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Virtual Reality English Learning - A New Dawn

The holy grail of learning a foreign language is often considered to be physically based in the country where the language is spoken. Take English for example, every year huge numbers of people arrive on the shores of the UK with a pocket full of Pound Sterling and a bag of books and stationery, ready to begin a language course in a school nestled in the heart of Oxford Street or in classrooms overlooking the seagull-scattered shores of Brighton seafront. Yes the individual is somewhat immersed in the language but is that enough? Does it work? Can it work better? We believe that things can work better - a lot better - and we are striving to revolutionise the way people Learn English in VR.

These are important questions to ask, not simply because of the princely sums of money people fork out for the expense of the course and related costs. There is a hidden victim of this method and it is the student’s time. In our experience as educators in the English language, our students tell us they often go once a year to a UK based school and it’s usually for 7 – 14 days. However despite the cost is it ever considered that these two weeks per year are possibly causing a slowing-down in the acquisition of this foreign language, rather than an improvement?

Let us imagine an 18 year old who will study until they are 22 years old. A four year degree. They decide to spend 2 weeks in London at the end of each of their academic years to immerse themselves in the English language. At the end of the fourth and final trip over the course of their degree they would have devoted almost 4% of their time to this method, at a cost running into the thousands of pounds. Now many might think that’s not a bad investment, and yes, ultimately it’s up to each individual to spend their money how they bloody-well please. But often we find that these two week trips are merely papering over the cracks of the lack of daily, structured practice the student should be doing over the course of months and years. For Europeans mainly, the study experience based in the UK (or even Malta and its surrounding islands, as we’re seeing more frequently) is no more than a “quick fix”; something to get a fast, highly diluted inoculation of English but which can never be strong enough to provide a sustained immunisation against the affliction of not being able to communicate with others in future. Whilst on the surface these courses in native English speaking countries are opportunities to immerse oneself in the sights and sounds of the English language to some degree, and staying with host families does of course offer the chance to pick up more colloquial expressions in context, the cost of such experiences and the limited exposure throughout the year more than likely has no real impact on the learner’s level.

This brings us to the heart of the issue. There is no cohesion between the typical classroom-based style of learning and the language which is spoken and heard in the real world and even when there were anything that could be considered cohesion during that experience, it is too limited and not particularly cost-efficient.

How can something which lasts 2 weeks once a year produce any kind of long-lasting boost to one’s linguistic ability? Can most people afford to spend £1,000 every summer going to London, paying for the course, flights, accommodation and a few portions of fish and chips? In our experience as an online English school, the answer that our students tell us is “no”. For that reason, failing to find a course or consider a new method of suitable quality, with a motivated and qualified teacher and with class numbers which don’t resemble the attendance to a U2 concert can be extremely detrimental to a person’s linguistic, career and life goals.

There is clearly value in attending a bricks-and-mortar school in an English speaking country – it is some exposure (or rather organised chaos) to the language and there are benefits from a confidence-building point of view, the latter of which in particular should not be downplayed.

Let’s get to the point. Where does it say that learning happens with a teacher standing at the front of a classroom with students sitting on decades-old chewing gum stained chairs? Where is it written that education happens inside buildings and not outside? Why does the prevailing concept of English language education centre around these paradigms? Isn’t it time to change and to ask mature questions about how we learn and how we teach?

This is not change for change’s sake. At its heart is the idea that we as educators are facilitators of learning, not that whatever we say is the gospel truth. We don’t hold the key to mastery of our discipline, but a number of keys which are provided to our students who are encouraged to try to unlock the door of their personal success in this subject. In maths, four multiplied by four will always be sixteen; no matter which tone of voice or accent it is expressed in. In language, simple variances in tone of voice in a job interview for example can determine success or not. The wrong choice of adjective in a particular situation can distort your intended meaning and impact on your chances of success. It raises the question as to whether we can even “teach” a language, with its layers of nuances relating to vocabulary choice, sentence construction, tones and cultural characteristics expressed through body language. TEFL – the acronym “Teaching English as a Foreign Language” doesn’t go anywhere near to reflecting the knowledge imparted from native speaker to non-native speaker, and almost gives the idea that one native English speaking teacher’s language will be the same as another’s – each with their own contradictions of which neither is necessarily incorrect.

