Psychological Theories of Language Acquisition

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Interactivity in


Foreign Language Instruction

A Review of the Literature

Howard Rose



*All rights reserved by the author and Firsthand LLC, 1997

Table of Contents

Review Summary 1

Psychological Theories of Language Acquisition 1

A Profile of the Learner 3

Modes of Interaction 4

Interactivity in Education 9

Conclusion 11

Bibliography 12

Review Summary

This report reviews the literature regarding computer-based instruction in second language learning, and the various modes of interactivity currently available. It is not a review of existing computer-based instruction (CBI) products. Rather, it is an overview of the criticisms CBI faces in its current applications to foreign language learning, and a compilation of design suggestions based on sound pedagogy. This review does not include discussion of artificial intelligence.

Psychological Theories of Language Acquisition

Many existing language learning software is criticized as merely applying outdated pedagogical approaches such as behaviorist rote practice and drills. Behaviorist theories are characterized by the premise that language is essentially a stimulus response mechanism which can be acquired via memorization and drills. Accordingly, the speaker is considered to be merely the locus of verbal behavior and not the cause (Brown 1987, 9).

Grammatical approaches to teaching foreign language, typified by the audio-lingual method, are easy to adapt to a computer environment. This adaptation to the computer is perhaps too easy. “Programs that follow an explicit, direct teaching format, where patterns are learned and assumed to translate into the designated target behavior, very much in accord with teaching strategies that were in fashion twenty years ago.” (Knowles 1992, 58) “Language is, by definition, the interaction of rules governing the form, content and use of language [communication].” (Bloom and Lahey, 1978 cited in Dudley-Marling et al 1989, 42) The implication here is that reducing language to bite-sized bits and pieces removes it from its essential context. Thus the student may be successful at completing the lessons but unable to perform in real-life situations. Knowles and others suggest that computers are best used to generate or recreate real environments, rather than as drill and test machines.

Current theories of language learning are broader and more flexible than traditional behaviorism. Constructivist approaches such as whole language acquisition theory (Freeman and Freeman 1992). Freeman and Freeman assert that a natural, authentic, interactive, and experiential environment is a necessary precondition to language learning. Learning must be learner driven; the teacher is a guide or steward, rather than drill master or lecturer. While Freeman and Freeman do not deal specifically with technology, the use of interactive multimedia instruction is consistent with their theory, offering dynamic, self-paced, learner-driven learning environments. This brief look at the theory of language gives us a useful basis to evaluate the application of technology to language teaching. We understand that using language is a holistic endeavor, not a collection of grammatical rules and phonemes strung together by stimulus-response. Language operates in a speech community and has universal characteristics. (Brown 1987, 4). Cognitive theory suggests that language learning requires a contextual basis, relevance and a rich learning environment.

A Profile of the Learner

A number of articles referenced the qualities of good language learners as suggested by Rubin (1975) and Stern (1975), respectively.



• Willing and accurate guesser

• Strong dive to communicate

• Uninhibited

• Attends to form

• Practices-seeks out conversations

• Monitors own speech and the speech of others

• Attends to meaning

• A personal learning style or positive learning strategies

• An active approach to the learning task

• A tolerant and outgoing approach to the target language and empathy with its speakers

• Technical know-how about how to tackle a language

• Strategies of experimentation and planning...

• Constantly searching for meaning

• Willingness to practice

• Willingness to use the language in real communication

• Self-monitoring and critical sensitivity

• Developing the target language more and more as a separate reference system.

Taken from Brown 1987, 92

Brown (1987) also evaluates the success of various learning strategies to computer learning. A number of questions arise from these assertions:

- Can these “good learner” characteristics and learning strategies be taught?

- Can we create environments which stimulate positive characteristics and abilities?

- What applications of interactive technology would be most appropriate?

The design of feedback in computer-based instruction is crucial to the user’s success with the program. Dudley-Marling et al (1989) criticize the limited ability of computer-aided instruction to interact with the student. They propose that the computer is best applied in a setting where students interact amongst themselves and the teacher around the activity of using the technology. They cite a study by Clements and Nastasi (1985) which asserts: “software which rewards only ‘correct’ responses elicits talk only about correctness...” Therefore, designing CBI to stimulate and guide communication among students may offer a successful alternative to computerized instruction for individual users.

Modes of Interaction

How can we improve user interaction in language learning? Is there an optimum mode of human/computer interaction? The following are some criticisms of the existing software’s limited capabilities for meaningful interactivity:

Most existing commercial materials are simple transposition of practice materials found on paper. “By far the largest segment of these materials comprises grammar and vocabulary drills.” (Garrett et al 1990 a, 44)

Unfortunately, in the vast majority of programs currently available there seems to be a very simplistic approach as to the choice of media mix and syllabus design, and little appreciation of the role which practice and repetition play in the acquisition of skills. (Knowles 1992, 63)

The problem with most interactive products designed for schools is the lack of imagination that has gone into developing them. Instead of taking full advantage of the computer’s intelligent capabilities, the programs become mere electronic versions of the original media...(Peter Kelman, vice president of Scholastic Inc., to attendees at the Winter Micro trends ‘92 Conference in Washington DC)

