21st Century Virtual Language Learning Environments (VLLEs)

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  • Language and Linguistics Compass 8/8 (2014): 330343, 10.1111/lnc3.1208921st Century Virtual Language Learning Environments (VLLEs)

    Aurore Mroz*Department of French & Italian, Colby College

    AbstractLearning a foreign language (L2) has never been more efficiently done than through immersion in thetarget culture. By comparison, learning in a traditional classroom has proven to lead only to limitedproficiency. But traveling to the target country is still inaccessible for many L2 learners. Investing inthe tremendous array of technologies that have emerged since the beginning of the 21st century couldbring us one step closer. This essay overviews the body of research on Virtual Language LearningEnvironments (VLLEs), considered as promising venues to approximate the type of naturalisticlearning that happens in real-life immersion. Drawing on research in Computer-Assisted LanguageLearning (CALL) and Second Language Acquisition (SLA) theories, this paper intends to provide aclearer picture of what virtuality entails for the L2 learning process, and to offer research-basedsuggestions on what to look for to integrate VLLEs in the L2 curriculum.


    Immersion in the foreign language environment provides maximum exposure to the communicativeuse of the target language, and can give the opportunity for maximum meaningful use of the foreignlanguage by learners (). Since real travel is difficult, expensive, and impractical, perhaps it is notsurprising if both learners and teachers are interested in virtual travel. (Milton et al. 2012 99)

    Despite considerable progress made in the way foreign languages (L2) are taught, it is nosecret that the four walls of the classroom have been constraining our students in theiracquisition process, leading to limited learning outcomes when compared to the gains thatoccur in full immersion. But as Milton et al. (2012) pointed out, traveling to the targetcountry is still an inaccessible solution for many L2 learners. If we cannot bring our studentsto Paris, then our duty is to try to bring Paris to them. Investing in the tremendous array oftechnologies that have emerged since the beginning of the 21st century could bring us onestep closer. Among them, virtual language learning environments (VLLEs) have considerablyattracted researchers attention and seem to offer very promising venues to approximate thetype of naturalistic learning that happens in real-life immersion.This paper aims at providing a survey of 21st century literature on VLLEs. It offers an

    accessible point of entry into the main theories and debates at stake in research on computer-assisted language learning (CALL) and second language acquisition (SLA), and highlights themost important findings in these fields. It also intends to provide a clearer picture of whatvirtuality entails for the L2 learning process, and to offer research-based suggestions on whatshould guide the selection of VLLEs and their integration in the L2 curriculum.

    Overview of 21st Century CALL Research and SLA Theories

    21st century literature on computer-assisted language learning (CALL) is a good entry pointto approach the study of VLLEs, since its purpose has been to evaluate the extent to whichmultimedia environments can play a role in the L2 learning process (Cornillie, Thorne, and 2014 The AuthorLanguage and Linguistics Compass 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd

  • 21st Century Virtual Language Learning Environments (VLLEs) 331Desmet 2012). Five national and international research journals1, well known for their focus onCALL, were thus selected to conduct an exploratory survey (based on the keywords virtualenvironment and virtual learning environment) intended to portray the general state of thisfield of research. This survey revealed the multidirectionality of research on VLLEs, and thedifficulty for the field of CALL to agree on a definition of this construct. (Figure 1)As can be seen, virtual learning environments (VLEs) used for language-learning purposes

    (VLLEs) have caught a significant portion of researchers attention, with no less than 102articles published on the subject since 2000 in the five selected research journals alone.The steady increase in the number of yearly publications also indicates the growing interestof CALL researchers in the subject. However, a closer examination of the type oftechnologies included in these studies reveals at the same time the breadth and richness ofthe field, while also indicating a possible lack of agreement on what makes language learningenvironments virtual (see Peterson 2010b). Whether referring to three-dimensional multi-user virtual environments (3D-MUVEs, such as Second Life or Active Worlds; see Winghamand Chanier 2013), commercial video games (e.g., World of Warcraft; see Zheng, Newgardenand Young 2012), multi-user object oriented platforms (MOOs, e.g., LambdaMOO; seePeterson 2001), course management systems (e.g., WebCT; see Berns, Gonzalez-Pardo andCamacho 2013; Polisca 2006), social networks (e.g., Facebook; see Mills 2011), or a varietyof other tools (such as chat-rooms or wikis; see Roed 2003), the umbrella term virtual learn-ing environment has thus been used synonymously to refer to a broad range of distincttechnologies.What they have in common is the possibility they offer to extend L2 learning beyond the

