Connect with the World

In the US, when we think about learning a foreign language, most people are filled withNelson Mandela nervous anticipation. To a lot of Americans, foreign languages are seen as insurmountable obstacles without any sort of practical application or immediate use. In fact, because of our global economic and political positioning in the world, there is rarely a survival necessity behind learning a second or third language here in the States. But most monoglots fail to see that there is a deluge of tremendously rich cultures and business opportunities for those who want to learn a foreign language and connect with the world.

Creative Veteran Productions (CVP) is a training and education company, and, as such, we have a goal to make language learning more accessible and easy to navigate. At CVP, we view foreign languages as tools that help us succeed in both a global world and within our respective multi-cultural organizations.

Traditionally, the language training community, primarily within the United States, focuses on “language learning”, which is often very pedantic, dogmatic, and formal. It emphasizes on “delivering” language training materials and courseware rather than replicating survival communication skills learned during early adolescent years. To expound upon this concept, participants in Secondary Language Learning (SLL) receive language instruction that focuses on transmitting information about the language rather than using the language as a communicative medium through which topics and skills can be delivered. You see, we fail to understand that foreign language study needs to be active and engage the participants in doing something with hands-on involvement, which is otherwise known as acquisition through “language immersion” – surrounding or “immersing” participants within a second language and its respective culture.

Understandably, this may seem like a confusing topic, which is why we would like to offer clarification and hopefully spark a desire for people to embrace foreign language study rather than fear it. At the most simple level, there are two types of approach to learning a language: Secondary Language Learning (SLL) and Secondary Language Acquisition (SLA). Here in the States, we conduct SLL (not SLA). At a glance, most would not be able to delineate between the two functions, but we would like to offer a basic understanding between the two.

When a person grows up they learn their primary mode of communication, which is known as their (L1); this happens automatically like learning how to walk or even as easy as eating. In essence, we learn to communicate out of necessity and for survival; this is known as primary (or initial) Language Acquisition, which is often referred to as one’s “mother tongue” or “native language”. With time and practice, we are able to refine this skill and create more complex language that includes the ability to transmit and receive abstract concepts and other higher-level critical thinking communicative techniques. Again, this is known as Language Acquisition; we acquire the language, we do not learn or study it.

Now, when we are placed into a foreign environment we are forced to adapt to and learn how to communicate; this is known as Secondary Language Acquisition (SLA). If a person acquires a secondary language, this is known as their (L2). This type of Language Acquisition takes place in an active, immersive environment. However, here in the US, most of us passively learn foreign languages in a classroom; a place wherein the language in an intangible concept without life or active application. This is known as Secondary Language Learning (SLL) or foreign language study wherein we learn/study the language outside of the country (or countries) in which it is spoken. In short, SLL refers to the study of a foreign language rather than simply going to another country, living there, and acquiring it as a survival tool (SLA).

You see, immersion within a culture and language is the only way to truly learn a foreign language, and it is the only way to achieve (L2) functionality. But here in the US, wherein there is no survival need or motivation to acquire a second language, which means most institutions are set up to teach passive SLL foreign language study, how can we change the paradigm in order to promote (L2) SLA? How can we actively learn a second, third, fourth or even fifth language without traveling around the world and living for years on end in the countries in which those languages are spoken?

In a previous discussion, we talked about “The Role of Serious Gaming in Secondary Language Acquisition/Learning” as it pertains to using Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) for SLA/L so as to no longer limit ourselves to the constraints of the physical world. Specifically, how we envision merging real and virtual worlds wherein physical and digital objects co-exist and interact in real time. This will make academic and performance SLA/L instruction simultaneous by changing the way we see our physical environment, which will, in turn, enrich the learning experience for the learners. This is because it will allow traditional SLA/L educators to remain attached to their physical classrooms while also allowing for richer, more in-depth teaching points in a more immersive, interactive and augmented manner. Meaning, we can immerse ourselves into a culture and language by augmenting our physical reality with digital cultural nuances that make it seem like a classroom is really a foreign country.

