21st Century Virtual Language Learning Environments (VLLEs)

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  • Language and Linguistics Compass 8/8 (2014): 330343, 10.1111/lnc3.1208921st Century Virtual Language Learning Environments (VLLEs)

    Aurore Mroz*Department of French & Italian, Colby College

    AbstractLearning a foreign language (L2) has never been more efficiently done than through immersion in thetarget culture. By comparison, learning in a traditional classroom has proven to lead only to limitedproficiency. But traveling to the target country is still inaccessible for many L2 learners. Investing inthe tremendous array of technologies that have emerged since the beginning of the 21st century couldbring us one step closer. This essay overviews the body of research on Virtual Language LearningEnvironments (VLLEs), considered as promising venues to approximate the type of naturalisticlearning that happens in real-life immersion. Drawing on research in Computer-Assisted LanguageLearning (CALL) and Second Language Acquisition (SLA) theories, this paper intends to provide aclearer picture of what virtuality entails for the L2 learning process, and to offer research-basedsuggestions on what to look for to integrate VLLEs in the L2 curriculum.


    Immersion in the foreign language environment provides maximum exposure to the communicativeuse of the target language, and can give the opportunity for maximum meaningful use of the foreignlanguage by learners (). Since real travel is difficult, expensive, and impractical, perhaps it is notsurprising if both learners and teachers are interested in virtual travel. (Milton et al. 2012 99)

    Despite considerable progress made in the way foreign languages (L2) are taught, it is nosecret that the four walls of the classroom have been constraining our students in theiracquisition process, leading to limited learning outcomes when compared to the gains thatoccur in full immersion. But as Milton et al. (2012) pointed out, traveling to the targetcountry is still an inaccessible solution for many L2 learners. If we cannot bring our studentsto Paris, then our duty is to try to bring Paris to them. Investing in the tremendous array oftechnologies that have emerged since the beginning of the 21st century could bring us onestep closer. Among them, virtual language learning environments (VLLEs) have considerablyattracted researchers attention and seem to offer very promising venues to approximate thetype of naturalistic learning that happens in real-life immersion.This paper aims at providing a survey of 21st century literature on VLLEs. It offers an

    accessible point of entry into the main theories and debates at stake in research on computer-assisted language learning (CALL) and second language acquisition (SLA), and highlights themost important findings in these fields. It also intends to provide a clearer picture of whatvirtuality entails for the L2 learning process, and to offer research-based suggestions on whatshould guide the selection of VLLEs and their integration in the L2 curriculum.

    Overview of 21st Century CALL Research and SLA Theories

    21st century literature on computer-assisted language learning (CALL) is a good entry pointto approach the study of VLLEs, since its purpose has been to evaluate the extent to whichmultimedia environments can play a role in the L2 learning process (Cornillie, Thorne, and 2014 The AuthorLanguage and Linguistics Compass 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd

  • 21st Century Virtual Language Learning Environments (VLLEs) 331Desmet 2012). Five national and international research journals1, well known for their focus onCALL, were thus selected to conduct an exploratory survey (based on the keywords virtualenvironment and virtual learning environment) intended to portray the general state of thisfield of research. This survey revealed the multidirectionality of research on VLLEs, and thedifficulty for the field of CALL to agree on a definition of this construct. (Figure 1)As can be seen, virtual learning environments (VLEs) used for language-learning purposes

    (VLLEs) have caught a significant portion of researchers attention, with no less than 102articles published on the subject since 2000 in the five selected research journals alone.The steady increase in the number of yearly publications also indicates the growing interestof CALL researchers in the subject. However, a closer examination of the type oftechnologies included in these studies reveals at the same time the breadth and richness ofthe field, while also indicating a possible lack of agreement on what makes language learningenvironments virtual (see Peterson 2010b). Whether referring to three-dimensional multi-user virtual environments (3D-MUVEs, such as Second Life or Active Worlds; see Winghamand Chanier 2013), commercial video games (e.g., World of Warcraft; see Zheng, Newgardenand Young 2012), multi-user object oriented platforms (MOOs, e.g., LambdaMOO; seePeterson 2001), course management systems (e.g., WebCT; see Berns, Gonzalez-Pardo andCamacho 2013; Polisca 2006), social networks (e.g., Facebook; see Mills 2011), or a varietyof other tools (such as chat-rooms or wikis; see Roed 2003), the umbrella term virtual learn-ing environment has thus been used synonymously to refer to a broad range of distincttechnologies.What they have in common is the possibility they offer to extend L2 learning beyond the

