The Importance of Interactive Learning: 5 Cosmic Benefits of Language Labs

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re visiting NASA.

They show you some images of stars from another galaxy.

A galaxy that’s 2.5 million light-years away from the Milky Way.

Quick refresher if it’s been a while: That means its distance from our galaxy is the amount of distance light would travel during 2.5 million years. And light travels fast, so needless to say, that’s super far away.

Then, they tell you this other galaxy is in fact the closest large galaxy to the Milky Way, Andromeda, and can actually be seen from Earth without a telescope.

Oh yeah, and it has a massive black hole hidden at its core.

That would certainly grab any student’s attention, right?

So how can we keep students from spacing out during foreign language class?

For an out-of-this-world experience, bring your students into a language lab!

Once you see what they have to offer, everyone in the room will want a language lab in their school.

What Is a Language Lab?

A language laboratory is a facility—usually a room in a school/university—where students use technology to learn a new language. It’s said that the language lab was made possible by Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph in 1877, which allowed the recording and reproduction of sounds.

Today’s language labs have certainly come a long way from the “listen and repeat” schemes of the 1960s, and have become ground zero for hyper-multimedia language education. It used to be that hazy audio was channeled to language students donning individual headsets. Today, your class can enjoy authentic videos, engaging apps and innovative game formats—all at the click of a button.

For example, learners of yore certainly couldn’t imagine sitting in front of consoles that not only present crisp audio, but vividly clear videos featuring native speakers—as if they’re sitting outside a café in a foreign country, listening closely to conversations.

Learners of the past would also be really glad to see that these videos come with interactive transcripts, meaning every word in the conversation can be looked into closer for translation, pronunciation, usage and more.

Impossible? Not at all. As long as you have the computer, the language learning opportunities are limitless.

Think about it this way: A language lab is really a computer lab with a few tweaks to it. If a school already has a computer room, then it’s really just a small step away from integrating the language lab. It just has to load the software and apps needed for language learning and teaching. (A school doesn’t even need to install a full-blown lab. It can start the ball rolling with some material and build from there.)

For example, to use FluentU—an online immersion platform where students learn languages with real-world videos—you only need access to a computer or tablet with Internet. (iPhones and iPads work too, by the way!)

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

As you can see, technology has made it possible for top content providers to bring your students all the benefits that only a modern language laboratory can deliver.

Say, what benefits are we talking about here?

The Importance of Language Labs: 5 Stellar Benefits

1. Adds Sizzle to Language Learning

Stepping inside the language lab, students feel the heightened attention and expectation—which is difficult to create inside an ordinary classroom.

A modern language laboratory has innovative and interactive activities that can enrich your classes’ learning experience. Text, images, audio and video can easily be integrated into the activities.

Games take on a new meaning. Vocabulary words are presented at a student-directed pace. With their senses amply stimulated, stronger neural creations are created. In short, the lessons become more memorable.

A teacher who spends the whole night prepping for the next day’s lesson, squatting on the floor, gluing colorful cutouts of her visual materials, would be glad to know that technology is also on her side. Because in addition to the paper cutouts that her students absolutely adore, she can pack an even stronger punch by combining her handmade materials to the interactive activities provided by a language app, for example. Imagine the synergizing effect of having all these elements aligned.

It all boils down to a fuller, richer lesson.

Students get the best of both worlds. (What a treat!)  They’ll certainly count themselves blessed for having a teacher who has all the bases covered.

2. Creates a Perfect Balance of Individuality and Classroom Experience

It can be argued that with the advent of mobile phones and tablets, you could gain language lab benefits right from one’s room or while on the go—like while riding the train or waiting in line at Starbucks.

With excellent language learning apps, this is indeed possible.

But a language laboratory offers another layer of advantage: blending individuality and the shared experience of belonging to a class. As mentioned, students learn at different speeds, so each student’s idiosyncrasy has to be taken into account.

At the same time, there’s nothing like the camaraderie of being in a class, the feeling of “we’re all in this together”–sitting in your cubicle knowing that at that very moment, your friends are doing the same activities just a few feet away.

With a language lab, a shy student can work without the apprehension of negative judgment from peers. But there is still that sense of group experience since she’s still in the same room with her classmates.