“The rapid increase in the availability of language-teaching software suggests that microcomputers are being used increasingly to address children’s language needs even though the efficacy of microcomputer-based approach to language teaching has not been demonstrated. Examination of the pool of educational software indicates that attempts to teach language are based on a CAI (computer-aided instruction) approach. However, this approach makes several assumptions that conflict with current theory and research in language development and learning. In particular, this approach fragments language for the purposes of instruction, and isolates language learning from contexts of language use.” (Dudley-Marling et al 1989, 42)

Drill-based, short-answer, “right or wrong” type of programs that abounded in the 1980’s are still with us, and have defined how computers are being used-and how they will continue to be used until a better idea comes along. (Knowles 1992, 58)

The implication within these criticisms is not that the technology is lacking for the task of education, but that technology is being inappropriately applied. “Hyperism” is one term applied to interactive technologies which feature fancy graphics and impressive technical features but are shallow and without much pedagogical substance. The order in which information is presented and mastered can greatly affect student success at language learning. “Student can wander with the impression of freedom, but the strength or weakness of the system depends on the quality of the links....Until a student reaches a certain threshold level, choices as to content and method of inquiry need to be limited.” (Knowles 1992, 59)

Now that the critics have spoken, let us look at the some positive applications of interactive technology which surpass what Knowles refers to as “passive, electronic page turners.” (Knowles 1992, 63) A short list of advantages of interactive technology includes:

• Precise manipulation of motion and still images (Wyatt 1984, 43)

• Context embedding of language to support the learner. (Freeman et al 1992; Cummins, 1981).

• IVD more vivid and realistic than textbooks or tapes (Wyatt 1984, 42)

• Control the focus of an activity by careful buildup (Knowles 1992, 60)

• Self-paced repetition (Knowles 1992, 60)

• The computer can monitor student performance in real time. (Knowles 1992, 60)

• Student responses and achievement can be monitored and fed back into system to adjust pace of lesson. (Knowles 1992, 60)

Garrett et al credit the integration of technology, humanistic research and education as a “New Humanism” (Garrett et al 1990 a, 38-9) “For the new humanist, the scholar’s workstation is now as appropriate to the discipline’s (humanities ) undertakings as the quill pen was in other days.” They outline the merits of this “new humanism” as providing the following advantages:

• Authenticity: “...the computer and interactive technologies can bring the primary and supporting data of the discipline within the grasp of the researcher and the learner alike.”

• Rich media environment

• Provides vital cultural context for the understanding of literature

• Immediate access (Hypermedia) to wealth of information/literature

• Empowerment: Access to greater range of information via BBS and on-line libraries.

• New tools for organizing resources for both pedagogical and scholarly purposes (e.g. “collecting, presenting, shaping, reworking and analyzing language not only in traditional text form but also in aural and visual modalities”)

• Integration: bring about “a synthesis of humanistic and scientific knowledge hitherto fragmented by disciplinary boundaries and limitations on the representation of knowledge.”

Some suggestions for making effective and pedagogically sound courseware can be found in the McTavish Final Report to the Association of Teachers of Japanese (12):

• Replace multiple-choice format with routines that collect ordinary natural-language input from the student to increase the student’s freedom of action

• Replace strictly predetermined branching, feedback, and question selection with dynamic program actions

• Vary instruction modalities

• Create simulations

• Reverse the traditional roles and allow the student to ask the computer questions.

• Take advantage of networking and email.

• Explore real-time communication options

• Incorporate multi-user formats

Knowles (1992, 64), himself an educational software developer, offers a number of interaction possibilities for computer-aided instruction (CAI) and language teaching: 1) hear something repeated, 2) hear translation or hint, 3) jump/ fast forward/ reverse, 4) display text, 5) adjust lesson pace, 6) adjust level or depth of lesson. He also suggests that CAI designers work in tandem with textbooks and strive to adopt an analogous form of proven syllabus. He stresses the need for “cyclical and accretionary” sequencing of materials within an instructional series to challenge the student while also providing consistent review.

To summarize, an interactive instructional system should strive to include at least some of the following features.:

Students can select material for concentrated study in a personal notebook.

Let student save their own work to diskette, tape recorder or other format to increase personal access and ownership.

Give student control over a wide range of system functions such as interval pacing, playback speed and lesson sequence.

Offer practice in both perception (listening) and production aspects of language, ordered from perception to production.

Record keeping of each student’s mistakes for self monitoring and reference by the teacher.

Students can choose the appropriate form of feedback:

- To focus on perception or production practice

- Viewing the dialog text along with the video presentation for increased retention.

- The language of feedback presentation (i.e. English or Japanese)

- Jigsaw listening where students must fill in gaps in the conversation with correct text.

- Student may choose the voice for practice and feedback (e.g. male or female)

Optional addition of audio and visual distractions.

Response interval selection:

- Fixed interval: The student specifies a fixed number of seconds allowed to respond to the computer. This time is constant throughout the exercise.

