Why Interaction Matters in VR Language Learning

The effect of interaction on language learning

[This is a summary of a two-part blog post written by Nergiz Kern in 2021.]

Interaction of all sorts is pervasive in the physical world, perhaps even central to our existence. We interact with other people, with other living beings, with objects, with information – we can even say that we interact with our (and other people’s) thoughts and ideas. If we want virtual reality to be as real an experience and place as possible, a logical conclusion is that interaction should play an important role in virtual reality as well. Interaction in VR can take place between the learner and the system, between several learners (and the teacher), and between learners and virtual objects.

Interaction experienced in virtual reality

Whether we use VR for socializing, gaming, simulations, role-playing, teaching or learning, the latest technology translates our physical interactions into interactions in the virtual realm – thus linking our physical bodies with our virtual representation or avatar and the virtual environment, so that we feel 'embodied' in the virtual environment.

The stronger this link is, the more do we feel immersed in the place and the experience, which gives us a feeling of being 'present' – being in that place, in that moment, and experiencing what is happening in the virtual world as real as in the physical world, which is why we react with real emotions to whatever happens in the virtual world.

This is why learning experiences in virtual reality can be so effective – we remember experiences much better than any knowledge learned from books or lectures. It has long been established that immersion in the target language and so situated, active, and experiential learning is powerful for language learning. This is why virtual reality is so suited to language learning.

Here are some types of interaction in a virtual world related to language learning and teaching that we take advantage of in the Immerse platform:

  • multimodal social interactions between participants via verbal and non-verbal modes (such as gestures, movement, proxemics) that are mediated by the environment and its communication channels;
  • avatar interactions with the virtual environment that allow for the learner not only to interact through the environment but also to become part of that environment and interact with its spatial elements;
  • interactions with linguistic and cultural content mediated by the target language, the other participants, as well as the learning design and the virtual environment and its tools.

How much interaction is good for language learning? 

Clearly interaction is important, but is all interaction good? What type of interactions are conducive to language learning? When or where should they happen? How much of it? If interaction is so powerful, is the rule 'the more the better?

Let's investigate.

The figure below shows how each component contributes to the overall immersive learning experience.

(Source: Cai, Tay and Ngo, 2013, p. 10, Fig. 1.11 3D Immersive and Interactive Learning Environments)

One could easily conclude that the more interactive an environment is, the better the learning outcome. Several studies examined by Legault et al. (2019) indeed support this idea. However, too much interactivity can lead to cognitive overload, particularly if it isn’t relevant to the learning task and become a source of distraction.

'For language learners this may be further compounded, as language processing is added to the already lengthy list of factors that use mental resources' (Frazier et al., 2021, p. 132).

Similarly, a virtual environment in which a group of learners can be together and interact with each other can enhance language learning because they can use language to communicate and collaborate with each other. However the unpredictability of person-to-person interactions can also lead to cognitive load.

So, a balance needs to be struck between the level of interactivity and immersiveness on the one hand, and cognitive load on the other. This is very difficult to do. An engineer cannot do this alone, nor can an educator build this type of balanced immersive learning experience alone. That is why Immerse has a full-time team of expert educators and researchers on one side, and an in-house team of 3D engineers on the other who work collaboratively to build language immersion experiences that strike the balance between interactive without causing too much cognitive overload. This balance is managed heavily by our Guides who facilitate all VR language classes in the Immerse platform to ensure each and every learner has the most impactful learning experience possible.


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