Language labs: an overview of the trends
Modern language labs offer a wide range of
language-learning services and facilities; they therefore require developed
administration and state-of-the-art technical infrastructure. Some modern
language labs are also involved in innovative research, training services and
informational services. This article will present key trends in language-lab
development from approximately the 1950’s
to the present day. It will therefore describe the history of language-lab
advancement, some implications of behaviourism and constructivism, autonomy as
a construct, the digital revolution, and modern language-lab services.
1. Introduction: establishing the language lab
are chiefly used in schools, colleges and universities. They are sometimes also
referred to as language resource centres, multimedia labs, centres for language
study, language learning centres, interactive media centres, language and
technology centres, media centres, open access centres, foreign language
centres, open learning centres, open access multimedia centres, self-access
centres, individualised language learning centres, independent learning
centres, CALL centres/labs, world media and cultural centres, language
acquisition centres, and language and computer laboratories.
The perceived need to teach war-zone
languages in the Second World War and the subsequent onset of the Cold War
brought about, under the aegis of the US Armed Forces Institute and the
American Council of Learned Societies, development in methods for teaching
foreign languages (Toth
2003). The US
Army used the audio-lingual method as early as 1942. By the 1950s language labs began to emerge from
the chrysalis of this war-driven language-learning development momentum.
Progressive universities spearheaded this metamorphosis by developing
impressive inventories of mostly tape-recorded language-learning materials and
increasingly inviting infrastructures in which to utilize these materials.
However, in retrospect, one might question why language labs had not become
widespread earlier. In the US for instance, in 1913 Diamond-Disc players
were beginning to be sold, commercial radio came into operation in 1920, the first commercial sound
film with spoken dialogue was achieved in 1927, the first magnetic tape recorder
was demonstrated in Berlin in 1935
and in 1949, 7-inch 45rcm micro-groove vinylite records were
Language labs established
themselves as centres of language learning contemporaneously during the rock
and roll years of the 1950s
technological breakthroughs during this period were catalysed by the enticing
rewards of musical entertainment and language labs were on the whole fortuitous
beneficiaries of these market-orientated advancements. Key achievements during
this period seem analogous in merit with recent 2001-2007 developments in portable music players. They
included the transistor
portable radio (1954),
the stereo LP (1958), the compact audiocassette,
the first home Sony
video tape recorder (1963),
and Dolby Noise
The International Association for Language Learning
was established in 1965;
it is a professional organisation that attempts to provide leadership in the
development, integration, evaluation and management of instructional technology
for the teaching and learning of language, literature and culture.
2. Behaviourism and
Although recording technology during the 1970s and 1980s continued to progress, language-lab
approaches apparently began to fall out of favour (Garcia
and Wolff 2001,
et al. 2005). Significant 1970’s technology comprised the 4-hour VHS tapes (1977), the Sony Walkman audiocassette player
(1979) and the video camcorder (1980). The reason for this perceptible loss of
self-efficacy for language labs most likely had its roots partly in the
methodological move away from structural approaches to language learning, to a
flurry of novel, outwardly sturdy but often transient techniques for
second learning acquisition. Well-known such approaches include: The Silent Way
Total Physical Response (Asher 1969);
Community Language Teaching (Curran 1976);
Suggestopedia (Lozanov 1978);
Communicative Approaches (Brumfit and Johnson 1979, Widdowson 1978, Yalden 1983); The Natural Way (Krashen and Terrell 1983).
behaviourist theory with its asserted filling-the-blank-slate
(Beatty 2003, 94), rote-learning and repetitive
drilling (pejoratively known as ‘drill and kill’ Warschauer and Healey
1998) came under a ‘cognitive’ attack from Chomsky in 1964, strangely it is
still discussed and compared to the now trendy and dominant constructivist
model in modern CALL literature. Beatty (2003, 91) for instance attempts to
elucidate how constructivism differs radically from behaviourism suggesting
that learning is a process by which learners construct new ideas or
concepts by making use of their knowledge and experience; the learner ‘has
greater control and responsibility over what he or she learns’ (Beatty 2003,
91). Beatty (2003, 99-100) also asserts that collaboration
is an important activity in CALL as it encourages
social skills and thinking skills and it mirrors the way in which learners
often need to work once they leave the academic setting. There is also an
imposing and compelling literature base that discusses the benefits of
collaboration (e.g. Candlin 1981; Chaudron 1988; Ellis 1998; Nunan 1992). Modern language-lab Web pages also often
refer to the concept of taking control and responsibility over learning; for
instance in the Directed
Independent Language Study programme on the Yale University’s Center for Language Study
Web page, it is stated that students ‘must be
self-directed and self-disciplined, and they must be willing and able to assume
full responsibility for their learning’.
