A question has frequently been posed on whether there is any evidence or research on the effectiveness and benefits of language labs in language teaching and learning. In this blog post we are going to have a deeper look on the benefits and effectiveness of modern language labs in language learning.
Before we continue further it seems important to define the meaning of language labs of today. A language laboratory is a dedicated space for foreign language teaching where students access audio or audio-visual materials in a real-time teacher-led teaching event such as a language class or exam. Modern language labs are usually computer classrooms or virtual environments where the computers run a special language lab software meant for language teaching such as Sanako Study or Sanako Connect for example.
Language labs are a part of the school’s information and communications technology (ICT) environment
Apparently, modern language labs are an inseparable component of the school ICT environment. After all, most of them require computers and a LAN network or access to the Internet. They promote the use of digital learning resources and integrate computer-specific features such as databases, chat, video/audio streaming or instant messaging.
All this is infused with audio communication which is mainly delivered via headsets, and teacher control capabilities (monitor, intercom, remote screen control, etc.) Thus, when we think of modern language labs, often referred to as multimedia language classrooms, language centres or suites, or digital language labs, we should not separate them from the ICT infrastructure in a school.
We need to look at language labs and their benefits through the prism of ICT, and when we ponder upon their effectiveness in language teaching and learning we have to consider both the benefits of a computer classroom setting as well as the benefits of the language lab communication facilities (pair, group discussion, intercom, telephone dialing, monitoring, etc.).
In our opinion, modern language labs are at least as effective as ICT is effective in teaching in general. In fact, there has been some research on the effectiveness of ICT in language teaching and the results suggest that the schools that implement ICT in Foreign Language Learning (FLL) get better results in teaching than those that do not.
So, what are the specific benefits of language labs in language teaching?
To return to the question posed at the beginning of this paper, I am fond of an answer given by Graham Davies who wrote in the LinguaNet forum on the effectiveness of ICT:
“Did anyone ever ask how effective the book is in teaching foreign languages? Did anyone ever ask how effective the blackboard is in teaching foreign languages? Did anyone ever ask how effective the tape recorder is in teaching foreign languages? My personal view is that computers are just another aid and their effectiveness depend on how teachers use them, i.e. in the same way as the book, the blackboard and the tape recorder depend on how teachers use them.”
“The right question to ask is: How effective are teachers at using ICT in language teaching? No resource, however good, will deliver successful learning outcomes is used inappropriately. It is not what ICT can do, but what you can do with ICT.”
In the case of modern language labs it can be translated to the following statement: language labs are really effective when used appropriately by language teachers. And to use a wide range of language labs’ facilities in an appropriate manner, teachers must be prepared to invest their time in training, class preparation, and using new teaching methodologies methodologies.
Even though Davies’ approach seems to be a correct one, one just cannot finish a debate with the sole opinion that the effectiveness of labs depends on how they are used by teachers.
What particular benefits have language teachers experienced when using language labs or language teaching software?
Below we have collected 13 different benefits of language labs, some of them “straight from the horse’s mouth” i.e. as told by language lab users and language teachers, with a hope that they will explain better the effectiveness of the language lab functionalities (communication and modes of learning) rather than the advantages of a PC lab.
The primary argument for the usefulness of modern language lab is, “there’s no other classroom setting in which 30-some students can speak and converse at the same time without distracting others.“
In a normal class of 30 students, 29 are idle when one student is speaking. In a language lab every student can practise aloud simultaneously. Therefore, the language lab is an ideal setting for speaking and conversation practice.
Dr. Duncan Charters, Professor, Language Department in the LLTI forum expressed:
“I regularly pair students up in the classroom for conversation practice. But noticed that they are more excited about it when we do this in the language lab.“
1# Language lab creates a change into the normal class routine: A change in the typical class pace and routine creates excitement and motivates students.
2# Language lab increases the options to focus on verbal tasks: A lot of face-to-face communication is non-verbal. When practicing the target language in a lab situation, you can focus on the verbal task without other distractions.
3# Language lab helps students to focus on assignment: Students tend to stay on task more. Rather than lapsing into a native language or kidding with their friends when the teacher isn’t right next to them.
4# Helps teachers to deliver individualised teaching: The teacher can monitor students at any time without their knowledge. They can intervene and correct without other students being aware of or disturbed. The teacher can spend more time with those in need without others noticing.
5# Language lab can be a less intimidating environment: Students seem much less intimidated knowing that other people aren’t watching them or eavesdropping and hearing their mistakes. So they tend to speak more freely. Students, especially middle-high school, can be very conscious of how they look and sound to their group peers in a group.
6# Increases students’ excitement and interest towards language learning: It’s fun not knowing who your new partner is, so the practice of greeting questions happens naturally where it wouldn’t make sense in face-to-face classwork. It keeps the interest and anticipation high.
7# Reduces the distraction in the class: The constant “buzz” of everyone talking in a class situation makes it harder for students to focus on what their partner is saying and understand it. Especially when they are struggling to express themselves and respond to questions and statements. There’s little distraction with headsets, even less where there’s some isolation between student positions.
8# It is easy to contact and talk with everyone in the class: By switching pairs, all students can talk to other students in the class without constantly moving themselves or their chairs around. They stay in touch with everyone in the class and can get information quickly from each one if doing a survey or checking on others’ reactions.
9# language lab increases the time spent on speaking practice: The language lab setting gives all the students in the class possibilities to speak at the same time and yet be audibly isolated from one another. Speaking simultaneously, rather than one at a time, vastly increases the time of students’ speaking practice. In a normal 50-minute long classroom session with 16 students, speaking one at a time gives each student an average 2 to 3 minutes to perform. Whereas the simultaneous practice in the lab allows the students to speak for 30 to 40 minutes, if necessary, thus substantially increasing the time of practice and learning.
10# Creates equal opportunities for all to see and hear: In the language lab environment, all students have equal opportunities to hear the materials they study at a volume level they set according to their individual needs and listening comfort. Similarly, no matter where they are seated in the lab, they can all view the video materials conveniently on their PC screens, rather than gaze at what’s happening on a screen in front of the room. This is especially distracting and inconvenient for the students sitting at the back of the classroom or short-sighted ones.
11# Emphasis on individual learning: Another very important benefit of the modern language lab is that it allows for the individualisation of learning processes. The students can listen to audio programmes or watch video clips at their pace. And as long as it takes for each of them to master the material under study. In addition, the manipulation of a learning resource, i.e. digital audio or video files like instant playback, or access to a given part of the material, is a very fast and less tedious activity. Indeed, a digital environment does speed up the learning process as progressing with the materials is much faster as compared to analogue technologies i.e. fast forward, rewind, recap – all done in a split of a second.
12# Increases the variety of tasks available for groups or pairs: In addition, the individualisation process can also take place on a pair or group level. The students can be divided into several pairs (random pairing being especially popular). Or groups and work with different programmes and different tasks. While the teacher can focus his attention on the individual student’s performance without interrupting the work of the pair/group. The teacher can review each pair’s/group’s recorded discussion or interaction at a later stage.
13# Creates the comfort of privacy: One cannot ignore a well-documented fact the language lab creates a comfortable feeling of privacy which helps many students, especially the shy ones, lose their inhibitions when talking in front of other students. The language lab setting with headsets encourages them to overcome shyness and speak without fear of embarrassment when they make mistakes.
If language teachers need capabilities of interconnectivity between students to set up and manage pair or group work, seamless integration of various features and the ability to control students’ work, then the modern language lab is an effective and powerful system to do so.
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