My brother David has a software development company called Evomobius. While he was teaching English in Brazil, he came up with the idea to create an immersive language-learning RPG game that simulates the real world. It’s a great idea based on sound psychological principles, so I offered to write up a short research brief as a behavioral research consultant that explains some of the science behind his idea. If you’re interested in helping this idea come to pass, please consider visiting his Kickstarter and contributing.
The Science behind Immersive Language Learning and Virtual Environments
Our current state of behavioral research tends to support what many people find to be intuitive: it is better to learn a second language by immersing yourself more fully in an environment where that language is used. This is how we all learned our first language. As infants and toddlers, none of us learned how to speak our native language by sitting in a classroom, reading textbooks and pictures. Instead, the world was our classroom. As we interacted with the objects and people around us, we were reinforced to associate words and phrases with those objects. We learned the rules through trial-and-error in a fully immersive environment.
Some language theorists suggest that language learning can be understood in the context of operant conditioning (Skinner, 1957; Hayes, Barnes-Holmes, & Roche, 2001). In layman’s terms, language is a behavior, and we learn this behavior through our interactions with and reinforcements from our environment. Just like learning how to ride a bicycle, paint pictures, or play basketball requires doing and not just seeing or observing, language learning requires practice in the context of a real environment.
It is no wonder, then, that research comparing more immersive types of second language instruction to traditional classroom learning has long shown that immersion is better (Campbell, Gray, Rhodes, & Snow, 1985). Immersive programs focus on using the second language as a primary mode of instruction, and result in better and more rapid growth of vocabulary knowledge (Lo & Murphy, 2010). If they start early, students in immersion programs can achieve near-native fluency (Larazuk, 2007).
Additionally, learning a new language can be scary, and it is always tempting to fall back on one’s native language. Immersive language environments require the student to overcome his or her fears and actually use the language in order to achieve goals, and this may be one key to its effectiveness (see MacIntyre, Burns, & Alison, 2011).
The studies I have mentioned have largely compared immersive and traditional classroom settings. Reddo is not necessarily a structured or immersive classroom, but it will seek to emulate immersion by placing the user in a digital reality that mirrors the real world. Reinforcements will come in the form of quests that users can undertake that help them learn as they play. Research has shown that virtual reality can create a sort of “new reality” for people that use it, and as a result, virtual realities have been shown to be effective in learning environments, in settings as diverse as education for students with Asperger syndrome (Lorenzo, Pomares, & Lledó, 2013), and science education (Kartiko, Kavakli, & Cheng, 2010). Some researchers have even developed treatments for people with phobias by constructing virtual realities that can safely expose patients to the things they fear (Brakoulias, 2013).
As a result of these theories and findings, as soon as the technology became available, theorists have suggested that virtual realities can serve as potential tools for language learning (Schwienhorst, 2002).
Reddo will seek to emulate real-world situations that world travelers are likely to experience if they visit a country that speaks a new language (navigating through an airport, making purchases, taking the bus, etc.). This strategy may be the closest you can get to visiting a foreign country and immersing yourself in their language without actually leaving your home.
Since it hasn’t been created yet, I cannot evaluate whether Reddo will be more effective than other language-learning software. However, the research does seem to suggest 1) we learn language through direct behavioral interactions with our environment; 2) immersive language learning programs are more effective than traditional classroom language learning; and 3) virtual realities can serve as safe, “alternate realities” that can emulate the real world enough for therapeutic and learning value.
These three points do seem to suggest that Reddo has the potential to be a powerful new way to learn how to speak a second language.
Brakoulias, V. (2013). Virtual reality can help to develop a new reality. Australian And New Zealand Journal Of Psychiatry, 47(2), 186-187.
Campbell, R. N., Gray, T. C., Rhodes, N. C., & Snow, M. A. (1985). Foreign language learning in the elementary schools: A comparison of three language programs. Modern Language Journal, 69(1), 44-54.
Hayes S. C., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Roche, B., eds. Relational frame theory: A post-Skinnerian account of human language and cognition. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum; 2001.
Kartiko, I., Kavakli, M., & Cheng, K. (2010). Learning science in a virtual reality application: The impacts of animated-virtual actors’ visual complexity. Computers & Education, 55(2), 881-891.
Lazaruk, W. (2007). Linguistic, academic, and cognitive benefits of French immersion. Canadian Modern Language Review, 63(5), 605-627.
Lorenzo, G., Pomares, J., & Lledó, A. (2013). Inclusion of immersive virtual learning environments and visual control systems to support the learning of students with Asperger syndrome. Computers & Education, 6288-101.
Lo, Y., & Murphy, V. A. (2010). Vocabulary knowledge and growth in immersion and regular language-learning programmes in Hong Kong. Language And Education, 24(3), 215-238.
MacIntyre, P. D., Burns, C., & Jessome, A. (2011). Ambivalence about communicating in a second language: A qualitative study of French immersion students’ willingness to communicate. Modern Language Journal, 95(1), 81-96.
Schwienhorst, K. (2002). Why virtual, why environments? Implementing virtual reality concepts in computer-assisted language learning. Simulation & Gaming, 33(2), 196-209.
Skinner B.F. Verbal behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts; 1957