    physical limits of the traditional classroom. Thanks to their interactive nature, thesetechnologies constitute online cyberspaces offering great potential for the exposure of L2learners to more accessible and enhanced forms of the target language or the target culture.However, as we will see next, more differences than commonalities separate these diverseFig 1. Distribution of publications on VLLEs in five journals.

    2014 The Author Language and Linguistics Compass 8/8 (2014): 330343, 10.1111/lnc3.12089Language and Linguistics Compass 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd

  • 332 Aurore Mrozforms of technology and their potential impact on the L2 learning process, thus making thedefinition of VLLEs a complex and problematic one. Within the array of research publishedin the 21st century, 2008 seems to mark a turning point in research, with a more unifiedtrend of studies increasingly concentrating on two forms of technology: commercial videogames and 3D-MUVEs. The pre- and post-2008 trends in research on VLLEs can beprimarily accounted for by researchers trying to keep up with a fast-paced andmultidirectional advance in technology to document their impact on the L2 learning process,since the language itself, the ways students learn, and the goals of our students are changingwith the technology (Levy 2000 185).Let us now briefly consider these trends of research in light of 21st century technological

    innovations. However, let us also keep in mind that these different phases did not happen inisolation but actually influenced each other considerably and overlapped to a great extent. Theircompartmentalization is thus only intended to highlight major evolutionary trends that led todifferent conceptions of virtuality for L2 learning (Figure 2). We will now expand on Figure 2.


    Prior to the mass availability of the internet and mobile devices, technology-basedinteractions were first and foremost conceived as systems of pre-programmed responses froma machine to a user. Aligning with a psycholinguistic model of SLA interested in howlanguage learners process, store, and retrieve information from memory and howcognitive capacity impacts acquisition (Thorne and Smith 2011 269), this conception ofFig 2. 21st century advance in technology and impact on SLA theories, CALL research, and virtuality adapted fromMeskill, Guan and Ryu 2012.

    2014 The Author Language and Linguistics Compass 8/8 (2014): 330343, 10.1111/lnc3.12089Language and Linguistics Compass 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd

  • 21st Century Virtual Language Learning Environments (VLLEs) 333computer-based interactions materialized in Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL)projects. They primarily consisted of tutoring programs, with drill-like activities intended tolead L2 learners to greater accuracy in and retention of the prescribed forms of the targetlanguage (Deutschmann and Panichi 2009 310). At this time, virtuality was conceived asthe ability to interact with an artificial form of intelligence in the L2.


    The subsequent wide-spread access to cell phones and the internet freed communicationfrom some of its physical constraints and led to an unprecedented and exponential growthin one-on-one communication. The hope to reach out to the L2 native speakers that thesenew technologies afforded went hand in hand with the development of interactionist SLAtheories that emphasized the importance of increased exposure to and production of theauthentic L2 (Thorne and Smith 2011 269). Influenced by these theories, Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) projects were developed to contribute to a morecommunicative approach to L2 learning (Deutschmann and Panichi 2009 310). Emails andchat-rooms became the primordial CMC tools that needed to be integrated in the L2classroom for the promotion of authentic communicative competence. A brand new formof language also arose with text-based technologies, notably recognizable by phonologically-based abbreviations and a re-appropriation of typographical signs (emoticons) intended tocompensate graphically for the lack of nonverbal cues. Of particular interest for L2 learning,this neography (Anis 2007), combined with the real-time nature of CMC, contributed toblur the lines between writing and speaking. With cell phones and the internet, virtualityfor L2 learning thus came to be defined as the technical ability to handle authentic yet remotecommunication with L2 native speakers, synchronously or asynchronously, in a text-basedformat where writing and speaking tend to overlap.


