English language labs are the hipsters of the digital classroom, bringing tech into ed before #edtech was even a thing.
So let’s go retro and check out an idea that’s stuck around for half a century: language labs.
Language labs were an idea ahead of their time, succeeding despite hardware glitches and technological limits. With today’s advanced technology, language labs are still finding their ways into classrooms, though in a slightly different form.
Which English language labs are right for your students? Let’s find out!
What Are Language Labs?
Language labs are audio and audio-visual systems that help students learn new languages through listening and speaking.
In their heyday, old-school language labs required hardware to be set up in classrooms. The teacher occupied one master console while students sat at booths with mics. The teacher fed students educational content through a cassette-based system (remember cassettes?) which the students could then listen and respond to at their own pace.
Once they were ready, student used mics to record their own content and send it back to the teacher, who could then check the students’ work as it came in.
Language labs were meant to be used in a classroom setting. Though they are mostly relics of the past, some institutions still use them today. However, today’s labs tend towards the digital and software side (although some still require additional hardware), with a couple of open source platforms available for anyone who wants to do some tinkering to repurpose for their own classrooms.
English Language Labs, Then and Now
These technological marvels date back to the 1950s (with some existing even earlier than that) when the idea that rote memorization and repetition were the best methods for learning new languages.
They remained popular through the 1990s even while more advanced technology and a shifting educational landscape rendered them nearly obsolete.
Somehow, they survived. The spirit of the language lab lives on and there are numerous modern options available for classrooms around the world—with a few tweaks and upgrades, of course. Many of today’s labs are hybrids that use a combination of software, specially designed sound cards and personal networks. Today’s labs are no longer solely audio-centric, as most also use some kind of video and flash content.
Why Use Language Labs to Teach English?
There is a good number of compelling reasons to give language labs a try:
- You can use them to give every student individual attention, even in a large group setting.
- Students can take their time and progress at the pace that’s comfortable for them.
- You get to hear every student’s voice. Even students who would normally be too shy or intimidated to speak up in front of a large class feel more at ease working with labs.
- A number of modern labs have excellent modern English and ESL learning content, and most allow you to add and adapt your own content as well.
- Somewhat ironically, what used to be the most boring part of a language class can now be a fresh and engaging change from the norm.
Now you are ready to explore the world of English language labs. Here is a collection of modern language labs and alternatives to give you a taste of what to expect.
9 Modern English Language Lab Options
Best for: Anyone! There is a huge selection of videos for any kind of English at any skill level.
Requirements: No need to download or install anything here—all you need is access to the FluentU website. From there, you can use materials online or download materials to go. However, if desired, you and your students can download the FluentU iPhone App (Android App coming very soon!).
You’ll find music videos, movie trailers, musical numbers from cinema and theater, kids’ singalongs, commercials, YouTube clips and much, much more.
FluentU exposes students to many different kinds of English voices and topics. Students can use the interactive subtitles to see every word spoken in a clip before and during the video clip, and they have immediate access to the words’ definitions, usages and pronunciations. The addition of video content turns the exercises into more engaging sessions and helps learners understand context better.
On FluentU, all the videos are sorted by skill level and are carefully annotated for students. Words come with example sentences and definitions. Students will be able to add them to their own vocabulary lists, and even see how the words are used in other videos.
For example, if a student taps on the word “brought,” they’ll see this:
There are also plenty of active learning tools for students, like multimedia flashcards and fun games like “fill in the blank.”
Learn mode lets you keep track of the progress that your individual students, and class as a whole, are making with each video and its unique set of vocabulary and grammar. FluentU will evaluate the assignments for you, making homework a breeze. Using the numbers FluentU gives you, you can identify student strengths and weaknesses and arrange to touch on these further in class and with the program.
To take FluentU one step further, you can add a mic and recorder into the mix for a good dose of speaking practice. Just choose a clip and have students try to match or shadow-read the sentences with the video. You can get a simple and free sound recorder here.
Best for: Adult learners; career-centric and professional English learning.
