Synthesis Paper for Theoretical Foundations

Synthesis Paper – Word Document

 

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INTRODUCTION

 

The effects of virtual reality in education have attracted a wide range of fields causing exploration of what these environments have to offer. The field of second language instruction is especially interested in the use of virtual reality as it provides an avenue to create an immersive learning environment for students. Language teachers know the power of immersion when acquiring a second language but most struggle with developing immersive environments in their classrooms. Also, many teachers display unease at the thought of utilizing this emerging technology as concern for its theoretical grounding and implementation outweigh its novelty (Gamage, 2011). This paper aims at rooting the development and implementation of multi-user virtual reality environments (MUVEs) in Second Language Acquisition (SLA) theories in hopes of providing language teachers the grounding they need to utilize MUVEs in language teaching and learning.

 

Constructivism and Second Language Acquisition Theories

Due to the complexity of SLA many studies have been dedicated to researching best practices for teaching and learning a second language, leading to the development of SLA theories. As with most specific learning theories, SLA theories are based in one of the three big learning theories: Behaviorism, Cognitivism, or Constructivism. SLA theories tend to be rooted in Constructivism (Garrido-Iñigo  & Rodríguez-Moreno, 2015; Ibáñez et al., 2011; Lin & Lan, 2015; Peterson, 2010). Constructivism is defined as “learners acquiring knowledge through the collaborative creation of meaning from experiences with the environment” (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 54-55). This lends itself well to language learning as SLA happens best when the learner is immersed in a collaborative environment of native speakers creating meaning through conversation (Ibáñez et al., 2011). In this paper, SLA theories are discussed in relation to MUVE development and are addressed according to the following four categories outlined by Chapelle (2009): Cognitive Linguistic (focus on the input sequence of grammatical forms), Psycholinguistic (focus on meaning-oriented tasks to draw learners attention to form and meaning), Human Learning (focus on repeated exposure and feedback), and Social Context (focus on language learning as a social experience rooted in culture). MUVEs are then defined and practical implementation is discussed.

 

 

SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISISITON THEORIES

 

Cognitive Linguistic Theories

The first category of SLA theories is Cognitive Linguistic. This category addresses the input sequence of grammatical forms and includes theoretical groundings such as Universal Grammar, Krashen’s Input Hypothesis, and Personal Constructivism. A clear undertone of Constructivism is seen in these theories as they all address language acquisition as a result of interaction with the environment. Universal Grammar is the first of these theories explaining the instinctual ability of humans to acquire language and how that acquisition process happens in a structured and predictable sequence (Chomsky, 1986). This theory is further enhanced by Krashen’s Input Hypothesis when it is discussed that comprehensible input plus a small amount of new material (input+1) must be provided for the learner to acquire language in the natural sequence explained by Universal Grammar (Krashen, 1985). The last of these three theories, Personal Constructivism, wraps up the Cognitive Linguistic category by addressing the individual’s personal organization of language experiences, or mapping, for future growth and retrieval (Kelly, 1991). Cognitive Linguistic SLA theories can be addressed in the development of a MUVE by the use of structured activities or “quests” where students are presented problems to be solved in a natural way (Ibáñez et al., 2011). These quests can be structured to allow access to one only after successful completion of the prior, and sequenced to follow the natural order of language acquisition presented by Universal Grammar (Chomsky, 1986). By developing activities this way, the instructor also can provide comprehensible input+1 (Krashen, 1985) and structure it to organize student mapping for ease of future growth and retrieval  as recommended by Personal Constructivism (Kelly, 1991).

 

Psycholinguistic Theories

The second category of SLA theories is Psycholinguistic. This category aims to address the importance of collaborative, meaning-oriented tasks that draw the learner’s attention to specific language attributes under study (Chapelle, 2009). It references theories such as Interactionist Theory, Long’s Interaction Hypothesis, and Input Processing Theory. Each of these three theories relies heavily on the importance of interaction and collaboration, also seen in Constructivism. Interactionist Theory discusses how during conversation, or interaction, the native user will naturally guide the novice into comprehension of the specific language aspect they want the novice to acquire (Chapelle, 2009). When this process is in relation to the meaning of a form (a word or phrase), Long’s Interaction Hypothesis calls it negotiation of meaning and explains the importance of this process in language acquisition (Long, 1996). Input Processing Theory sums up this category by emphasizing the weight of this meaning-form process (Vanpatten, 1993). When grounding development of a MUVE for SLA, this category of theories recommends the addition of collaborative, meaning-oriented tasks involving adequate opportunity for input and output (Peterson, 2010). These Psycholinguistic SLA theories can be incorporated into the creation of a MUVE through required interactions with peers and native users to negotiate the meaning of a specific language aspect (Long, 1996). For example, an instructor can create a quest that requires the learner to engage in a structured interaction with a peer, or native user, about the correct vocabulary word to grasp a certain meaning. This requires tasks designed to draw the learner’s attention to a certain aspect of the language as described by Interactionist Theory (Chapelle, 2009), forces a negation of meaning between peers as required by Long’s Interaction Hypothesis (1996), and encourages the development of form-meaning connections as proposed by the Input Processing Theory (Vanpatten, 1993).