    The emergence of social networking in 2006 (with Facebook and Twitter) reshaped our notionof communication, from a one-on-one pattern to a community-based one that is socially andculturally driven and speaks to the representation of ones identity. Communicating nowmeant sharing information within or beyond a group of a select few (or many)interconnected by n levels of separation. Moreover, the text-based neography born withtext-messages and chats (Anis 2007) expanded into co-constructed multimodal forms ofmeaning (via texts, images, videos, audio, hyperlinks, geolocation, sharing functionalities,symbolic statements of preferences and opinions, etc.). The resulting willingness to shareand collaborate with ones own community, across languages and cultures, and tomanufacture ones own online identity, found an echo in sociocultural SLA theories thathighlight the culturally organized and goal-directed nature of human behavior and theimportance of external social practices in the formation of individual cognition (Thorneand Smith 2011 269). The concrete application of these new theories materialized in thedevelopment of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL) projects. Theseprimarily relied on the integration of course management systems (Blackboard, WebCT,Moodle) intended to replicate some of the main features of social networks while being bettersuited for teaching and learning purposes (Deutschmann and Panichi 2009 310). Thisintegration of course management systems in the L2 classroom led to its progressivehybridization (Scida and Saury 2006), that is, to an augmented L2 learning environment mixingthe richness of the face-to-face traditional classroom with students ability to function inan electronic environment inside and outside the classroom (Sauers and Walker 2004 432). 2014 The Author Language and Linguistics Compass 8/8 (2014): 330343, 10.1111/lnc3.12089Language and Linguistics Compass 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd

  • 334 Aurore MrozCSCL projects also provided L2 researchers with new constructs to examine, such as the type ofco-constructed discourse and meaning produced by L2 learners in these newmedia.With socialnetworking, virtuality thus came to be defined as the technical hybridization of the L2classroom so as to make L2 learning culturally-anchored, socially-driven, community-based,and with multimodal interactions creative of co-constructed meaning and identity.


    Although most 3-D immersive environments were created in the early 2000s, they onlystarted catching CALL researchers attention in the mid-2000s, and publications only startedrising around 2008. 3-D immersive environments emerged from the field of video games andencountered a spectacular growth with their transfer from the isolated single-gamers consoleto online platforms such as Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games(MMORPGs, such as World of Warcraft; see Peterson 2012). Parallel to these, other non-gaming 3-D online platforms emerged (3-D MUVEs, such as Second Life). The potentiallearning benefits of the immersive and participatory nature of these 3-D environments hasbeen mainly supported by ecological SLA theories, whereby L2 learning is conceived as aholistic process and language as a semiotic activity is an emergent process of meaning-making based on relations among signs, the self, the other, and the environment (van Lierqtd. in Liou 2012 366). Borrowing from theories in the field of gaming (Reinhardt and Sykes2011), researchers have hypothesized that the complex interconnectedness of three specificaspects of 3-D immersive environments could have a promising impact on L2 learning:

    the 3-D representation and persistence of both space and the users (via personas calledavatars),

    the capacity for the user to control, manipulate, and modify the actual environment (calledagency), and

    the availability of a wide range of multimodal communicative tools (text-based chat, instantmessaging, audio-chat, nonverbal communicative features)

    In this sense, virtuality has come to be redefined as the holistic and complex immersivenessafforded by 3-D environments to the L2 learning process (Zheng, Newgarden, and Young2012), as well as the agency afforded to the L2 learner. The combination of immersivenessand agency was found to so closely approximate naturalistic L2 learning that

    only being immersed directly in the target culture could surpass this virtual immersion into anenvironment in which a student actually performs the sociolinguistic functions they would berequired to perform in the target culture (Sweeney et al. 2011 270).

