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The Importance of Informal Social Engagement in Language Immersion

QUICK FACTS:

Research has shown that:

  • how well someone learns a new language is connected to how they use the language to engage with other people socially.
  • using a new language for informal social interaction increases confidence and improves language skills.
  • VR language programs can promote language learning by creating opportunities for learners to interact socially on their platform.

Many people assume the best way to learn a language is in a classroom, but there is scientific evidence that just using the language to interact with other people naturally is the most effective way. Whether or not someone ultimately ends up learning a language seems to depend mostly on how motivated they are to use it for social interaction and how much opportunity they get to do so.

Informal Social Engagement

Language programs can take advantage of the power of social engagement to promote learning by providing a wide variety of opportunities for informal social interactions in the new language environment. Many people are nervous at the prospect of speaking in a new language, but informal social activities can provide a less intimidating atmosphere to practice talking and help learners get over their fear. Such activities include game or movie nights, conversation partner programs, day trips, and student lounges where students can hang out and talk.

Playing games together helps learners pick up repetitive phrases and turn-taking language while creating positive associations with the new language. In addition, it allows learners to develop their ability to use language for informal situations, giving them chances to learn slang and conversational phrases. Research has revealed a number of other benefits as well, including increased opportunities for speaking practice, learning of new vocabulary and reinforcement of grammar rules, and increased motivation to learn. Authentic, informal social interactions also provide the opportunity for learners to develop a sense of personal identity as speakers of the new language.

Informal Social Engagement Online

Does informal social engagement support language learning even when it takes place online? The evidence from both formal research and anecdotal reports suggests that the answer is yes. It has been discovered that learners can achieve a sense of community when they interact in online spaces such as social media platforms. Especially in VR spaces, the sense that participants are truly together in the same space can be quite powerful, and this can lead to the same benefits as in-person socializing. For example, students in VR classes have been observed engaging in spontaneous social interactions after class just like students in a physical classroom. In fact, it has been pointed out that the ability to interact with other people online is a motivation for language learning in and of itself.

Because they create the sense that online learners are truly together in the same space, VR language learning programs are particularly suitable environments for informal social opportunities. In fact, early research shows that engaging socially in VR promotes language learning in a couple of ways. Yu-Ju Lan (2020) points out that the key features of VR – creation, immersion, and interaction – lend themselves to the exact types of activity that foster successful language learning. In addition, many learners feel less insecure in VR, where they can interact with others naturally while still maintaining a degree of privacy by using an avatar. This has a positive impact on learner motivation, participation, and satisfaction, which in turn have a positive impact on language proficiency.

Considerations for Creating a Social Space in VR

When creating opportunities for informal social engagement, VR language programs should keep a few considerations in mind:

Settings

  • There should be plentiful places to just hang out as in real life. When such spaces feel realistic and comfortable, conversations can evolve naturally and spontaneously.
  • Conversation partner meeting spots where pairs or small groups can gather for informal conversation at scheduled times can help shy or new learners get into conversations.
  • Virtual “recreation centers” can host more organized activities that take advantage of people’s innate tendency to socialize, such as seasonal celebrations, games, or storytelling events. Such structured activities have the added benefit of being accessible to even relatively low-level speakers who may not yet be able to engage in long, open-ended conversations.

Support

  • At the outset, it may be advantageous to have facilitators present to help everyone get comfortable in the new environment. It is important for facilitators to interact naturally to establish the space as an informal social setting rather than an extension of the classroom. Facilitators can also model expected behaviors and cultural norms in the setting.
  • The learning potential of informal social engagement should be explained, as language learners may not realize that unstructured, informal activities have substantial learning value.
  • Follow-up activities provide additional learning opportunities. When learners recount their experiences later in discussions, journaling activities, or other reflection exercises, they get a chance to review what they have learned and to ask questions about vocabulary or grammar they encountered during their social activities.

From research to practice:

The Social Lounge in the Immerse language immersion platform provides users with a variety of opportunities to hang out, have fun, and use language naturally outside of their instructor-led experiences. We have seen this immersive space become one of the most popular experiences in the Immerse platform because it has evolved from being a place of conversation to a place of community. This is all part of Immerse’s mission to help learners increase fluency through immersion in language and culture - the most effective way to learn!

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