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A Boon to Second Life Language Schools

New technology will allow high-quality audio in a virtual world.

Immersive language learning in a realistic environment with native-speaking teachers will soon be available online, in the popular virtual world Second Life. Starting in September, a language school called Languagelab.com will offer English and Spanish classes. The cost of the classes will be comparable to those in the real world, which can cost several hundred U.S. dollars for a semester-long course. “You won’t be taking classes in LanguageLab because it’s a lot cheaper,” says LanguageLab founder David Kaskel, an entrepreneur and PhD candidate at the Center for Computing in the Humanities at King’s College, London. “We think it’s a lot better than in a physical space because there’s more you can offer than in a classroom.”

Second language: Student avatars in LanguageLab’s simulated office environment work on a lesson in business English.

Kaskel is a veteran user of Second Life, a virtual world where users can own private property, build realistic places and communities, operate businesses, and navigate the world with physical figures called avatars. He had the idea for a Second Life school a year and a half ago while in a traffic jam in Naples, during which he was forced to speak Italian to his driver and made progress with his language skills. LanguageLab, which is based in London, acquired financing a year ago and now has six full-time employees.

Students of LanguageLab will send their avatars to the school’s 120-acre island, where a full city has been created. Student avatars might meet their teachers for role-playing activities in one of the lavish, realistically detailed hotels, bars, nightclubs, office parks, or stores. Scheduled classes meet for 50 minutes several times a week. Students might meet classmates to play a game, such as the football-field-sized Scrabble game, or socialize out on the virtual town. They can also sign up for special events, such as a murder mystery staged in the hotel or a class on the language of wine at the wine bar.

Students and teachers will talk to and hear each other using VoIP capabilities that are currently in beta and are scheduled to debut in Second Life in June. Until now, Second Life users who wanted to talk to each other have relied on Skype, TeamSpeak, or other VoIP providers. Now, voice capabilities will be bundled with the Second Life software that users download to their PCs. The system picks up a wider range of acoustic frequencies (50 to 14,000 hertz) than normal telephony, and this will benefit language learning because salient acoustic information in some consonants occurs at frequencies higher than what telephony usually picks up.

Voice in Second Life will also be 3-D, meaning that the voices from avatars who are near will sound louder than avatars who are farther away. The system does this by modifying a particular user’s sound stream according to his or her avatar’s position in the world. As a result, each of the thousands of Second Life users in the world at any moment using voice will have a unique audio stream.

Land owners in Second Life can enable voice on their property, where they can talk either in a group chat or in one-to-one mode. There is also a one-to-many mode that will be useful for lectures, conferences, and classes.

Seventy-four colleges currently have Second Life operations. “They’re dying to get their hands on voice,” says Joe Miller, vice president of Platform and Technology Development for Linden Lab, the manufacturer of Second Life. In addition to serious uses, new forms of entertainment, such as karaoke bars and comedy clubs, have already cropped up.

When voice capabilities were announced in February, many Second Life users expressed dismay in blogs. They complained that listening to voices and having to talk would break the hermetic virtuality of the world, bringing with it unwanted aspects of the real world, such as users’ real genders, identities, and nationalities. “Being forced to use a voice in a virtual world, something not of my choice, against my will–because people in business will all be forced to do this–feels like the ultimate blow,” wrote Prokofy Neva, a Second Life user, in the Second Life Herald.

LanguageLab is not the first such school in Second Life: a variety of educators have offered English, Japanese, and Esperanto, among other languages, and in May the British Council is scheduled to open three English learning islands in the teen version of Second Life. But LanguageLab is the largest private language school venture and the first to be built around the integrated voice capabilities. It also worked with Second Life’s VoIP provider, Massachusetts-based Vivox, before Second Life tapped Vivox to provide voice for the entire virtual world.

LanguageLab founder Kaskel says he hopes to offer classes in other languages, for which he will duplicate his basic island. Most of the current students in the beta have grasped Second Life quickly (students must pass a basic orientation before class begins), although only about 20 percent of them have operating systems and video cards that meet Second Life requirements.

Constructing virtual environments for language learning that either augment or replace classroom work has been a holy grail of foreign-language educators since the first digital “microworld” was developed 15 years ago. “The basic idea of getting individuals to interact in a microworld or simulation is extremely interesting, but it’s hard to do,” says Robert Fischer, a professor of French and linguistics at Texas State University and the executive director of the Computer-Assisted Language Instruction Consortium. These digital environments are complex and expensive to build, particularly if the pedagogical model pairs students with a chatterbot or some other artificial conversation partner. Another barrier to student acceptance has been the fidelity of the virtual world. “Students are so used to playing, their expectations are extremely high, and when they don’t see good graphics in the language learning environment, that could be a problem,” Fischer says.

The world of Second Life is rendered with such detail that this won’t likely be a problem. Teaching language in Second Life has an advantage over the other Internet-based methods, from blogs to podcasts to text chat, that have overwhelmed foreign-language teachers with teaching opportunities. It has what Graham Stanley, the project manager for the British Council’s island in Second Life, calls “a sense of place.” “This sense of place makes learning, and indeed socializing in a virtual world, a more ‘human’ experience than many other online environments,” he says.

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