    We will further discuss the advance in research on 3-D immersive environments, but wecan see for now how the concept of virtuality for L2 learning has been evolving in the21st century, gravitating since 2008 around the importance of 3-D immersiveness anduser-learners agency, so as to approximate, as closely as possible, the type of optimal L2learning encountered in naturalistic immersion in the target culture

    L2 Learning Afforded by 3-D Immersive Environments

    Informed by 21st century literature in CALL, we currently consider that VLLEs are primarily3-D immersive environments that constitute very promising, complex, holistic, and dynamicecologies for the L2 learning process. Moreover, the intricacy and interconnectedness oftheir various components make them appealing objects of exploratory research 2014 The Author Language and Linguistics Compass 8/8 (2014): 330343, 10.1111/lnc3.12089Language and Linguistics Compass 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd

  • 21st Century Virtual Language Learning Environments (VLLEs) 335(Deutschmann, Panichi, and Molka-Danielsen 2009; Liou 2012). Indeed, earlier researchtried to hypothesize the sort of L2 learning events that could be afforded by the differentcomponents of 3-D immersive environments (thus called affordances) (Tobias et al. 2011).In this pool of exploratory studies, the discovery of affordances in one environment (forinstance, the narrative foundation of most video games) has tended to inform the explorationof other kinds of environments (for instance, 3-D MUVEs do not inherently feature astoryline, but afford the possibility for designers to create one). The mapping of affordancesand their subsequent confirmation with experimental research has gravitated around four keyaspects: (1) the 3-D representation and immersiveness of an interactive space, (2) the avatar-based representation of users, (3) the social nature of the platforms, and (4) the multimodalchannels of communication.


    The fact that 3-D immersive environments rely primarily on a fully represented space inwhich users are embedded has led researchers to hypothesize that these environments couldsupport L2 experiential and situated learning. The sensorial input provided by theseenvironments (visual, auditory) has been shown to be perceived by L2 user-learners ascreating a vivid and meaningful context serving not as a backdrop, but rather as a frame ofreference within which L2 learning could be situated (Ho, Rappa, and Chee 2009;Mroz 2012; Piirainen-Marsh and Tainio 2009). This spatial frame of reference also translatesinto fictional immersion, that is, an augmented feeling of first-hand experience andsuspension of disbelief2 (Mroz 2012; Schwienhorst, 2002), allowing the persistence of thecontext necessary for situated learning that is usually hard to sustain in a traditional classroom(Sweeney et al. 2011). Moreover, the possibility for users to not only interact but alsomodify the actual space has been praised for its potential to support task-based learning andlearning-by-doing (Cornillie, Thorne, and Desmet 2012; Zheng, Newgarden, and Young2012). It has also been found to positively impact the user-learners motivation byintroducing readily visible and rewarding forms of agency that are typically not present intraditional L2 classrooms (Zheng, Newgarden, and Young 2012).


    The 3-D representation of users via avatars is also considered to be critical in supportingthe L2 learning process. As L2 learners in a conventional classroom are known to displayinhibition when exposing their imperfect command of the L2, researchers have hypothesizedthat this mediated representation of the self could greatly impact the L2 learners affect. Thishas been confirmed by showing that this 3-D alter-ego serves as a sort of mask which grantsL2 learners anonymity (Jauregi et al. 2011; Mroz 2012), which, in turn, lowers their anxietyto perform in the L2, and considerably increases their participation in and production of thetarget language (Milton et al. 2012; Whener, Gump, and Downey 2011). It has thereforebeen established that by using an avatar, L2 user-learners have an opportunity to detachthemselves from the restrictions of their own personality (that are irrevocable in thetraditional L2 classroom) and can feel more confident to take risks and experiment with theL2 or in the L2 (Liang 2012; Mroz 2012; Schwienhorst 2009; Whener, Gump, and Downey2011). Reported examples of such risk-taking include episodes where students voiced andarticulated their opinion, and engaged in reflection (Diehl and Prins 2008) or in languageplay (Liang 2012). Another avatar-related aspect that impacts L2 learners affect relates tosociolinguistic cues. Peterson (2006) has demonstrated that despite the possibility for avatarsto display nonverbal cues (crying, whispering, pointing, etc.), their limited range leads to a 2014 The Author Language and Linguistics Compass 8/8 (2014): 330343, 10.1111/lnc3.12089Language and Linguistics Compass 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd

  • 336 Aurore Mroznecessary reduction in the sociolinguistic loads that usually constrain face-to-face interactions,which in turn contributes to reduce L2 learners inhibition. However, sociolinguistic cuesdo not fully disappear but are graphically compensated for, via the use of typographic symbols(Peterson 2010a).


