Uses of Technology in Language Teaching and Learning: an exploratory approach

Ania Lian and Andrew Lian
Department of Modern Languages James Cook University

Paper Read to Session LE2B: Technology in the Language Classroom:
Emerging Technologies for Teaching Languages at a Distance
NLLIA Language Expo '96 Brisbane
Sunday 21 July 1996
(Copyright NLLIA © 1996)

Technology provides considerable opportunities for interesting and significant developments in language teaching and learning. While this may be a view held commonly by the general public, one should perhaps exercise a little caution. In fact, it is arguable that technology can be both a catalyst and a retardant for new developments.

Technology can be a catalyst because it has the potential to open up new horizons filled with exciting activities upon which increasingly sophisticated and effective learning systems will be based. It should provide a springboard for imaginative development work of all kinds. In time, there will exist complex interactive virtual reality systems capable of helping students to learn to interact effectively in a foreign language. Indeed, at James Cook University, just such a system is being developed by M. Kuilboer in the context of her doctoral research (Kuilboer, 1996).

There is a down-side however. Technology can also act as a retardant. This is because the things which can be most easily implemented in a technological environment, especially a computer-based environment, often draw upon outdated approaches to language learning. An obvious example of this is to be found in the production of grammar drills. These are relatively easy to construct and produce. Because of wide-spread stereotypes in the teaching and learning communities they often find a ready and interested clientele. Further, developers of such programs have been known to construct successful careers for themselves on the basis of that kind of work. Thus, as a result of financial and career interests, there can be strong pressure to keep producing more and more of the same while leaving aside more interesting but perhaps riskier developments.

Thus, the use of any form of technology should be approached with caution in the sense that the use of any particular kind of technology (or any teaching resource for that matter) should have clear and relevant value for the development of language-learning systems and, consequently, should rest on strong theoretical principles.

Toward an interactive/exploratory model of language-learning
In attempting to formulate a coherently-related set of theoretical principles underpinning an approach for language-teaching and/or learning, it is important to come to grips with a number of relevant concepts.

(a) It is critical to recognise the social nature of language. Any system developed for the teaching of languages must be able account for the notion of learning how to mean in another language as a function of the kinds of roles that individuals play in this process.

(b) The process of learning to mean in a language cannot be reduced to a process of manipulation or synthesis of lexicogrammatical structures (Widdowson, 1990, :120). In other words, meaning is not derived from the analysis of sentences consisting of words organised according to the rules of grammar in a kind of mathematical model.

(c) Instead, a social perspective on meaning construction holds that meanings are neither the intrinsic property of a particular text, nor something carried about in people's heads (Luke and Kapitzke, 1994, :133). Meanings are not something which are there. Understanding text does not happen independently of the people involved but, rather, it is something which is done by human beings: a "playing-out" of social relations of knowledge and practice (Luke and Kapitzke, 1994, :133).

Learning to mean, therefore, involves learning about the kinds of social actions and effects that these make possible through a constant engagement in and reflection upon our interactive contributions and those of others (Freadman, 1994, :13; Hall, 1995, :226). This critical examination of our practices and those of others renders the process of language learning a process of dialogue or of interaction between a practice and its participants (Hall, ibid., :226). In other words, learning to mean is a dynamic process between self, text and context (Hall, ibid., :226; Freadman, ibid., 11, 23).

(d) The competence which underlies the ability to mean is viewed as unique to each learner on the basis that "the accumulated knowledge, linguistic or otherwise, and the understanding engendered by such accumulation is situated in and dependent on the history preceding that moment, the social identities of the participants, their responses to these and the conditions of the moment" (Hall, ibid., :227). In other words, language-learning is an activity where people have significantly different requirements from one another depending on who they are, what their goals are and what experiences and knowledge they bring with them.

(e) The statements made in (a)-(d) above thus support a shift in second language pedagogy away from imposition-based approaches to language-learning toward a negotiation-based approach.

What does this mean? An imposition-based methodology is found in approaches which trivialise the importance of the recognition of the differences which people bring with them in the process of language-learning and, therefore, in the process of communicating itself. As such, imposition-based approaches result in attempts to homogenise learners in an environment directed toward the perceived needs of a hypothetical so-called "average" learner. Homogenisation of this kind is often achieved through techniques of text control (Widdowson, 1990, :120). Despite significant criticism of this kind of approach, the inclination of many second language methodologists has been to continue to follow its principles:

As anyone who has tried to learn a language knows, acquisition depends on the ability to identify words and phrases and this is almost impossible in the early stages if the only source of input is 'authentic' native-speaker speech - one reason why listening to the radio or watching television is of little use in the early stages (Ellis, 1991, :40).

The rejection of homogenisation implies a respect for difference (cf Hymes, 1971 in Brumfit and Johnson, 1979, :8-9; Lyotard, 1983; Freadman, ibid., 12-13; Lantolf, 1995, :116) and, therefore, respect for the kinds of sociocultural and sociohistorical discursive histories that people bring with themselves in the process of communicating.