- Variable interval: The student is initially allowed 10 seconds to responds. After each correct answer the time decreases by one second. Following incorrect answers the time allotment increases by one.

Hapeshi and Jones (1991) present a concise overview of guidelines on the use of auditory and visual presentation in multimedia learning systems. Three points are of particular relevance:

1. Sounds can be distracting and don’t help. Music yields little benefit in terms of instructional effectiveness of informational film. Irrelevant sounds detracted from important thematic detail.

2. Speech input to encourage vocalizing material; enhances recall.

3. Where possible, keep visual and auditory messages independent. Don’t assume they will always be presented together.

Help Students Develop Effective Strategies

Salomon (1986) claims that student success with computer-based instruction (CBI) depends largely on how the individual applies learning strategies to the material. He indicates how the performance of “good” students, those who came to CBI with command of advanced learning strategies, far exceeded that of “poor students”, those who lacked an effective arsenal of meta-learning approaches. Salomon also found that “poor” students who received remediation and assistance in developing strategies were able to perform at a level equal to that of “good” students.

Jorge Salazer (1989) of the Defense language Institute also refers to the importance of helping language students develop effective strategies. “According to one researcher, for example ‘it has been shown that good L1 readers do not transfer their good reading strategies when it comes to reading in L2 (Thompson 1989, 34). By extension, it does not seem unreasonable to suppose that this holds even more strongly for an arguably more difficult skill to master in L2, such as listening.” (Salazer 1989).

Thus there is a twofold need for language learners to develop effective strategies. Firstly there is the need to help students use the technology to its fullest potential, as Knowles and Salazer assert. Secondly, language students must develop effective strategies for communicating in L2 which carry them through the real life situations they will encounter outside the classroom. The necessity for interactive multimedia is that it offers a multi-sensory environment, well suited for developing learning and communicative strategies in the following ways:

• Easy manipulation of video to identify exact sources of problems and mistakes.

• Directed feedback on key points and performance.

• Visual display of utterances offers students an easy model of their own speech.

• Easy and immediate comparison to a model native speaker.

• Allowing students to review and retry their performance.

Interactivity in Education

The superiority of interactivity over passive presentation is born out by many researchers in education and technology. Brockenbrough (1986) asserts the power of interactive media to enhance both generative and methemagenic learning. Interactive video permits the learner to control their learning activity far more than conventional video and audio tape. This control has many forms: curriculum selection, lesson and objective selection, segment or module selection, and selection of learning and instructional strategies. Brockenbrough’s theory is based on Merrill’s Component Display Theory (Merrill, 1983). Merrill emphasizes that computer-based instruction must help students develop effective learning strategies (methemagenic learning) which take advantage of this potential. Possessing adequate learning strategies is a necessary precondition for effective use of interactive teaching media.

Modules can be constructed which allow the student to shape their own learning pathways. Material can be selected, viewed and reviewed according to the learner’s needs. Methemagenic devices will promote the desired learning outcomes. One such example is the graphic display in the analysis mode. Key points in both the native speaker and the student’s speech will be highlighted with arrows. Students will be guided on how to make use of the available information.

One way to enhance the interactive capability of the computer is to add a sound digitizer and voice signal displays. Such displays have long been applied in the field of speech pathology and phonetics and is becoming more widely applied in foreign language teaching. Garry Molholt (1988 a and b), has written extensive articles documenting his application of digitized sound and computer displays to teach pronunciation of individual sounds (segmental features) as well as sentence patterns (suprasegmental features). Molholt and other proponents of this approach cite research results indicating visualization of intonation patterns significantly enhances judgment and pattern recognition. (Lon and Martin 1972, 141 cited in Chun 1989, 22). Other studies indicate how visualization helps students recreate proper intonation (James 1979), and the superiority of audio/visual feedback over only audio presentation (Debot 1980 and 83 cited in Chun 1989)

Some specific advantages attributed to interaction via wave form feedback are:

• Accelerated language acquisition

• Offers students an objective measure to focus on the exact speech feature or mistake.

• No need for students to learn difficult linguistic vocabulary.

• The instructor is able to prove that there is a difference by displaying it so students understand even before they are able to produce the actual sounds effectively.

Molholt (1988) and Chun (1989) also give the following cautions to designers who incorporate their methods in CBI.

• Students must be instructed on what causes pronunciation differences before they can change their own speech. Students must be trained by an instructor.

• Sound reproduction must be accurate

• Signal mapping can be inexact.

• Visual images must be clear, exact and easily interpretable

• Must provide feedback in real time with minimum of delay

• Pattern proportions must be similar for speakers with different pitch ranges

• Inexpensive and easy to operate


While much of the existing literature is critical of educational technology, many critics simultaneously touted the vast potential for technology in foreign language instruction when based on sound pedagogical principles. Current technologies offer a variety of human-computer interaction possibilities without the need for artificial intelligence. Technology must be applied in ways which free and empower the user through meaningful tasks and interactions. Students will benefit from programs which can offer instruction and support for multiple learning styles. Attention must be given in implementation stage as well to insure that students develop learning strategies which make best use of the technology.


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