3. Autonomous learning as a construct
Autonomous learning is now a language-lab buzzword; it has therefore become a feature of self-access centres
(or language labs) (Benson 2001,
instance, the University of Hull’s Open Learning Centre
states that students can work independently on language learning in a
comfortable and well-resourced environment or the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s
Modern Languages Lab
maintains that lab work is of an individual, independent nature and that
instructors ‘may check’ lab work. Moreover, Davies
et al. (2005,
10) state that with
regard to complete commercial language courses (courseware) to be used online,
facilitated through a language lab, the general consensus of opinion is that
one principle of usage should reflect the need to allow the learner to proceed
from dependence to autonomy in any learning activity. Benson (2001, 35)
states that recent research in the field of autonomy has drawn freely on
research in the constructivist tradition within which works of Kelly (1963); Barnes (1976), Kolb (1984), Vygotsky (1978) have been especially
influential. Benson (2001,
8) maintains that
autonomous learning is learning in which the learners themselves determine the
objectives, progress and evaluation of learning. It also has a robust
literature base (e.g. Breen and Candlin 1980; Little 1997; Riley 1988). Benson (2001, 22-46)
holds that the concept of autonomy in language learning has influenced and has
been influenced by a variety of approaches within the field (e.g. Kilpatrick 1921; Freire 1974; Rogers 1969). Yet, Benson (2001), who maintains a
comprehensive online bibliography on
autonomy, in his book on autonomy in language learning is somewhat tentative
when he summaries that:
We still know relatively little about the ways in
which practices associated with autonomy work to foster autonomy, alone or in
combination, or about the contextual factors that influence their
effectiveness. We are also unable to argue based on empirical data, that
autonomous language learners learn languages more effectively than others, nor
do we know exactly how the development of autonomy and language acquisition
interact. (Benson 2001, 224)
learning is about tailoring education to the individual need, interest and
aptitude so as to ensure that every pupil achieves and reaches the highest
possible standards (Becta
2006a, 4); it is therefore closely associated with autonomous learning in
which the learners themselves determine the objectives, progress and evaluation
of learning (also held by Condie
and Munro 2007, 6-7). The Oxford
University Language Centre Lambda Project for instance is in effect developing
personalised learning when it investigates
how learners can best maintain and develop their language skills independently.
Moreover, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) in a plethora of recent publications
2007b), seems to be propagating the construct of personalised
learning; yet personalised learning might also be mutating the learner-teacher
bond. The Condie
and Munro (2007, 6-7) report, for instance, a major study on the impact of ICT
in schools, commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) and Becta in the UK, is hesitant
with regard to the impact of personalised learning on classroom
theme in the literature is the extent to which ICT can make the learning
experience more personalised, more targeted at the needs of the individual
learner. Combinations of technology and applications give greater choice in
relation to what, when and where to study, selecting according to interests,
learning styles and preferences and need. Such systems can give the pupil more
autonomy and independence with regard to learning and a range of sources to
draw on. This can be unsettling for some teachers and may well change the
dynamics of the pupil-teacher relationship. There is little in the literature
on the potential impact on relationships in the classroom as schools develop
e-capability and use ICT to support the learning process more widely. Condie and Munro (2007,
Appertaining to the impact of ICT on attainment, Condie and Munro (2007, 4) also appear tentative when stating
that ‘at present the evidence on attainment is somewhat inconsistent, although
it does appear that, in some contexts, with some pupils, in some disciplines,
attainment has been enhanced’.
(2006b, 16) states with regard to personalised learning spaces that ‘the
potential to enhance the learning experience is immense’; Becta
(2007a, 1) maintains that ‘personalised learning is a major goal in both
the proposed 14-19 reforms’ and ‘the embedded use of ICT supports and delivers
personalised learning’; DfES
(2006, 5) holds that it is an educational priority to ‘establish a clear
vision of what personalised teaching and learning might look like in our
schools in 2020; Condie and Munro (2007, 6-7) state that the UK Government’s
e-strategy sets the expectation that by 2008 every pupil should have access to
a personalised online learning space; Becta
(2007b, 5), with regard to ICT and e-learning in further education,
however, emphasises that the use of ICT to personalise learning is ‘at an early
stage and still has a long way to go’.
In light of the above discussion regarding
autonomy/personalised learning, modern language labs may be faced with a
possible contentious issue: is learner autonomy (or personalization of
learning) in practice a sufficiently workable construct for
justifying the pursuit of the ‘bleeding edge’ (Beatty 2003, 71) new tools in ICT or are the new ICT tools an
appropriate cost-effective apparatus for developing the possibly
terminologically and conceptually confusing (Benson 2001, 1) construct of learner autonomy?
