Friday, 27 August 2010

Immersive language learning through technology

I have been working recently with a centre which is being established for the learning languages which are rarely taught (in the Secondary sector currently, at least) – Russian and Arabic being two examples.

The centre aims to provide a really rich offering for local schools (whose pupils might study there part time) and nationally, for distance learning. One of the guiding principles of the centre is that language learning is easier, more enduring and deeper overall if students can be immersed in the language and culture in question. It’s palpably true even for language dimwits– a weekend in Paris and I’m bonjouring and shrugging disinterestedly with the best of ‘em.

Technology is seen as a key enabler of this immersion and I thought I’d share a couple of the ideas which we’ve been developing with the centre’s staff to hopefully achieve this.

The centre is very keen for visiting learners to have a fun experience and to not feel like they are at ‘school’ (not that those two concepts are mutually exclusive, obviously). For this reason, one of the immersive technologies being developed is a serious game for language learning, set in the rich context of the target language’s native country and based around an engaging mission (for example, arriving in a city and trying to track down a long lost friend, encountering challenges and twists along the way, naturally).

tactical pashtun Image:

The concept is that learners will play the part of the game’s main protagonist and their progress through the game’s challenges will depend on their accurate understanding and use of language, both textual and verbal, through the use of keyboard, mouse and microphone. Other characters will react differently to learners based on the skill with which they speak and their observation of cultural cues. Varying levels of scaffolding will be available for learners (e.g. English language translation of possible responses) and teachers/ peers will be able to play the part of other characters, to offer help to players. Sub-games will build skills/ vocab and a smartphone application may also be spun off from the main game. Similar games have been developed, mostly with military customers in mind, but this FPS will be more First Person Speaker!

There are lots of little immersive touches (such as target-language console games in the student social area and digital room signage which alters to match the right context) but a second ‘big idea’ is the use of digital facades in one of the large spaces to recreate a street scene in which various interactions can take place.
Footage of shop fronts and interiors will be projected onto and around existing architectural features such as the space’s windows to create the illusion of a living street, assisted by various pieces of furniture and props. Fixed discrete cameras and microphones will help learners record evidence of their capability in various scenarios.

QR code Image:

The use of QR codes, and an integrated MS Surface-like product to recognise them, will enable objects to be used creatively by the educators planning uses for the space. For example, at a KS2 level, the activity could be around buying ingredients to produce a local speciality dish. Procuring various tagged food objects being ‘sold’ on the street would be the basis of an extended role-play between learners of different abilities/ adults. Successful interpretation of the recipe, negotiation of the buying process with the various ‘shop keepers’ and placing the full set of items on the smart surface would result in an output from the surface’s screen; instructions on how to prepare the dish, perhaps (which would then move this group’s activity to the centre’s kitchen facilities). Equally, if the output could be a hint on where to find the missing ingredients (and the vocab to use).

The above example is just one that occurs to my (History-teacher-who-covered-the-odd-period-of-French-when-Madame-was-on-a-course) mind; the opportunities to create engaging, collaborative language use scenarios for students of all ages are vast for talented MFL specialists.

The project is still at a relatively early stage, but we’re approaching the point at which we’ll go to market (excuse the unintentional pun) for the ICT solution to deliver the centre’s aspirations. Watch this space for updates!

Dom Norrish
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