    The spatial frame of reference provided by the 3-D representation of space, shared by all usersrepresented by their avatars, and combined with user agency, also leads to a perceived form ofembodied space (Ho, Rappa, and Chee 2009; Sweeney et al. 2011). This embodiment of thespace translates into an increased sense of unmediated interpersonal relationship, where thecomputer disappears from the mind of the user (Kendrick qtd. in Schwienhorst, 2002 222)and leaves a sensation of being there together (called co-presence) (Deutschmann and Panichi2009). As Morton and Jack (2005) have pointed out,

    the assumption is that if users experience such a sense of presence in a virtual environment they willcome to behave in the virtual environment in a way that is similar to the way they would behave ina similar environment in the real world (173).

    This support for interpersonal relationships and socially-based interactions has been shownto foster collaborative learning and cooperative learning that are known to be particularlycritical for L2 learning3. More than in a traditional L2 classroom, collaborative learning in3-D immersive worlds can be enhanced by removing some physical constraints (for instance,the size of the room) and offering an almost limitless space for group-work experimentation(Jauregi et al. 2011; Sweeney at al. 2011). Finally, naturalistic social interactions within theauthentic L2 are also fostered since 3-D immersive worlds grant access to diverse,multicultural, multilingual groups of interlocutors that are not found in many conventionallanguage classrooms (Peterson 2011).


    3-D immersive environments are also promising for L2 learning by providing multimodalforms of communication (texts, audio, video, pictures, symbols, nonverbal). At the scale ofthe avatar alone, Wigham and Chanier (2013) have depicted the array of verbal andnonverbal communicative channels that are afforded to users in Second Life (Figure 3).These multimodal channels are known to be particularly critical for the development of all

    four skills (reading, writing, listening, speaking) and lead to considerable L2 communicativegrowth (Canto, Jauregi, and can den Bergh 2013; Milton et al. 2012), as well as enhancedmanagement of ambiguity, misunderstanding, or miscommunication in the L2 (Wighamand Chanier 2013). The choice provided to the user whether to utilize text-based oraudio-based communication also proves to foster autonomy in the L2 learning process(Milton et al. 2012; Schwienhorst 2009). Finally, the frame of reference provided by the 3-Drepresentation of space and users creates contextually-triggered forms of communication inthe L2, more closely resembling the kind of spontaneous and unpredictable communicativeevents found in naturalistic conditions (Milton et al. 2012).

    Choosing the Optimal VLLE for the L2 Classroom

    Although 3-D immersive environments feature promising affordances for the L2 learningprocess, a distinction needs to be made between commercial online video games and 3-DMUVEs to further establish which kind of VLLE can more optimally support language 2014 The Author Language and Linguistics Compass 8/8 (2014): 330343, 10.1111/lnc3.12089Language and Linguistics Compass 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd

  • Fig 3. Avatars verbal and nonverbal communicative channels (adapted from Wigham and Chanier 2013, andYoshioka 2005.)

    21st Century Virtual Language Learning Environments (VLLEs) 337learning. Research has gravitated around three criteria of importance: (1) the L2 user-learners primary goal in accessing the platform (Diehl and Prins 2008; Thorne, Black, andSykes 2009), (2) the nature of the language and culture being accessed and produced bythe user-learner (Mroz 2012; Sylven and Sundqvist 2012; Thorne, Fisher, and Lu 2012;Wingham and Chanier 2013), and (3) the way the use of the platform can realistically fit intothe L2 curriculum (Ho, Rappa, and Chee 2009; Liang 2012; Mroz 2012; Zheng,Newgarden, and Young 2012).PRIMARY GOAL OF THE L2 USER-LEARNER