Despite the mild Engrish on the website, this is one of the better-known modern language labs out there. The K-Van Solutions language lab is a straightforward lab that sticks pretty close to the format and style of the original language lab systems (but ditches the cassettes, of course).
K-Van advertises pretty much everything you’d want to cover in an adult English learning class, from speech and idiom learning to resume writing and career development. K-Van’s lab also uses audio analysis to compare student and teacher sentence and word stress, as well as to correct pronunciation.
Best for: Classrooms; visual learners.
Another true blue language lab, ODLL focuses on collaborative learning. The lab features ways to pair off students, communicate to some or all the students at once and even host a regular classroom through the lab setting.
ODLL supports video streaming from digital sources (like YouTube) or analog sources (like a DVD). The program will also show learners a visual representation of their speech, which they can compare to the teacher’s version (allowing them to literally see what needs to be corrected).
4. Words Worth
Best for: Adult English learners in any size group; professional English learners; individual and supplemental learning.
Many language labs are meant to be used in K – 12 classrooms (though of course they can easily be repurposed for other ages). Words Worth, on the other hand, is specifically designed with adult English learners in mind. The program is divided into three levels, each with 70 to 80 hours of content to help build vocabulary, communication skills and professional level English.
Words Worth is an excellent choice if you prefer your language lab content to already be compiled and ready to use. The program uses lessons like listening comprehension and pronunciation practice to prepare students for using English in a professional setting.
Best for: On the go lessons, homework and other supplemental learning; visual learners.
Requirements: Software and/or mobile apps.
You will not need any special hardware for SANSSpace, which is designed to be accessed from practically any device. SANSSpace uses a combination of video and audio content, and lets users record their answers and thoughts. Teachers can then add specific comments and feedback during any part of the recording. This lab does not need a teacher’s constant presence, so it is perfect for homework or self-study outside of the classroom.
Best for: Younger learners who enjoy video games; visual learners; virtual classrooms.
Requirements: Free software, knowledge of coding, significant time to create and set up environment.
For the more tech-savvy teachers out there, there is OpenSim. This program allows you to create an entire virtual world where students from all over the world can meet using avatars. If you’re a fan of creative learning options and gamifying education, OpenSim is a perfect cross between a game and a conference.
There is plenty of documentation about how to use the program to teach English and how to build your own world, but a knowledge of some coding is a definite must if you plan to wade into this one.
Best for: Classrooms that run on Apple products.
Requirements: Macs and software.
Mac users rejoice—there is a language lab just for you.
DiLL uses Macs in place of installed hardware to deliver a fairly traditional language lab experience. All you need to run DiLL are networked Macs and teacher/student programs. This digital-only program uses a central server to save student work in real time and allows teachers to deliver content, pair students off, monitor the learning process and assist individual students.
Best for: Students studying for the TOEFL; individual or supplemental learning; learners of British English.
Sanako’s English language lab is specifically designed for ESL students and has TOEFL study content.
Sanako worked with Oxford University Press to design a system that does more than just encourage repetition. This lab has an advanced text-to-speech program which allows users to paste any block of text into the program and have it read out in an authentic British English accent. Teachers can curate playlists and assign them to students, who can then listen and record their answers for you to evaluate.
Best for: Virtual classrooms; supplementary and individual learning.
Requirements: Nothing—everything is hosted online and free.
The Repeat After Us website is a bit different from traditional language labs, but the idea is the same.
Designed by a high school student, the website is a compilation of recordings made by different people reading various texts. There’s no download necessary and anyone can browse the library for poetry readings, tongue twister recordings and much more. Keep in mind that some recordings are better than others, so check for quality before assigning students to work on a particular clip.
Used in conjunction with a mic and a recording program, Repeat After Us is an excellent resource for any teachers who are interested in trying language labs without needing to bother with software or hardware.
Language labs are alive and kicking, and may be right at home in your classroom.
Which lab option is the best for you?
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach English with real-world videos.