Human Learning Theories

The third category of SLA theories is called the Human Learning category. This category encourages repeated exposure, experience, and practice with the second language as well as adequate and timely feedback. This is reflected in Constructivism as the importance of experience with the environment. Theories that fall under this category include: Experiential Learning Theory, Swain’s Comprehensible Output Hypothesis, and Skill Acquisition Theory. Language can be considered a skill and is therefore acquired like any other skill, through repeated practice and experience. This is the essence of Skill Acquisition Theory, that any skill, including language, can be acquired through repeated exposure and practice (DeKeyser, 1997). An abundance of practice provides ample opportunity for repeated experiences in conversation, which according to Experiential Learning Theory, is necessary for language acquisition (Kolb, 1984). These repeated experiences also provide the learner opportunities to produce output. Swain’s Comprehensible Output Hypothesis claims that this output is required for learners to identify the gaps in their language and be able to seek the correct knowledge to fill those gaps (Swain & Lapkin, 1995). An instructor can easily ground development of a MUVE in Human Learning SLA theories by providing multiple learning experiences that address the same language aspect as well as provide students with feedback to fill their identified language gaps. For example, the MUVE can include multiple quests that provide the learner experience with the same aspect of the language at different times as proposed by Experiential Learning Theory (Kolb, 1984) and require students to produce language in multiple forms to expose the gaps in their knowledge as encouraged by Swain’s Output Hypothesis (Swain & Lapkin, 1995). This would also give instructors the ability to provide feedback where necessary and the use of repeated exposure through teacher created quests would provide the students the large amount of practice required by Skill Acquisition Theory (DeKeyser, 1997).

 

Social Context Theories

The fourth and final category of SLA theories, Social Context, is the largest and most closely tied to Constructivism due to the reflected aspect of socially created knowledge. Although many SLA theories fall under this category the major theories discussed here are: Sociocultural Learning Theory, Social Learning Theory, and Social Constructivism. The category of Social Context is irreplaceable because language is a social experience. Without others the necessity of language is obsolete. This is why the majority of theories discussed in relation to SLA contain some sort of social interaction (Chapelle, 2009; Long, 1996; Peterson, 2010; Swain & Lapkin, 1995; Vanpatten, 1993). Interaction is at the heart of Social Constructivism as it states that knowledge of language and culture is created in the mind of the collective (Chapelle, 2009). This collective experience of learning is claimed by Social Learning Theory to happen through observation, interaction, and modeling of language (Bandura, 1977). In order for novice language learners to naturally acquire a language, Sociocultural Learning Theory explains how the social context in which learning happens needs to provide a culturally appropriate social experience (Chapelle, 2009). Therefore, the use of a MUVE can be, in-itself, grounded in Social Context SLA theories if the environment is culturally accurate and encourages social interaction. The instructor can create a culturally based MUVE that follows cultural norms of architecture, transportation, clothing, food, and interactions. This would create the social context encouraged by Sociocultural Learning Theory (Chapelle, 2009). Along with the development of culture the MUVE could also contain computer-controlled avatars that model conversations to provide students with an example of cultural norms as recommended by Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1977). To meet the requirements of Social Constructivism, the instructor could design group quests that have students work in groups to create collective knowledge and meaning from the cultural MUVE in which they are learning (Ibáñez et al., 2011).

 

 

The above categories not only ground the development of a MUVE in SLA theories but also ground those SLA theories in the big learning theory Constructivism. Similar themes are seen in all three: interaction, experience, and socially constructed knowledge. However, just the use of a virtual world does not guarantee these themes will come to fruition. Instructors must bring research to practice by developing activities similar to the activities mentioned in each category. Following these above recommendations for creating a MUVE rooted in SLA theories seems difficult but can be simple for those instructors that understand what a MUVE is, how it works, how to create and/or use one, and what equipment is necessary for implementation.

