language, there is no strict evidence that this approach is more suitable or effective for developing learners’ language skills than classroom learning or the use of other technologies. Researchers note that the most evident results in improving language knowledge and the development of skills while using virtual reality are associated with enhancing certain separate areas: listening, speaking, or writing, for example (Freina & Ott, 2015; Godwin-Jones, 2016; Morrison, 2017). Thus, students often report that their vocabulary, speaking skills, or reading comprehension have improved with the help of particular activities available through the space of simulations or virtual reality games.

In addition, much attention is also paid to the emotional aspect of learning English with the help of specific features of virtual reality. According to the results of certain studies, young people prefer this innovative approach to developing their language skills because of positive associations with activities, the absence of boring tasks, and the overall dynamic setting connected with interesting content (Chen, 2016; Golonka et al., 2014). From this perspective, the reference to virtual reality can be discussed as an effective choice for the teachers of English when they want to contribute to their students’ motivation and interest.

Still, in spite of the fact that researchers cannot agree on the overall effectiveness of virtual reality for teaching the English language, they accentuate some areas where the application of the most innovative digital tools for developing students’ communication and linguistic capacities can be reasonable. From this perspective, only virtual or augmented reality can simulate the details of a physical world for students while providing them with a specific cultural and language context in order to stimulate their communication in English (Li et al., 2015; Morrison, 2017). Immersive and contextual games provide learners with a specific experience and training that usually cannot be achieved with the help of traditional instruction in a classroom.

Therefore, the use of virtual reality is now recommended by educators in language classes, including traditional and online ones, in order to stimulate students and practice their skills in the most efficient manner. The lack of contact with native speakers in classes where students learn English can be easily compensated with the help of virtual or augmented reality (Fowler, 2015; Garrido-Iñigo & Rodríguez-Moreno, 2015). Thus, these innovative approaches to improving a teaching-learning process cannot be ignored by instructors who can maximize language learning with the help of new technologies and make the process more meaningful for young people.

Conclusion

The academic sources reviewed and analyzed for this paper have indicated that the use of technology in teaching languages, with the focus on the English language, is one of the most studied and argued topics. If the application of standard technologies like audio recorders, whiteboards, and projectors is viewed as an approach contributing to students’ learning, the use of computer-based communication, online platforms, simulations, and virtual reality provokes a lot of questions. On the one hand, the application of virtual reality technologies is important for stimulating students’ learning in an immersive context with the help of authentic sources and real-life situations. Such experience is unique and advantageous when students have no opportunities to communicate with native speakers or learn the language in the country they have chosen. On the other hand, the game-based nature of virtual reality for learning English can be viewed only as an additional component of teaching the language in order to motivate students. From this perspective, more research is required on this topic.

References

Bonner, E., & Reinders, H. (2018). Augmented and virtual reality in the language classroom: Practical ideas. Teaching English with Technology, 18(3), 33-53.

Chen, J. C. (2016). The crossroads of English language learners, task-based instruction, and 3D multi-user virtual learning in Second Life. Computers & Education, 102, 152-171.

Chun, D., Kern, R., & Smith, B. (2016). Technology in language use, language teaching, and language learning. The Modern Language Journal, 100(S1), 64-80.

Fowler, C. (2015). Virtual reality and learning: Where is the pedagogy?. British Journal of Educational Technology, 46(2), 412-422.

Freina, L., & Ott, M. (2015). A literature review on immersive virtual reality in education: State of the art and perspectives. eLearning & Software for Education, 1(1), 1-8.

Garrido-Iñigo, P., & Rodríguez-Moreno, F. (2015). The reality of virtual worlds: Pros and cons of their application to foreign language teaching. Interactive Learning Environments, 23(4), 453-470.

Godwin-Jones, R. (2016). Emerging technologies augmented reality and language learning: From annotated vocabulary to place-based mobile games. Language Learning & Technology, 20(3), 9-19.

Golonka, E. M., Bowles, A. R., Frank, V. M., Richardson, D. L., & Freynik, S. (2014). Technologies for foreign language learning: A review of technology types and their effectiveness. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 27(1), 70-105.

Kessler, G. (2018). Technology and the future of language teaching. Foreign Language Annals, 51(1), 205-218.

Li, K. C., Tsai, C. W., Chen, C. T., Cheng, S. Y., & Heh, J. S. (2015). The design of immersive English learning environment using augmented reality. Ubi-Media Computing, 1, 174-179.

Lin, T. J., & Lan, Y. J. (2015). Language learning in virtual reality environments: Past, present, and future. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 18(4), 486-497.

Merchant, Z., Goetz, E. T., Cifuentes, L., Keeney-Kennicutt, W., & Davis, T. J. (2014). Effectiveness of virtual reality-based instruction on students’ learning outcomes in K-12 and higher education: A meta-analysis. Computers & Education, 70, 29-40.

Morrison, R. (2017). Virtual reality in the language learning classroom. The Morning Watch: Educational and Social Analysis, 44(1-2), 1-9.

Rahimi, A., Golshan, N. S., & Mohebi, H. (2014). Virtual reality as a learning environment in Iranian EFL context: Personal, technical, and pedagogical. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 136, 234-239.

Solak, E., & Cakir, R. (2015). Exploring the effect of materials designed with augmented reality on language learners’ vocabulary learning. Journal of Educators Online, 12(2), 50-72.

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