VR aids second language acquisition

By Xin Ding, Contributing Writer

Learning a second language might be difficult, but researchers at the Second Language Acquisition and Bilingualism Lab are exploring virtual reality technology as a tool to help students learn languages.

Alexander Burkel, graduate student in LAS, designed a virtual reality program that simulates a job interview at a restaurant. As soon as the student test subjects strap on the VR headset, they are placed behind a restaurant counter, with Burkel giving them instructions to chop vegetables and crack eggs in a language the student is trying to learn.

“They’re trying to integrate technology more and more in classes, and they’re always looking to make classes more interesting for students. They used to just show videos, or use video games, so virtual reality is a mix of both,” Burkel said. “It’s kind of like video games: it’s fun and interesting. If you design the activity correctly, students can learn something.”

Burkel said students felt more motivated to learn the language following his VR experiment compared with regular classroom instruction.

Burkel also designed VR settings that place students in the position of a mechanic repairing a car and a worker in an office.

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Begoña Arechabaleta Regulez, doctoral student in Spanish and Portuguese, said virtual reality can also help students learn a language by immersing them in the cultural context of the language they are learning.

With the technology, Regulez said, students can travel while still being in the classroom and learn the culture as well as the language. Regulez said she is still collecting data from student subjects, but students who have participated have enjoyed the experience.

Regulez’s technology uses VR to place students in cities such as Madrid, where students answer questions in Spanish about the city and culture.

“Now you are in Urbana, but for 30 minutes you can be in Madrid. You forget that ‘I’m learning a new language or I am stressed about learning,’” Regulez said. “People feel less stress because they think it’s fun.”

The game-like structure of the virtual reality technology allows students to develop their interpersonal speaking skills by exposing them to different dialects of Spanish and placing them in different Latin American countries such as Spain, Argentina and Mexico.

“It’s just the beginning, but the goal is to get it more widely used,” Burkel said. “Right now VR is still seen as a game, but I believe that it’s more relevant.”

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