4. The digital revolution and self-access
The onset of the
digital revolution in the early 1980s
with its CD-ROMs (1985), DVD players (1996), MP3 players (1998),
Apple Computer iPods (2001) and the comprehensive advancement in computer hardware/software,
reliable Internet services and wireless technology
devices provided new tools for language labs.
Benson (2001, 114) argues that historically self-access centres
(or language labs) have occupied a central position in the practice of autonomy
and many teachers have come to the idea of autonomy through their work in them.
A self-access centre is essentially a language lab in which learning resources
such as audio, video and computer stations, audio/videotapes, computer software
and printed materials are made directly available to learners. Examples of some
self-access centres can be found at the University of Cambridge, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the City University of Hong
Kong, the University of
Hull Language Institute, Middlesex University, University of Colorado-Boulder,
Yale University, Oregon State University,
University of Albany, University of Nebraska Lincoln,
University of Houston, Oxford University, Michigan State University, Sussex University, Princeton University, Purdue University,
Ohio State University, Ohio ESL, Carnegie Mellon University, John Hopkins University, Rice University, University of Oregon, Washington
However, whether or how the users of such self-access centres use
centre materials in a way that enables them to construct new ideas and so take
control over their own learning (autonomy/constructivism) or drill and repeat
(behaviourism/audio-lingual) seems less relevant than whether there is any
measurable outcome for the learner or tutor. Moreover, it could be argued that
structuralism is on the rise as a result of the numerous ESOL
interactive Internet exercises that have become available on well-known CALL sites; many
such exercises, at least at the moment, seem to be narrowing foreign language
teaching to mainly structural grammar and vocabulary (Alexander 2006, 2007).
5. Language-lab facilities
Modern language labs offer an extensive and growing range of
services to users. Most of the services relate to offering a variety of modes
of learning foreign languages and developing a corresponding assortment of
materials for such languages. As a
result, such language labs often have a developed administrative and
state-of-the-art technical infrastructure. Another area that modern language
labs are widening pertains to innovation and development. The Center for Language Study at Yale University
for instance engages in professional development,
provides funding for
research or attempts to strengthen
language programmes taught at the University. The Cambridge University
Language Centre on their research and
development e-link maintains that the ‘language
learning and teaching activities of the Language Centre are underpinned and
informed by relevant research in second language acquisition and educational
technology’. Princeton University Language Resource Center receive support from
Technologies Center and so build
and maintain tools for teaching and research.
Screenshot 1 presents an example of a language-lab homepage
offering extensive services. The Language Resource Center at Princeton
University states that it provides ‘resources and facilities to support the
study of foreign languages, literatures, and cultures’; moreover it also states
that it supports independent language study and assists Princeton University
faculty in incorporating video into instruction.
Language-learning materials’ related
Language labs offer a broad range of learning
materials and modes of language learning. This range includes the use of: CDROMS (Chinese University of Hong Kong), English
newspapers (Sussex), general
language links for students (used at Sussex), video conferencing (Michigan State), MP3s (Colorado-Boulder), language
learning centre blog (current awareness for
students, used at Sussex), multimedia library (Colorado-Boulder), materials
and independent learning
(City University of Hong Kong), language
Podcasts (Washington), self access services (Middlesex), film,
video and digital media (Princeton), language
University of Wellington, ‘Language Buddies’ are
native speakers of different languages who help each other improve language
materials listing (Indiana), international television broadcasts
(Indiana). Language labs also usually offer a variety of online language links;
the following labs offer a wide range of Internet language links: University
of Colorado-Boulder, Indiana
University, Languages On-Line
(Indiana University), University
of Nebraska-Lincoln, University
of Houston, Washington University, John Hopkins University, Cambridge University, Oxford University, Michigan
State University, Princeton
University, Ohio ESL, Rice
University, Yamada Centre, Washington
Online language materials at Indiana
Indiana University, in screenshot 2, provides archives of over 130 languages available for
or for use in language laboratories.
Screenshot 3 Videoconferencing
provides an example of the videoconferencing facility at the University of Michigan’s
Language Learning Center.
Screenshot 4 below explains how the University of Washington’s
Language Learning Center uses
Podcasts with up-to-date content for language learning.
Screenshot 4 Language
Some language labs provide a gamut of innovative testing and
training services for students and staff. Some of these services include: professional development (Yale), e-testing
services for students (Oxford), directed independent language study for
students (Yale), technology training for staff
and students (Albany), foreign language technology certificate
for staff and students (Colorado-Boulder), language classes for staff and students
design and training (Princeton).
The Technology Certificate Anderson Language
The Foreign Language Technology
Certificate presented in screenshot 5
at the University of Colorado-Boulder offers training in the theories and
practices of instructional technologies. The workshops are open to all graduate
students, faculty and instructors of the Foreign Languages.