    When comparing commercial video games and 3-D MUVEs for the purpose of L2 learning,it is first imperative to ask what the driving force behind the L2 user-learners access to theplatform is. Commercial video games are primarily purchased voluntarily and considered aform of leisure pursued by individuals on their own free time, outside of the classroom. Theyare designed to be first and foremost entertaining and goal-oriented, that is, users satisfactionderives directly from achieving different goals necessary to win the game (Thorne, Black, andSykes 2009). The driving force behind the users access to the platform is thus to play (andpossibly win) the game. In this process, L2 learning can happen incidentally, as a consequenceof gaming while attending to the different collaborative tasks necessary for winning (referredto as co-questing) with L2 native speakers. The primacy of playing over learning can be a 2014 The Author Language and Linguistics Compass 8/8 (2014): 330343, 10.1111/lnc3.12089Language and Linguistics Compass 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd

  • 338 Aurore Mrozconsiderable source of motivation for the L2 user-learner and guarantee the sort of genuineengagement that is known to be particularly beneficial for L2 learning (Kronenberg 2012Section 1). However, it can also constitute a real source of impediment since playing goalsare not designed to be congruent with L2 learning goals (winning does not equal learning),and the predominance of a storyline makes it virtually impossible to overlay L2 learningobjectives onto video-game interactions (Cornillie, Thorne, and Desmet 2012 250).3-D MUVEs, on the other hand, have no inherent story line or goals. In fact, although

    they look like video games, their lack of any pre-existing playing goals lead many toconclude that [they are] not game[s] at all (Diehl and Prins 2008 101). The driving forcebehind the autonomous L2 user-learners connection thus revolves around three types ofactivities: exploratory (visiting and interacting with the array of virtual worlds), social(interacting with other residents), and creative (expanding creations in the virtualenvironment). However, considering the immensity of most 3-D MUVEs, their use inthe wild (Clark et al. 2011) can result in considerable engagement with a wide range ofdistractors that have little to no application for the L2 learning process (customization ofthe avatar, aimless roaming, difficulty to find pockets of L2 native speakers) and impedethe chances of engagement in L2 learning (Jauregi et al. 2011; Milton et al. 2012). Thus,the condition for a beneficial use of 3-D MUVEs for L2 learning is that specific L2 tasksand directions be provided to the L2 user-learner which require learners and native speakersto interact and where a condition of success in the task is the meaningful use of language(Milton et al. 2012 101). In other words, the exploratory, social, and creative forces behindthe L2 user-learners connection to the environment are not sufficient to promote L2learning (Wang, Burton and Falls 2012), but the intrinsic motivation and playfulness theytrigger can be fully harvested to serve L2 learning, provided they are framed and guidedby underlying L2 learning goals and tasks.NATURE OF L2 LANGUANGE AND CULTURE ACCESSED AND PRODUCED

    Another important characteristic that distinguishes commercial video games from 3-DMUVEs is the nature of the language and/or culture accessed or produced by theuser-learner. With regard to online commercial video games, Thorne, Fisher, and Lu(2012) have assessed the quality and complexity of the linguistic environment accessibleto L2 user-learners in World of Warcraft and have demonstrated the existence of asubstantial volume of highly complex input (in terms of readability, lexical sophistica-tion and diversity, and syntactic complexity), indicative of the positive impact of thisenvironment on the L2 learning process. Similarly, Sylven and Sundqvist (2012) havedemonstrated that gaming frequency correlates positively with vocabulary knowledgeand comprehension. However, concerns have also been expressed, notably regardingthe highly specific and thus considerably limited range of language content used in-world (mainly due to the lexical fields associated with the fantasy nature of manygames) and how little they can transfer to real-life situations (deHaan 2005). This pointis of particular significance for L2 learning since, although rich, meaningful, andpurposeful interactions are unquestionably afforded by commercial video games, theinherent limitations in the type of L2 vocabulary accessed and produced in-worldconsiderably outweigh the benefits of reported linguistic complexity. Finally, thefantasy nature of commercial video games also constitutes a drawback in the possibilityoffered to the L2 user-learner to access or produce elements from the target culture,since video games only rarely involve a focus on national cultures (Kronenberg2012 Section 3; see also Levy and OBrien 2007). 2014 The Author Language and Linguistics Compass 8/8 (2014): 330343, 10.1111/lnc3.12089Language and Linguistics Compass 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd

