02 April 2019

Virtual Reality Language Learning: A Seismic Shift Is Coming

Corporate Language Strategy / Transformative Communication
virtual language training


Sylvia Johnson

Artificial intelligence, augmented reality and virtual reality are starting to impact language learning by providing a more stimulating, immersive and rewarding means of content delivery than traditional teaching methods. Though still in its infancy, virtual reality language learning is already proving a powerful tool to boost learner engagement, improve knowledge retention and bridge the gap between the classroom and the real world.

From science fiction to science 101

VR in education is not new; a number of institutions have been using platforms like Second Life as online learning spaces for some time. Fast forward a few years and teachers are now able to guide students on virtual field trips anywhere in the world through Google Expeditions.

Industry is also catching on to the potential of VR/AR, with companies like UPS, Walmart and Boeing using it to provide risk-free, reduced-cost employee training. The tech also has clear applications for medical training, allowing student doctors to simulate complicated procedures without putting real patients at risk.

Siemens Spain & Learnlight
A partnership that has triumphed worldwide
Siemens Spain & Learnlight
A partnership that has triumphed worldwide

However, virtual reality language learning has only become a.. reality (sorry) relatively recently thanks to improvements in AI speech recognition and the availability of affordable VR headsets.

Add to that the launch of a number of new apps and the tech is suddenly within the grasp of anyone with a smartphone.

So how does it work?

Virtual reality immerses the learner in a simulated environment. Learners can play games, solve tasks or practice situations like business meetings, job interviews, checking into a hotel or ordering a coffee in a Paris café. And learning doesn’t have to take place in isolation: users can also connect with other people online to practice or take courses.

Augmented reality blends real world- with computer-generated information to enhance the learner’s perception of reality.

Smartphone apps place a host of realistic animated characters and creatures right in your living room, making learning visual, interactive and fun.

In both scenarios, AI chatbots with speech recognition capabilities interact with the learner. The bot assesses whether the target language is being used well enough to complete the current task and continue. If not, it offers feedback to help you improve.

Here are just a few of the benefits of virtual reality language learning.

1.  Improved learner engagement

Interacting with authentic virtual environments is more motivating and stimulating than the traditional classroom. Plus it doesn’t have the distractions; many learners report being better able to concentrate on the task in hand while fully immersed in a simulation.

Crucially, VR and AR also enable the gamification of learning which is known to provide a more engaging and rewarding experience.

2.  Improved retention

Actively engaging with and experiencing 3D, 360o virtual worlds with a range of senses has been shown to aid recall. Humans have long used visual memory aids and a recent University of Maryland study has now taken this to the next level, finding that “use of virtual memory palaces in HMD [head-mounted display] condition improves recall accuracy when compared to using a traditional desktop”.

Further reading

3.  Improved confidence and fluency

Learners frequently report anxiety about speaking in unfamiliar situations or feeling self-conscious in the presence of a native speaker. Virtual reality language learning aims to address this by providing increased opportunities for exposure and a stepping stone between the classroom and the real world. So when you finally sit down to order that café au lait you’ll be better prepared, having practiced with your virtual waiter first.

4.  Flexible, tailored learning anytime, anywhere

VR/AR can be adapted to the individual learner’s needs and has obvious applications for customized blended learning approaches. And with virtual trainers in their back pocket, learners are no longer tied to class times or having to schedule practice time with a partner.

Humans & AI: better together?

A number of educational institutions around the world have been quick to recognize the potential of virtual reality language learning and are incorporating it into teaching practice.

However, others believe there is still no substitute for the human and cultural element of language learning, particularly at higher levels.

Forbes asserts that effective communication lies not only in mastering the nuts and bolts of grammar and vocab but in “confidence, cultural knowledge and situational awareness – as well as the comprehension of the rich, authentic social context, and the corresponding ability to produce the spoken language for personally meaningful social and business interactions.”

Siemens Spain & Learnlight
A partnership that has triumphed worldwide
Siemens Spain & Learnlight
A partnership that has triumphed worldwide

AI speech recognition is still in its infancy in terms of detecting subtleties of social context and cultural use. Therefore, current applications are still geared towards beginner levels.

The Harvard Business Review argues “more intuitive, conversational, and contextual interfaces will require an AI model that learns continuously – integrating new tasks with old tasks and learning to perform ever-more-complex ones in the process. This is true of AI in general, but particularly true when it comes to language, which requires flexibility”.

However, the technology is advancing all the time. Therefore, the winners in the upcoming race to adapt will be those able to leverage the full range of opportunities it offers for language learning. To realize its potential at all levels, though, human trainers will need to be flexible enough to re-imagine their role, transforming from content deliverers to content facilitators and guides.

“the winners in the upcoming race to adapt will be those able to leverage the full range of opportunities it offers for language learning.”

Virtual becomes reality

Increasingly sophisticated and affordable technology is placing virtual reality language learning within reach of growing numbers of people, offering the potential for accelerated, autonomous learning.

Immersive, interactive environments are proving a powerful tool for improved learner engagement and knowledge retention, and companies are incorporating VR/AR into customized blended learning models.

Authentic virtual experiences provide increased opportunities for language immersion and exposure. While developers recognize there’s still no substitute for experiencing the target language and culture first hand, realistic simulations are proving a good substitute.

Ultimately, wide-spread uptake will be dependent on whether the technology helps learners achieve objectives more efficiently than current methods.

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