    physical limits of the traditional classroom. Thanks to their interactive nature, thesetechnologies constitute online cyberspaces offering great potential for the exposure of L2learners to more accessible and enhanced forms of the target language or the target culture.However, as we will see next, more differences than commonalities separate these diverseFig 1. Distribution of publications on VLLEs in five journals.

    2014 The Author Language and Linguistics Compass 8/8 (2014): 330343, 10.1111/lnc3.12089Language and Linguistics Compass 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd

  • 332 Aurore Mrozforms of technology and their potential impact on the L2 learning process, thus making thedefinition of VLLEs a complex and problematic one. Within the array of research publishedin the 21st century, 2008 seems to mark a turning point in research, with a more unifiedtrend of studies increasingly concentrating on two forms of technology: commercial videogames and 3D-MUVEs. The pre- and post-2008 trends in research on VLLEs can beprimarily accounted for by researchers trying to keep up with a fast-paced andmultidirectional advance in technology to document their impact on the L2 learning process,since the language itself, the ways students learn, and the goals of our students are changingwith the technology (Levy 2000 185).Let us now briefly consider these trends of research in light of 21st century technological

    innovations. However, let us also keep in mind that these different phases did not happen inisolation but actually influenced each other considerably and overlapped to a great extent. Theircompartmentalization is thus only intended to highlight major evolutionary trends that led todifferent conceptions of virtuality for L2 learning (Figure 2). We will now expand on Figure 2.


    Prior to the mass availability of the internet and mobile devices, technology-basedinteractions were first and foremost conceived as systems of pre-programmed responses froma machine to a user. Aligning with a psycholinguistic model of SLA interested in howlanguage learners process, store, and retrieve information from memory and howcognitive capacity impacts acquisition (Thorne and Smith 2011 269), this conception ofFig 2. 21st century advance in technology and impact on SLA theories, CALL research, and virtuality adapted fromMeskill, Guan and Ryu 2012.

    2014 The Author Language and Linguistics Compass 8/8 (2014): 330343, 10.1111/lnc3.12089Language and Linguistics Compass 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd

  • 21st Century Virtual Language Learning Environments (VLLEs) 333computer-based interactions materialized in Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL)projects. They primarily consisted of tutoring programs, with drill-like activities intended tolead L2 learners to greater accuracy in and retention of the prescribed forms of the targetlanguage (Deutschmann and Panichi 2009 310). At this time, virtuality was conceived asthe ability to interact with an artificial form of intelligence in the L2.


    The subsequent wide-spread access to cell phones and the internet freed communicationfrom some of its physical constraints and led to an unprecedented and exponential growthin one-on-one communication. The hope to reach out to the L2 native speakers that thesenew technologies afforded went hand in hand with the development of interactionist SLAtheories that emphasized the importance of increased exposure to and production of theauthentic L2 (Thorne and Smith 2011 269). Influenced by these theories, Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) projects were developed to contribute to a morecommunicative approach to L2 learning (Deutschmann and Panichi 2009 310). Emails andchat-rooms became the primordial CMC tools that needed to be integrated in the L2classroom for the promotion of authentic communicative competence. A brand new formof language also arose with text-based technologies, notably recognizable by phonologically-based abbreviations and a re-appropriation of typographical signs (emoticons) intended tocompensate graphically for the lack of nonverbal cues. Of particular interest for L2 learning,this neography (Anis 2007), combined with the real-time nature of CMC, contributed toblur the lines between writing and speaking. With cell phones and the internet, virtualityfor L2 learning thus came to be defined as the technical ability to handle authentic yet remotecommunication with L2 native speakers, synchronously or asynchronously, in a text-basedformat where writing and speaking tend to overlap.