  • 21st Century Virtual Language Learning Environments (VLLEs) 339By comparison, roaming through a 3-DMUVE with enough in-world guidance can lead L2user-learners to discover multiple life-like representations of the L2 culture (e.g., A day in Paris19004 in Second Life; see also Zheng, Wagner, Young and Brewer 2009). Moreover, because3-D MUVEs are a sort of new frontier where users can become builders, L2 learners can alsocontribute to the creation and representation of the L2 culture, via research- and project-basedactivities making them buildersambassadors of the L2 culture in the L2 (as demonstrated bythe ARCHI21 experience, integrating L2 learning to the study of architecture) (Wigham andChanier 2013). This sort of culture-based input triggers real-life lexical fields and registers, andimpacts the quality of the nature and function of the language-content exchanged between na-tive speakers and L2 user-learners. Notable examples of augmented quality of the L2 producedinclude the development of higher-order thinking skills, such as intercultural literacy (Diehl andPrins 2008), critical thinking, and problem-solving (Mroz 2012), as well as argument-makingand reasoning (Ho, Rappa, and Chee 2009).L2 CURRICULAR FIT

    The most pressing question for L2 practitioners is how VLLEs can realistically fit into the L2curriculum. For this purpose, researchers have established that, when considering the adoptionof VLLEs for the classroom, pedagogical principles should come first and dictate the appropriateselection and integration of available technologies (Peterson 2011; Schwienhorst 2009).Supporting the adoption of video games for L2 learning purposes, some researchers have

    pointed out the need for a new L2 educational model, anchored in the promising affordancesof video games and intended to remedy the failure of the traditional L2 classroom (Zheng,Newgarden, and Young 2012 341). However, this integration remains, to date, problematic.First, because the genuine engagement triggered by video games originates from the fact that theyare leisure activities pursued outside of the classroom, the very idea of assigning the use of videogames defies what precisely makes them such powerful learning tools. Moreover, considering theoverarching importance of playing goals in video games, the implementation of pedagogically-driven L2 learning tasks, goals, and assessment is rendered almost impossible, and with it, anymonitoring of the L2 learning process (Liou 2012). Finally, it can reasonably be argued that videogames still suffer from a lack of credibility in the general population and that, although supportedby research (Kronenberg 2012), their integration in the L2 curriculum might raise considerablymore opposition than agreement among educators, parents, and students alike, not yet convincedthat they can be appropriate, relevant, and beneficial tools for L2 learning (Chik 2011).3-DMUVEs, however, are more likely to function like a classroom (Liang 2012). A compel-

    ling evidence of their educational fit can be found in the remarkable number of institutions thathave already invested in them5 and have transferred part of their L2 curriculum. Because 3-DMUVEs allow building anything from the ground up, they offer the possibility to tailor thelearning environment to the specific needs of a course. Research has recently focused on L2learning tasks in 3-D MUVEs. It has in fact established that many aspects of online video gamesshould serve as the basis for the design of these tasks (scenario-based, problem-based, goal-oriented,complex, collaborative tasks) while also providing the kind of scaffolding tools for learning that aremissing in video games (Ho, Rappa, and Chee, 2009; Morton and Jack 2005; Mroz 2012).However, research has also possibly shown an excess of enthusiasm for 3-D MUVEs,

    which should not lead us to ignore that the following four issues can impede the efficientintegration of virtual worlds in the L2 classroom: technical requirements, cost, security,and the steep learning curve involved in using the interface (Cook-Plagwitz 2008) (Figure 4).It is our contention that, when selecting to implement a 3-D MUVE in the L2

    curriculum, administrators and teachers should dedicate their budget to the acquisition of 2014 The Author Language and Linguistics Compass 8/8 (2014): 330343, 10.1111/lnc3.12089Language and Linguistics Compass 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd

  • Fig 4. Issues of importance in selecting and integrating 3-D MUVEs in the L2 classroom (adapted from Cook-Plagwitz 2008)

    340 Aurore Mrozstate-of-the-art hardware (computers with powerful processors and graphic cards), as well asfast and stable broadband internet connections, rather than to the subscription to a paying 3-D MUVE platform. We will also argue that the selection of platforms exclusively dedicatedto education and research (such as OS Grid), although limiting the pool of native speakers, isthe most appropriate solution to promote the sort of online security that is expected fromeducational institutions towards their students.VLLEs Past, Present, and Future