3. Hones Listening and Speaking Skills

With a lot of class time devoted to reading and writing, two of the most taken-for-granted linguistic skills are listening and speaking.

Listening was often seen as an inherent and passive skill, which is why in the past, many would think it unnecessary to teach. But studies show that listening is crucial when it comes to acquiring a second language. In fact, without it, language acquisition would be terribly difficult.

Speaking was seen as a natural offshoot of teaching the language. In the past it was believed that as long as you teach vocabulary and grammar, speaking would naturally bubble to the surface. So speaking took a backseat. A study by the German Institute for International Educational Research discovered that in a 45-minute language class composed of 10 students, each student only speaks a total of one minute.

Imagine that. The students may have attended 20 class sessions, for example, but they’ve only really been using the target language for 20 minutes. So how can we expect them to reach fluency in a few months? (Note that this is a class of 10 students. A class of 30 would have even shorter speaking times: 21 seconds per student.)

A language lab can raise these numbers. The same study shows that speaking time can be raised to 11 minutes per student.

Why? Because in a language lab, everyone is talking at the same time. In an ordinary class, we tell students to keep quiet while someone is talking. In an oral exercise, for example, each student will have a chance to be on deck while others are quietly waiting their turn.

In a language lab, however, students are always listening, always talking, always practicing the target language. It’s an ultra-efficient use of time. In fact, we encourage students to talk away in the language lab.

Here’s the thing, you will notice productivity in action when you stand in front of a language lab and see students going about their lessons, busying with apps, playing language games, studying the videos, etc.

It’s really something. It’s a most fulfilling sight to see.

4. Enhances Teacher Monitoring

With improvements in technology, the teacher console (or laptop) can now follow the progress of each student, which makes it possible to deliver timely feedback and individualized instruction.

The language lab simplifies the recording and the documentation of the learning process. Nowhere is it possible to record practically everything that happens in class (and throughout the course) but in a language lab. From the number of hours logged to actual recordings of student pronunciations, the language lab can show both teacher and student the rich history of learning that has taken place. This can be used by both to improve learning outcomes.

For example, instead of manually checking assignments, you can just look at a particular student’s scores from the interactive games and recommend specific additional activities. By looking at feedback data, you can have a graphic of how the class is doing individually and as a group.

You can then decide what lessons need to be supported and emphasized via class discussion. And by reading between the lines, you can even be guided on what sort of approaches or activities students like and what particularly works for them.

In a language lab, you have an insider’s view into what is actually happening in your class—in real-time even—which is a far cry from a traditional class where you only know what’s up only after exams are over.

5. Encourages Out-of-class Action

And this is one of the great paradoxes of a modern language laboratory: that it is slowly blurring the definition of a language lab as a “room” in a school or university.

As mentioned, the language lab promotes independent learning. This modern idea of independent learning extends beyond the confines of a language laboratory. It used to be that for a student to review the lessons, he would have to beg the teacher to give him extra time and go into the language lab and play the analogue cassette tapes in the very room where they are stored.

Today, with the blessings of the web, lessons can be played whenever and wherever students are located. So even when they are outside class, the activities in the modern language lab can easily be integrated into the mobile devices of your students.

For example, FluentU’s authentic videos, a crucial component in a language laboratory, can be viewed by students with a simple downloading of the app or logging in from any Internet browser. You can assign videos, flashcard sets, audios and more to your classes on FluentU, so students can work on such assignments in or outside of class. (And no grading for you!)

A language teacher can really leverage technology to the benefit of her students. You can send them links to sites or information that you want them to check out. You can ask them to play language games even when class is out, so that when your students come together as a class, they come more prepared and more excited.

Cool, huh?

Those are just five of the many opportunities that a language lab brings, but you’ll easily notice how it’s a game changer–both for you and your students. With just a modest investment in equipment and software, you’ll be breaking the boundaries of space and time.

You’ll be teaching language in a way that supersedes those who’ve come before you. (Can you seriously imagine that?) At the same time, your students will be learning the language as if they had traveled to a foreign country and conversed with native speakers.

What more can you ask of a language lab?

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