Using Second Life to Teach English as a Second Language

This one definitely gets filed under "blatant self-promotion."

I recently started freelancing for Forbes.com, and the first article I've written for them is called "How to Spark Remote Learning." The piece covers the (surprisingly sizable) movement to use Second Life's immersive environment to teach residents foreign languages.  Specifically, I talked to Kip Boahn--head of a German ESL school by day, and founder of a new island named Second Life English--who's dedicated himself to providing free resources for the game's estimated  5,000 language learners and 1,000 instructors.  What's particularly interested is the way Second Life English and other programs make the most of the world itself.  From the article:

"Boahn takes a hands-on approach to teaching in a virtual classroom. During workshops, he uses a team of teachers to present students with different linguistic tasks, which could include anything from asking for directions to bargaining to buy a knickknack. To do those tasks, Boahn and his colleagues use "holodecks," rooms that can flip through as many as 40 different scenes at the mere click of a mouse. Want to practice ordering American fast food? Just switch the holodeck to Dara's Diner and line up at the counter.

Another popular way to teach English in "Second Life," says Boahn, involves role-playing and quests. "I once dressed up as a pirate, had a ship and everything. I was kind of rough on the students," he admits. "I put some of them in cages, and had them confront language in a shock-and-awe kind of way. They seemed to like it, and they learned all sorts of new words, like 'loot' and 'booty.'"

Boahn's approach may appear nontraditional, but he feels a new medium calls for a new way of teaching language. Even using the game's English interface gives students a chance to practice what they've learned. "We like to encourage teachers to see 'Second Life' itself as a classroom," he says."

Has anyone out there tried learning a foreign language through Second Life, or any other virtual world?  Boahn says his results have been excellent, but as an ESL teacher myself I can't help but wonder what element of communication gets lost when you can't work with students face-to-face.  Then again, none of *my* students know what "pirate's booty" is...


Comments on Using Second Life to Teach English as a Second Language:

SusanC says:

One of the things I like about on-line virtual worlds is that they give me a chance to practise foreign languages. I have been to one or two language classes in Second Life, but mostly, I've just been talking to people outside of classroom situations.

Advantages: I find it much easier to learn words in context, rather than just trying to memorize a dictionary.

Disadvantages: The form of language people use in virtual worlds is often very informal. While it's good to be able to understand slang expressions and grammar, you need to be a bit careful about using some of it. (And my teacher used some pretty strong expressions last time there was a problem with the Sim...)

Posted Mar 20, 2008 6:13:01 PM | link

Bonnie Ruberg says:

When I've tried practicing French in Second Life via text chat I've also run into the problem that--as in English--people use much more slapdash language than they would face to face. There are typos, spelling errors, and of course general online speak (then again, French text messages confuse me, too). Perhaps speaking is more constructive though...

Posted Mar 21, 2008 8:00:12 AM | link

Andy Havens says:

Hmmmm.... "booty" in SL usually means something else...

Posted Mar 21, 2008 6:22:03 PM | link

Kolby Granville says:

I've been an TEFL teacher off and on for many years. Taught in China, taught in Mozambique, other places as well. Also, have tried to learn langages along the way.

As a teacher (and a learner), I can tell you so much of learning (and language in particular) is tied to motivation. You remember what you NEED, not what you are taught. Which, to nobody's surprise, is a large part of why you learn languages faster in a foreign country than in a classroom in your home country. Yes, the continual exposure to another language in another country helps, but ever more so, the need to remember is so important. You need food. You need to find the restroom. You need directions.

Which is why Second Life is such an outstanding language tool (in my opinion) for language. Second Life gives you the ability to set up scenarios where you can create the need to learn words. Rather than just cramming vocabulary into your head. (Of course, the need isn't perfect, because the student can always logoff)

Teachers so often complain how students don't learn... The issue is NEVER that students don't learn, they learn all the time, the issue is they don't learn what you want them to learn. Creating this "false need" helps solve that problem, perhaps not all the way, but it's gets things closer.

Posted Mar 21, 2008 9:00:54 PM | link

Nicholas Chambers says:

I think you'd actually be much better off practising your language skills in a smaller, strong-RP MUDs. Plenty of (hopefully) well-written text there, everybody uses a spell-checker, all commands run via typing and so forth.