    As we discussed in this article, the recent past of VLLEs has been characterized by an increasein research publications, indicative of researchers growing interest in the subject. Studies onVLLEs in the 21st century have demonstrated a plural understanding of the concept ofvirtuality, influenced at the same time by a fast-paced and multidirectional advance intechnology, the evolution of SLA theories, and the development of diverse CALL projects.A growing consensus on the definition of VLLEs surfaced around 2008 among researchers,gravitating around the use of 3-D immersive environments for language-learning purposes. 2014 The Author Language and Linguistics Compass 8/8 (2014): 330343, 10.1111/lnc3.12089Language and Linguistics Compass 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd

  • 21st Century Virtual Language Learning Environments (VLLEs) 341At present, VLLEs are considered to comprise online commercial video games and non-gaming3-DMUVEs. The interconnectedness of their three most prominent features (3-D representationof space and users, increased user agency, and availability of a wide range of multimodalcommunicative tools) makes them very powerful immersive cyberspaces for L2 learning. Bysupporting low-anxiety, collaborative, meaningful, purposeful, and socially-driven communica-tion in the authentic L2, they have been found to promote some of the most critical aspects ofL2 learning, as well as to foster the development of higher-order functions in the language.The future of VLLEs seems to gravitate towards favoring the adoption of 3-D MUVEs

    over online commercial video games, as they are better suited for learning purposes. Morepromising still are recent integrative projects. For instance, SLOODLE (as a combinationof Second Life and Moodle) is an attempt at augmenting the potential of 3-D MUVEs withcourse management systems, to more efficiently monitor and guide the L2 learning process(Schwienhorst 2009). Other integrative projects of interest involve the development ofContent and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), as illustrated by the recent ARCHI21project (Wigham and Chanier 2013), to further promote the development ofmultidisciplinary skills in the L2. Finally, other encouraging aspects of 3-D MUVEs, suchas the possible replication of nonverbal communication found in real-life, are crucial areasof study for L2 teaching and learning, which should continue to drive research on VLLEs.This article aimed at providing an overview of 21st century literature on VLLEs so as to offer

    an accessible point of entry into the main theories and debates at stake in research and in edu-cation, and to highlight the most important findings in the field. By emphasizing the positiveimpact of 3-D MUVEs on L2 learning, this article also aimed at supporting the integration ofinnovative technology to enhance learning in the 21st century L2 classroom (ACTFL 2011),by considering that VLLEs are not just promising experimental research projects but concreteand legitimate learning environments that now deserve a place in the L2 curriculum. Althoughsome pragmatic issues of importance cannot be overlooked (technical requirements, cost, secu-rity, training), close collaboration between L2 researchers, practitioners, administrators, and ed-ucational technology specialists should be the key for the L2 classroom to lose its walls andprovide L2 learners with valid and efficient immersive experiences that have never so closelyapproximated real-life immersive learning in the target culture.

    Short Biography

    AuroreMroz is an Assistant Professor in the Department of French & Italian at Colby College. Herresearch interest in foreign language education, second language acquisition, and computer-assistedlanguage learning has been influenced by her prior work on distance and hybrid education withProject RELEVANCE at The University of Iowa. Her research has led to her work on theintegration of innovative forms of technology to promote the development of higher-orderthinking skills in a second language. Her teaching concentrates on the development of coursesand alternative assessment fit to meet the 21st century teaching and learning goals, such as criticalthinking, problem-solving, media literacy, or technology literacy in a second language.Notes

    * Correspondence address: Aurore Mroz, Department of French & Italian, Colby College, Waterville, USA. E-mail:apmroz@colby.edu

    1 ReCALL; CALICO Journal; Computer Assisted Language Learning; Educational Technology, Research &Development; Language, Learning & Technology 2014 The Author Language and Linguistics Compass 8/8 (2014): 330343, 10.1111/lnc3.12089Language and Linguistics Compass 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd

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