    The emergence of social networking in 2006 (with Facebook and Twitter) reshaped our notionof communication, from a one-on-one pattern to a community-based one that is socially andculturally driven and speaks to the representation of ones identity. Communicating nowmeant sharing information within or beyond a group of a select few (or many)interconnected by n levels of separation. Moreover, the text-based neography born withtext-messages and chats (Anis 2007) expanded into co-constructed multimodal forms ofmeaning (via texts, images, videos, audio, hyperlinks, geolocation, sharing functionalities,symbolic statements of preferences and opinions, etc.). The resulting willingness to shareand collaborate with ones own community, across languages and cultures, and tomanufacture ones own online identity, found an echo in sociocultural SLA theories thathighlight the culturally organized and goal-directed nature of human behavior and theimportance of external social practices in the formation of individual cognition (Thorneand Smith 2011 269). The concrete application of these new theories materialized in thedevelopment of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL) projects. Theseprimarily relied on the integration of course management systems (Blackboard, WebCT,Moodle) intended to replicate some of the main features of social networks while being bettersuited for teaching and learning purposes (Deutschmann and Panichi 2009 310). Thisintegration of course management systems in the L2 classroom led to its progressivehybridization (Scida and Saury 2006), that is, to an augmented L2 learning environment mixingthe richness of the face-to-face traditional classroom with students ability to function inan electronic environment inside and outside the classroom (Sauers and Walker 2004 432). 2014 The Author Language and Linguistics Compass 8/8 (2014): 330343, 10.1111/lnc3.12089Language and Linguistics Compass 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd

  • 334 Aurore MrozCSCL projects also provided L2 researchers with new constructs to examine, such as the type ofco-constructed discourse and meaning produced by L2 learners in these newmedia.With socialnetworking, virtuality thus came to be defined as the technical hybridization of the L2classroom so as to make L2 learning culturally-anchored, socially-driven, community-based,and with multimodal interactions creative of co-constructed meaning and identity.


    Although most 3-D immersive environments were created in the early 2000s, they onlystarted catching CALL researchers attention in the mid-2000s, and publications only startedrising around 2008. 3-D immersive environments emerged from the field of video games andencountered a spectacular growth with their transfer from the isolated single-gamers consoleto online platforms such as Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games(MMORPGs, such as World of Warcraft; see Peterson 2012). Parallel to these, other non-gaming 3-D online platforms emerged (3-D MUVEs, such as Second Life). The potentiallearning benefits of the immersive and participatory nature of these 3-D environments hasbeen mainly supported by ecological SLA theories, whereby L2 learning is conceived as aholistic process and language as a semiotic activity is an emergent process of meaning-making based on relations among signs, the self, the other, and the environment (van Lierqtd. in Liou 2012 366). Borrowing from theories in the field of gaming (Reinhardt and Sykes2011), researchers have hypothesized that the complex interconnectedness of three specificaspects of 3-D immersive environments could have a promising impact on L2 learning:

    the 3-D representation and persistence of both space and the users (via personas calledavatars),

    the capacity for the user to control, manipulate, and modify the actual environment (calledagency), and

    the availability of a wide range of multimodal communicative tools (text-based chat, instantmessaging, audio-chat, nonverbal communicative features)

    In this sense, virtuality has come to be redefined as the holistic and complex immersivenessafforded by 3-D environments to the L2 learning process (Zheng, Newgarden, and Young2012), as well as the agency afforded to the L2 learner. The combination of immersivenessand agency was found to so closely approximate naturalistic L2 learning that

    only being immersed directly in the target culture could surpass this virtual immersion into anenvironment in which a student actually performs the sociolinguistic functions they would berequired to perform in the target culture (Sweeney et al. 2011 270).

    We will further discuss the advance in research on 3-D immersive environments, but wecan see for now how the concept of virtuality for L2 learning has been evolving in the21st century, gravitating since 2008 around the importance of 3-D immersiveness anduser-learners agency, so as to approximate, as closely as possible, the type of optimal L2learning encountered in naturalistic immersion in the target culture

    L2 Learning Afforded by 3-D Immersive Environments

    Informed by 21st century literatu...


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