Revitalizing the Language Laboratory

by Helen Huntley, West Virginia University


In the current climate of communicative language learning, the ability of the traditional language laboratory to enhance language instruction and to provide opportunities for meaningful communicative activities has been called into question. Many existing labs are being underused because of the inadequacy of training for teachers and because of the lack of communicative materials available for use in a lab situation. Moreover, currently in language programs, language labs tend to be utilized for individual study and for homework assignments rather than for pair, group, and whole class activities. However, the language laboratory can be a valuable tool for both students and teachers, if training is provided to facilitate the use of the equipment and appropriate activities are developed to maximize on the lab's potential. With the increasing power and decreasing costs of computer-assisted language instruction, many language labs are eager to acquire such equipment. Yet with a little creativity, a technology that predates the computer, and which has been readily available in language labs since the 1960s, namely, the audio-tape recorder, can be successfully used to support language acquisition. 

Language labs are not new in the repertoire of language learning tools, but since their heyday in the audio-lingual climate of the 1960s and 1970s there has been much rethinking of how the lab should be used in the communicative arena today. Many institutions still have the traditional lab in place, with separated student booths and a central control panel. Other institutions have modernized by adapting existing facilities or creating multimedia lab facilities. According to a survey by Judith Tanka, published in the TESOL Journal in 1993, 68% of 67 Intensive English Programs (IEPs) surveyed in the USA had access to language labs which ranged from state-of-the-art (43%) to outdated (18%). However, the different types of lab all had one thing in common - they were used primarily for listening to audio cassettes (91%). Respondents of the survey, however, indicated that the two most important improvements to the use of the lab for language teaching would be better training of instructors (32%) and a more communicative use of the lab (32%). This survey demonstrates, therefore, the wide use of language labs in IEPs and the current mismatch between their uses and the espoused communicative methodology of most IEPs in the U.S. today.  

In the communicative view of language described by Richards and Rodgers (1986), language is a system for the expression of meaning, its primary function being for interaction and communication, and its structure reflecting its functional and communicative uses. Language learning activities which support this view of language are aimed at providing whole task practice using all skills in a natural context; such activities include information gap, jigsaw, role play, discussion, and problem solving activities (Littlewood, 1981). At first glance, the language lab may seem to be a more unnatural context than a regular classroom for these types of activities which require interaction between students in order for successful communication to occur. However, the lab can offer advantages for both students and teachers which can be superior to other language learning situations.  

For the students, the advantages lie in being able to speak and/or listen at their own pace, resulting in decreased anxiety and a greater willingness to take risks. By recording and listening to their own voice, they are also able to monitor their own performance, recognize their own strengths and weaknesses, and evaluate their own progress over time. An additional advantage in gaining familiarity with the language lab is the greater comfort with the growing field of language learning technology overall and the confidence in accessing materials independent of a classroom environment.  

For teachers, the advantages lie in the ability to individualize instruction according to the different learning styles and needs of the students. They are able to monitor and evaluate individual student performance, correct errors on an individual basis, and ensure that both shy and outspoken students participate on an equal basis. The lab also provides opportunities to enhance the quality of instruction by providing variety to stimulate student interest. From the institutional point of view, teachers who demonstrate the usefulness of the lab for learning languages are also likely to increase the chances of future funding for improvements in educational technology.  

The types of activities that can be used in the lab for communicative purposes are not focused on listening and repeating, as is generally the case in traditional lab activities. Listening with an oral response, however, may well be required to complete a task, solve a problem, or give an opinion. In general, any kind of activity may be modified for lab use providing that there is some kind of collaboration, response, or feedback from the teacher, a partner, a small group, or even the individual who monitors and evaluates his/her own performance. While it is certainly possible to perform quite complex operations with the technology available in most language labs, the following brief descriptions of activities have been designed for teachers who are more comfortable with basic lab operations. In many cases these activities involve no more than the standard lab tape recorder and a blank or prerecorded tape.  

1. Students record dialog journals to the teacher on tape. Dialog topics can be free choice or specified by the teacher and should not be previously prepared.  

2. Students each study one of a series of similar calendar or magazine pictures (pets, cars, landscapes etc.) and record a description of the material on their blank tape. Students listen to each others' tapes to identify the picture.  

3. Students build or make something based on taped instructions (origami, Lego, paper airplanes etc.)  

4. Students listen to a problem (personal, academic, societal, environmental etc.) on tape and then record a solution. Students then listen to each others' solutions.  

5. Students record directions to a place of their choosing on a map. Other students listen to the directions, trace the route on a map, and attempt to find the correct destination.  

6. Students record a schedule of their day/week/weekend, and other students listen and complete a chart.  

7. Groups of students record the weather forecast for different times of the year. Other students listen and complete a weather chart.  

8. Students record directions for locating various objects/words/numbers in a grid. Other students then listen to the tape and complete the grid.  

9. Students listen to a series of sentences about a process or narrative in random order. They must collaborate on reconstructing the correct order of sentences and then record the story/process in their own words.  

10. Students tell a chain story by starting a story with two or three sentences at one tape recorder, moving on to the next tape recorder to listen to the beginning of another student's story and adding several more sentences. When the process is completed, students can listen to and comment on the completed stories.    

References

Littlewood, W. (1981). Communicative language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Richards, J.C. and T.S. Rodgers. (1986). Approaches and methods in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tanka, J. (1993). Teaching listening in the language lab: One program's experience. "Results of a survey on the role of listening in the Intensive English Program curriculum." TESOL Journal, Autumn 1993. 15-17.

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Copyright 1998 by
Helen Huntley

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