When looking at two of the predominant languages in the native English speaking world, we have British English and American English. It is commonly known that American English speakers often omit “to” after certain words (“I promised to write him regularly”, compared to British English “I promised to write to him regularly”). Another grammatical difference is the British use of the present perfect tense with adverbs of time (British English: “have you eaten already?” versus the American English past simple construction: “did you eat already?”). These are just two examples of the differences and so with speakers of each respective language in control of the classroom, it would be prudent to highlight the variances, to best equip the student in the real world. There is therefore not one “English”, but many “Englishes”, as put forward by Braj Kachru’s Three Circles of English:

The collaborators here at Gold Lotus have taught thousands of people English and have decades of combined experience, and learners often are desperate to expose themselves to native English teachers' language, because travelling to English speaking countries to do so is hugely expensive. For that reason, what better way to take them to the English speaking world than to utilise this emerging and enabling technology in VR to transport them to the UK/US and beyond and to guide them through the learning of natural pronunciation and vocabulary during this virtual experience to improve massively how students learn languages in virtual reality.

Virtual Reality has begun to make serious ground in recent years, particularly because of advances in technology relating to gyroscopes and accelerometers being found in modern smartphones and hardware like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive offer even better immersive experiences. Recently the launch of the Oculus Go and HTC Focus - so-called "standalone" headsets has potentially opened the door to more mass-market adoption thanks to no smartphone or expensive computer being needed to run VR content.

However, as VR hardware ploughs forward, there is a serious bottleneck of content currently. This is where people like us - educators, linguists and creators - who see limitless potential in the beauty of immersing people in the native speaking environments in which we come from excites us. For years we have had to rely on two-dimensional methods of education – textbooks, online exercises and YouTube videos. These materials, sprinkled with some creativity and a passion to share the English that the teacher knows well, do have value and they do help learners. What VR offers however is a step-change in how a learner exposes themselves to the native speaking world, something which almost all language learner yearns for, by not only showing the learner the typical sights and sounds but integrating layers of theory within that virtual world to ensure an engaging, realistic but ultimately robust language learning experience. VR also offers the chance for self-directed learning too which is surely one of the most exciting prospects for language learners since it offers the total exploration of typical locations within a language to enable the language to be learnt in a purely contextual manner - much like how we learnt our native tongues as children absorbing everything around us and being corrected when we made mistakes.

But let’s not get too carried away. This is very early technology and despite the millions of Google Cardboards and the millions of Samsung Gear VR headsets shipped last year, there is a long way to go to find our bearings in these unchartered waters in terms of what makes high quality VR educational content, the various levels of interactivity that students can have and the merits of active versus more passive storytelling techniques to take students on a journey through the native English speaking world - or any culture using any language.

For that reason, these are experimental stages and we will continue to utilise the various hardware and software we have in order to experiment with this new medium. We are very much enjoying putting out our 360 degree videos to help people learn English and with this recent site relaunch we will be stepping-up the content shown on our Language Map to give people the chance to Learn English in Virtual Reality using their smartphones and a mobile VR headset, and soon via leaing headsets such as the Oculus Go through our app to be launched in late May 2018. We are working hard on not only providing language learners with fresh new immersive content as a way of taking them closer to the countries in which foreign languages like English is spoken, but we will be announcing over the coming months exciting new tools for language learners to take advantage of to build their speaking, listening, reading and writing skills within these virtual worlds.

Ultimately, we know how to teach English. We’re just honing our experience and tools at hand to utilise VR – which is your virtual plane ticket to visit real life wherever the language is spoken. If you have any ideas that can help to improve our content, or you have the skills, passion and creativity to join us on this journey, please do get in touch. Otherwise, welcome on board and we look forward to you witnessing the growth of this new, more engaging, more cost effective, more efficient and in future more student-centred way of learning a foreign language through Gold Lotus.

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