Modern language labs require developed administration; some typical
administrative tasks comprise responding to a faculty/staff
helpdesk (Albany), a student
helpdesk (Albany), a Web helpdesk (Middlesex) or a technology help link (Colorado-Boulder). Other duties involve
presenting lab staff (Yale), providing materials
purchase information (Indiana), submitting recorded
materials (Indiana), giving information about contact
and location (Yale) and adhering to lab opening hours (Colorado-Boulder). Another important
administrative undertaking pertains to audio-tape
tape drop-off and
pickup (Nebraska-Lincoln), lab check-in and
checkout (Nebraska-Lincoln) and general lab scheduling.
Modern language labs also need to
have a developed and functional technology infrastructure; some of the
technology considerations include: WebCT (Houston),
lab services (Houston),
lab equipment and
services (Houston), PC classrooms
viewings in class (Yale), Mac classrooms
recordings (Yale), technology services
(Yale), media conversion
and duplication (Yale), software and hardware (Albany), technical related links (John
Hopkins), equipment available for short-term use
6 The Anderson Language Technology
Center PC smart classroom
5.5 General lab related
Moreover, language labs offer
additional related informational services such as: intellectual property and copyright (Yale), funding opportunities (Yale), seminars and presentations (Yale), news and announcements (Yale), mission statement (Houston), frequently asked questions
innovation and development (Yale), research and development
(Cambridge), regulations and policies
(Middlesex), provision for disabled
students (Middlesex), services for
distance learners (Middlesex), dyslexia support
(Middlesex), audio homework, audio
portfolios, digital worksheets (Michigan State), computational
science and engineering support (Princeton), database application
services (Princeton), educational technologies center (Princeton), education and outreach services (Princeton), scholarships (Ohio State), individualised instruction
Screenshot 7 Individualized
Language Learning Center
of recording technology since Edison’s then
ground-breaking recording of a human voice on the first tinfoil cylinder
phonograph in 1877
has therefore been unremitting despite the technical and financial difficulties
faced by the industry’s pioneers. The relatively recent emergence of numerous wireless devices
that transfer and receive information and the appearance of progressively more
sophisticated e-learning platforms and authoring tools is pushing the evolution
of ICT up a gear making it increasingly challenging for language labs to
keep up or increasingly risky for them not to. The escalation of
technological innovations however may be redounding to the benefit of those
that create the technologies and is opening a Pandora’s e-box of wonders and
wizardries (or possibly ‘gimmicks’ Coughlan 2007) that are now portending
relatively impulsive change in language education. Some of the latest
buzzwords include: moodles, virtual
learning environment (VLE), course management system (CMS), learning
management systems (LMS), podcatching and
podcasting, video technology and
in 2007, Internet radio,
MOOing (e.g. SchMOOze), audio
technology and applications, learning and using
HTML, information on
technical issues, finding where to
download software, skypecasting, WebCT,
(vlogging), webcasting, moblogging,
reality (VR) environments, LAMS: learning activity management
system, learning platforms,
with third generation mobile phones, augmented reality and
enhanced visualisation, context-aware
environments and devices, educational gaming,
learning (hybrid/mixed), m-learning,
e-mentoring or e-tutoring.
Autonomous language learning is now
the vogue and the construct as stated previously has a strong and persuasive
theoretical underpinning; it seems the ‘autonomous learner’ and the felicitous
advancements in ICT have become seemingly
ideal partners for marriage. Thus language labs in this eddy of ICT
change will need to make brave and
thoughtful decisions regarding why new technologies should be promoted and
whether the theoretical constructs for which these new technologies are
supposedly suitable can be operationalised effectually. One
substantive realisation for language-lab researchers in the current torrent of
technological change should concern the relevance of the ‘humanware’ (Warchauer in-press).
More explicitly, I mean how new technologies might strengthen the age-old and
multifaceted bond between the pupil and human-teacher. Davies et al. (2005, 18) for instance, also hold a comparable
view; they maintain that when considering the installation of a digital lab,
‘the first question that the modern foreign language (MFL) teacher needs to ask
is to what extent the equipment is capable of enhancing tried and tested
pedagogies and methodologies’.
There is also a danger in the current and innovative
drive to brand-stretch key
language-lab services, with the possible effect of enabling a language lab to
take on a more prominent role in its educational institution, that the language
lab may lose its traditional identity as a place to learn foreign languages.
Moreover, it is in this area that innovative research regarding what is
effective and practicable is needed. Finally, research is also required to
assess, in spite of all the new lab gadgets and theoretical constructs,
how prevalent audio-lingualism still is in the learning of foreign languages in
modern language labs.
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