In a 3D Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), trekking to world can be as easy as opening aMen in Bazaar Web browser or using technology like Microsoft Hololens. When it comes to traveling to far and distant lands, we would no longer be limited by fiscal resources or physical travel. At a touch, I could travel to an Esfahani Spice Bazaar or haggle with roadside vendors at the Khyber Pass between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Virtual Reality or Augmented Reality, the only limit to learning would be in our imagination. We could travel to the Gobi Desert in the matter of minutes, or we could walk the Rue du Cler street market just minutes after visiting a Moroccan Bazaar. With 3D SLA/L, cultural and language immersion could be at your fingertips.

So then why is (L2) Language Acquisition such an elusive concept when it comes to the Serious Gaming and Educational communities? What is missing? Why can’t even the most prestigious of IT corporations crack language learning in a virtual environment? In short… it is because we overthink one of the most basic human functions… communication. At the primordial level, we need to pass on information, so why are we so scared or nervous when we have to do it in a language we do not understand? The answer? Culture shock. Plain and simple. We become inundated with the unknown and place basic communication on an unreachable pedestal, so much that trying to communicate in a foreign land causes a sort of psychological spotlight terror phenomenon wherein we freeze like deer in front of headlights. Why does this happen?

This happens because we look at foreign language as delicate, intangible artistic functions and not a primal form of survival. But, at CVP, we have found a way to combine (L2) pragmatics within a 3D Virtual Learning Environment. While others continue to search out what they believe is the mythical language learning unicorn, at CVP we have created an SLA/L paradigm approach as an “Isolated Community”, or rather Iso-Comm. Instead of overthinking a basic human function, such as language learning and simple communication, we simply provide a virtual platform wherein SLA/L is given active purpose and intentional design. In our Iso-comms, participants are given roles and responsibilities as a means to make (L2) SLA active rather than passive, and it is done in a way that focuses on using survival communications as the medium to transmit knowledge and information about a particular skill, which then forces the participants to acquire the language rather than learn it. Through this initial SLA process, we are also able to achieve basic SLL fundamentals as well.

Simultaneous SLA and SLL? How does our design even work? It’s is a simple concept…

Our task-based objectives give purpose to learning, and our external stimuli make the learning intentional and real. Meaning, we replicate life as it pertains to acquiring a language inside its country of origin/use. Whether in synchronous virtual scenarios with an instructor or an asynchronous environment wherein students interact with NPCs…. our platform provides real, authentic cultural and language acquisition through immersive assimilation. This makes the language and cultural come alive. It this SLA technique that allows participants to experience a foreign country as it exists rather than how it may be perceived inside a classroom.

As for the simultaneous SLL portion of our SLA approach, we have designed an andragogical aspect that allows for the introduction of simple SLL pragmatics, and then becomes more complex as the participants progress through their training. In the simplest terms, we correlate SLA principles to specific participant needs. Once a participant has reached a certain level of survival (L2) language skills, we begin to introduce basic SLL functions as part of the participants’ paradigm of “needs”, and then add more complex SLL pragmatics as the participants gain more functional fluency. In essence… we create an immersive environment wherein external stimuli are introduced through VR/AR modalities in order to force immediate SLA needs. As a participant progresses and begins to acquire basic survival communication skills (SLA), we begin to introduce basic SLL pragmatics so that the participant begins to understand the abstract “nuts and bolts” of how the language functions from the aspect of a native speaker. Throughout the process, the participant gains/refines skills using the language itself. In a nutshell, think about being a native speaker of English that is learning woodworking, but your teacher only speaks Arabic. As you work with your teacher to learn about woodworking techniques, you begin to learn Arabic in the process. At first, it will be a very simple and rudimentary form of Arabic, but over time you will be able to hold a basic conversation. Once you can understand your teacher, he begins to help refine your Arabic speaking skills by exposing you to the functional pragmatics of the language itself and “how to talk” more like a native speaker. With enough exposure, you would be able to hold abstract conversations about woodworking.

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