Iso-immersive 3D Simulation V.R. Environments for Secondary Language Acquisition (SLA)

In 1997, while playing “Duke Nukem” in my barracks’ room at the Defense Language Institute (DLI), I started to think about the possibilities of using video game technology to conduct language study. Well, it’s been quite some time since I was at the Presidio of Monterrey but I am happy to say that over the last two decades the Secondary Language Acquisition/Learning (SLA/SLL) community has slowly introduced Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) technology into the classroom. Now, I wish I could say the introduction of CALL has been fruitful, but such has not been the case. In recent years, while advent technology has finally allowed for the integration of 3D virtualization into the foreign language learning paradigm, the current 3D SLA/SLL environments focus on addressing the attention deficit disorders of millennial learners rather than actual secondary language acquisition principles. Granted, these programs are better than traditional foreign language study techniques wherein we had to endure countless hours of head-to-wall banging sessions while being peppered with vocabulary and hoping something would stick. But, if we, as a community, are going to move forward with CALL technology, we cannot keep focusing on “cool technology” while negating its purpose in the classroom.

I remember quite a few years back when “Second Life” became the holy grail for the SLA/SLL community, specifically for the Department of Defense, but it was short-lived asPlaceholder Image the forum became reduced to a de facto “Adult Entertainment” site centered around the monetization of virtualized social interaction (read degradation). So why didn’t it work? Shouldn’t it be as easy as outfitting an avatar, meeting with a teacher and learning a language? The answers to those questions are a bit more complex and less superficial than one may think.

The reason most 3D simulated environments have proven ineffective in terms of foreign language study is because they were not designed by individuals who have actually studied foreign languages. Moreover, they were not designed from a perspective of deploying discursive psychology, sociolinguistics and e-andragogical principles to establish connective faculties within digital, iso-immersive environments (authentic experiential learning). Sadly, they were designed with one very finite and linear objective: “create a forum; study a language”. Soon, the industry exploded with 3D simulation games, but there was a common misconception that SLA/SLL principles would simply transfer into the digital frontier and language acquisition would just naturally occur. This proved to be a false assumption.

When we approach foreign language study we understand that full exposure to the language is the most expeditious way learn it. In fact, Dr. Stephen Krashen, who has set the standards for Secondary Language Learning & Acquisition (SLL / SLA), maintains that isolated immersion (iso-immersion) is the most effective way to learn a second language. Naturally, one would assume that the digital replication of a real environment would simply create the parameters for effective iso-immersion, but language study is very nuanced and does not follow a simple instructional system design formula. Because of this simple fact, there will always need to be student-teacher interaction.

Getting back on topic, we have to approach digital iso-immersion from both synchronous (active) and asynchronous (passive) learning perspectives. To accomplish this, we can create Non-Player Characters (NPCs) that act as socially-intelligent programmed virtual humanoid avatars (i.e. computer characters) as part of guided/themed objectives for student interaction. From the Synchronous side-of-the-house, students can conduct learning with instructors and report as they are accomplishing the language objectives. Instructors navigate the students through the objectives and assist them with the language learning aspect of the training course. From the Asynchronous side-of-the-house,  students can conduct training in an independent capacity while solely interacting with the aforementioned NPCs. To be effective, we incorporate testing dynamics into the courseware so that the Learning Management System (LMS) only allows the students to advance after meeting a “pre-defined” threshold of language capability. Meaning, we program parameters into the course so that students cannot not simply “click to continue”; they actually have to “interact” with the game in order to advance. But, incorporating these e-andragogical principles in a 3D simulated environment will not simply produce secondary language acquisition to achieve the desired level of proficiency in a particular foreign language. I won’t get into the SLA/SLL Instructional System Design (ISD) architecture, but there is a key ingredient in making the digital frontier  a viable option for iso-immersive foreign language study that is now within our reach – literally.

Up front, we have difficulty viewing language learning as abstract, and have a particular challenge seeing our lexicon, phonology, and syntax as having meaning in a particular historical, social, and political condition. Our vocabulary, phonology and syntax are used to convey a broad sense of meanings and are reflective of our immediate social, political and historical conditions. This is why we deploy a Virtual Constructivism (VC) model that relies on three fundamental principles (de facto language laws) with regard to Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) – which promotes our multi-faceted aspect of Secondary Language Acquisition (SLA) over a linear secondary language learning (SLL) model. These language laws are: Discursive Psychology, Sociolinguistics and Connective Faculties. The first two are accomplished with a fairly easy SLA/SLL approach, but the last (connective faculties) has been very difficult to crack – until now.

The Connective Faculties aspect of the VC model integrates “how we react within a traditional language immersion environment” (i.e. how we connect with the language and culture itself): emotional connections, cognitive connections and physical connections. By integrating internal/external simulated stimuli into the pre-defined objectives of the course, we can create emotional and cognitive connections. Under the physical connections, we easily assimilate sight and sound into the 3D environment. And this is where things get interesting. With new technology, a third element of physical connection (touch) can be integrated through the utilization of haptic technology (i.e sense of touch particularly relating to proprioception). In a nutshell, we can use a body suit and gloves that create sensations of touch so the students feel like they are actually in the simulated environment.

Possibilities are endless with this type of technology, but most importantly, we are no longer limited by: the space constraints of physical classrooms; teacher-availability for students at multiple locations; or hinged by dwindling fiscal resources. This means that agencies and organizations don’t have to worry about budgets or travel logistics; students can train any time, and from anyplace.  Seems too good to be true, or something out of a Star Trek episode, right? Actually, I am happy to report that Creative Veteran Productions (CVP) has designed, devoloped, and deployed a 3D simulation platform that is web-based and specifically designed to be accessible from behind low-bandwidth systems with high security firewalls, which means connectivity is no longer an issue. Using “off-the-shelf” haptic equipment that allows users to interact within virtual reality environments and actually feel certain aspects of the program, we can create a iso-immersive SLA/SLL environment wherein students conduct experiential learning. Now that “touch” has been incorporated into the connective faculties equation, we could theoretically send students to the oil fields of Siberia to conduct Russian language training, or to the desert villages of Syria to learn Arabic – of course, all from the safety of their computers.

Having been around the Department of Defense (DOD) for two decades, I understand the logistical problems associated with government/military training. Too often, we are given finite resources to train a multitude of service-members that need to conduct “high repetition” training. Essentially, a lot of people need to use a small pool of equipment, which comes with a slurry of scheduling nightmares, travel budgets, last-minute delays and equipment malfunctions. In a 3D simulated environment, thousands of users can use the same forum and not even know one anther are there. They can conduct repetitive exercises and drills with an instructor that is located 2000 miles away. If a student is struggling, the teacher can change the parameters of the learning environment. Best of all, we can conduct academic and performance based instruction simultaneously.  As Aristotle said in the The Nicomachean Ethics, “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”

Here is a short video illustrating the SLA/SLL concept of “Training the Way We Fight“. Technology has finally caught up with human innovation, and it is time for a paradigm shift in the SLA/SLL community.

Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand. – Confucius, circa 450 BC

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