 

 

IMPLEMENTATION OF A MULTI-USER VIRTUAL ENVIRONMENT

 

Virtual Reality

A virtual reality environment is defined as “a system that aims to bring simulated real-life experiences, providing topography, movement, and physics that offer the illusion of being there” (Lin & Lan, 2015, p. 487). This is usually done through a game-like environment available either online or with the use of downloaded software. “Virtual reality encompasses a spectrum of definitions from complete immersion virtual reality, when the user is surrounded by stimuli that activate all five senses, to augmented virtual reality, when the user employs computer devices to overlay media onto real-world settings” (Baughman & Shelton, In Press, para. 1). When this paper references virtual reality, it is referring to semi-immersive virtual reality, which is defined by Baughman and Shelton (In Press) as, “a type of virtual reality that utilizes a monitor and keyboard to interact with a three-dimensional environment that simulates either a real or an imagined world. This type of virtual reality provides auditory and visual stimuli while allowing the user to maintain awareness of the real world” (para. 5). When a virtual environment is connected to the Internet, multiple users can interact with each other in the form of avatars that are able to explore the developed environment however they please. This environment is created by developers using computer-programing languages. Different specifications can be programmed into these environments providing the ideal situation for second language learners to experience immersive language and culture without traveling to a native speaking country. Most instructors cannot develop a MUVE on their own as it involves the use of complex programing languages such as C++, C#, Javascript, and others. Due to this, multiple different platforms have been made available for immediate personal or organizational use. Discussed here, as an avenue for implementation, is the functionality and use of the popular platform Second Life.

 

Second Life

Second Life is a virtual world in which users create an avatar and explore the developed world without any goals or objectives. Avatars, or residents, can be computer-controlled or human-controlled and can interact with each other through audio or text. The majority of content inside Second Life is created by the users allowing for a large variability in cities that are specific to the needs of the local residents. Although originally designed as a social networking site, Second Life has caught the attention of professional organizations, businesses, and universities. While many corporations are making the move to platforms only accessible to employees, Second Life remains a viable option for education. Due to the flexibility of Second Life schools have been using it to teach many different courses, including second languages.  Languagelab.com, now called Immersive Learning, has a city in Second Life called English City. In English City there are teachers and language models available to chat with students at any time and place inside the city. They provide an immersive environment that mimics real life situations and provides learners with immediate feedback. For an instructor who wants to implement a MUVE for language learning, Second Life is a good option and English City is a great example. Instructors are able to purchase land in Second Life and only allow certain residents onto that land (their students). On this land the instructor can create different locations (restaurants, airports, parks, schools, etc.) as well as computer-controlled language models. These models can be designed to have conversations with each other in the street, provide certain information to residents, take orders at restaurants, and more. Once the environment is set up and language models are created, the instructor can develop quests or activities for students to accomplish. If those activities involve interactions with language models, the instructor has access to the conversation logs and can easily provide feedback on skill progression. If the activities are group activities the instructor can require some other form of deliverable. For example each student could be required to gather a piece of information from a different language model and relay it to the group in order to design a certain building. The use of Second Life for the quick implementation of MUVEs for SLA is within reach for almost any instructor. All that is required to begin is an updated operating system, a cable or DSL Internet connection, one gigabyte or more of computer memory, and a graphics card.

 


 

CONCLUSION

 

In conclusion, this paper aims to root the development and implementation of multi-user virtual reality environments for language learning in Constructivist based Second Language Acquisition theories. Theories discussed were organized into four categories: Cognitive Linguistic, Psycholinguistic, Human Learning, and Social Context. Each category addressed an overarching aspect of language learning and contained three major influential SLA theories. Constructivism and SLA theories are seen to reflect aspects of interaction, collaboration, social construction of knowledge, and repeated experience with the environment. Along with the explanations of these theories, activity examples were provided to inspire teachers’ creativity with bringing research to practice in the form of MUVE for SLA. Implementation was also discussed as it relates to the platform Second Life. With the power of an immersive language environment at the forefront of every language teacher’s mind, this paper hopes to encourage the use of MUVEs for SLA by explaining categorized theories, providing ideas for best practice, and explaining the ease of implementation.

 

 


 

References

 

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