There's really no need for all the bandwidth and the cocky images that SL offers, if you really just want to practice your writing skills.

Posted Mar 22, 2008 1:46:05 PM | link

Diane says:

--"Creating this "false need" helps solve that problem, perhaps not all the way, but it's gets things closer."

It's not just about need, but also about enjoyment and want. If something is fun, people will go out of their way to do it--people like to do things they like. ;] The neat thing then about games--from card games to software--is that they're entertainment; they're meant to be enjoyed. Thus, a well-made game that just happens to also teach practical skills has got a solid advantage over the tried-and-true (but rather dull) methods of drills and tests and such.

--"Has anyone out there tried learning a foreign language through Second Life, or any other virtual world?"

Kinda? I studied Spanish a very long time in school, but after leaving college, I stopped keeping up with it--turns out the old textbooks and Spanish lit I had weren't as energetic or funny as my teachers and classmates, nor as reactive to my success or failure, so it stopped being as fun and rewarding.

I started practicing again online--specifically, reading Spanish-language comments on deviantart.com (an art site, natch). Finding people who do art I especially like, such as jewelery or food--means that being able to translate their messages will give me something I really want--more information about the art piece. Also it turns out that--for me at least--it's a lot easier to read and learn from the average Spanish speaker's net Spanish than it is to read academic level text--even with common typos and abbreviations, and the sheer variety in the Spanish language.

I also bought Ubisoft's My Spanish Coach, a game for Nintendo's handheld DS console, which turned out surprisingly decent. I quickly brushed up on my early Spanish vocab--numbers, months, seasons--that I had forgotten most quickly. It's a very basic learning+game merge, but fortunately it's still novel enough to work. Hopefully in a few years there will have been new approaches to the medium so that I can look back at the game and say 'Wow, that sucked'--kind of like how I can with the first video games I played back when I was itty bitty. :]

I tried RPing (a kind of cooperative story-writing) in Spanish with a friend on an RP board I regularly visit. I figured "Well I like RP and I like Spanish, so they must be two great tastes that taste great together!" However, much like chocolate milk, it left me disappointed. RPing in Spanish was just far too much work, too little fun.

--"I think you'd actually be much better off practising your language skills in a smaller, strong-RP MUDs. Plenty of (hopefully) well-written text there, everybody uses a spell-checker, all commands run via typing and so forth. There's really no need for all the bandwidth and the cocky images that SL offers, if you really just want to practice your writing skills."

It's better to approach it not as "practicing writing skills," but as "learning English." Teaching or learning English can be done in any number of ways, but it can be done better in some ways than others--and it's not going to be done if your students get bored and leave. Pretty pictures are not only interesting to look at and make a classroom less boring--but they're excellent for teaching language because when you see images related to the vocabulary you are learning, that reinforces the lesson.

Posted Mar 22, 2008 2:38:58 PM | link

Suzanne Aurilio says:

I too taught English for some years while living in Germany, (where I also became fluent in German). I agree with most of what's been written and would add that at least for adults, purpose=motivation when it comes to language learning. Methods and methodologies are a secondary consideration, and technology a third. I learned Dutch using Rossetta Stone and French in school and living abroad.

In all cases, I had valued reasons for doing so, most of which came from wanting to interact with the people and culture.

As VWs become more legitimate locations of everyday life, then I think we'll perceive more legitimacy in the ways various language-users, use their language in VWs.

Posted Mar 22, 2008 3:54:11 PM | link

Haney says:

Working through scenarios is cool but SL's weakness in terms of oral language learning is that you can't see lips forming words. Speakshop uses video conferencing to teach Spanish and that works pretty well.

Posted Apr 3, 2008 4:04:23 PM | link

Colin James says:

A great site for ESl students is AIDtoCHILDREN.com

AIDtoCHILDREN.com is a dual-purpose site for building an English vocabulary and raising money for under privileged children in the most impoverished places around the world.

Check it out at http://www.AIDtoCHILDREN.com

Posted Apr 13, 2008 8:39:23 PM | link