In this context, a language-learning environment will need to provide learners with the potential to negotiate their communicative stakes against the knowledge about the kinds of social actions and the kinds of social effects that these communicative stakes make possible or not (Freadman, ibid., :13).

Traditional classroom contexts provide communicative environments where the primary resources are learners' negotiations with teachers or other learners (Ellis, 1994, :84). These negotiations are characterised by the limited proficiency of the learners as well as the teachers' simplification of the language (i.e. "teacher talk", Håkansson, 1992:164). In turn, these often result in distortion of the language itself (Håkansson, 1992, :168, :175-177). People simply do not get a chance to interact with real, i.e. native-like, language in its real, i.e. native-like, context. This lack of access to and opportunities for exploring, and interacting with, a wide range of examples of authentic language productions limits the potential for learners to negotiate their own understandings about language uses against the predominant conventions (Hall, 1995, :212). The traditional classroom setting is further impeded as a site for quality language learning by the administrative and other management constraints to which it is subject.

It is arguable from the above that a shift is needed toward a more flexible environment where classroom meetings are not the sole focus of learning but are part of a number of group-based and self-based working modes generated by the different roles which they purport to fulfil (Lian and Mestre, 1983; McMahon, 1996). Such an environment would require extended access to communicative resources, i.e. authentic materials, even in the earliest stages of learning, together with opportunities for exploring them in responsive, interactive ways.

Under these conditions, the teacher's task, among others, will become that of providing sympathetic assistance and support (Lian and Mestre, 1985, :193) rather than that of being the organiser of all activity. Such an approach will also necessarily de-emphasise both the notion of "lessons" in the classroom and that of language-learning as a code. Rather, more emphasis would be placed on "facilitating access to rich cultural information and [..] finding ways of catering for students' motivations and needs, both of which are often unpredicted and indeed, unpredictable" (Lian 1995).

Considerations of this kind have led to the development of flexible, student-driven language learning approaches where students are essentially in control of what they wish to do and of how they intend to go about achieving their objectives. Examples of such approaches include macrosimulations (Lian & Mestre, 1985) and the development of complex discourses such as the production of: "A day on French television".

For students to achieve their goals in this context, they need to be provided with:

(a) access to relevant authentic materials and

(b) systems for accessing these materials in pedagogically useful ways.

This is where technology can assist. Technology is able to provide access to authentic text and is able to facilitate access to these texts by students.

Three examples of computer-based language learning systems will be described briefly below. They are currently in development at James Cook University. While it is true that these particular systems are computer-based, it is not intended to imply that computing is the only kind of technology relevant to language learning. There are other forms of technology and, in particular, video and international satellite technologies, which are of inestimable value and which are becoming increasingly available. Nevertheless, computers, because of their emerging ability to manipulate text, graphics, audio and video have come to form an essential component of almost any application of technology to language learning.

The systems described below are based on a set of principles for environment-design derived from the kind of theoretical reasoning outlined above. These principles can be summarised as: Awareness, Autonomy and Achievement (Lian 1987, 1993).

Essentially, they imply that

(a) learners need to be able to develop a critical awareness of the sorts of things that matter in their interactions with potential texts from the target language/culture which they are studying.

(b) learners need to be able to be autonomous in the sense that they must be able to be self-driven and have the ability to define the kinds of activities which will be of benefit to them,

(c) learners need to be able to gauge what they have been able to achieve at any particular point during their learning in terms of their current state of communicative competence as well as in terms of their ultimate goals or objectives.

Awareness, Autonomy and Achievement are developed partially as a result of learners interacting with materials but also, and importantly, as a result of interaction with teachers who need to ensure that appropriate skills and attitudes are acquired by the learners. The teachers' role is therefore crucial although it may no longer correspond with that traditionally ascribed to teachers.

Description of programs

MMBrowse (Lian & Lian, 1996a)
This is a multimedia browser designed to develop listening comprehension skills through a self-study approach based on the exploration of authentic audio and/or video text leading to the development of an awareness of the critical features of authentic text.

An audio or video file is recorded in digital form onto a computer's hard disk or on a CD-ROM. Students are then provided with a written transcript of the passage where each letter in every word has been replaced with an asterisk (*). The learner's task is to discover the words underneath the asterisks, to gain an understanding of the passage and to come to grips with the features of the text. In order to achieve this the system provides a series of inbuilt facilities which enable the learners to:

(a) listen to the recording in its entirety,

(b) listen to a selection of words from any arbitrary point in the recording to any other arbitrary point, hence the notion of browsing. It is a little like turning over the pages of a book or newspaper, discovering what is on this page or that one, skipping ahead or reviewing previously-examined material,

(c) listen to any specific word in isolation,

(d) guess and verify individual words,

(e) obtain information about individual words,

(f) guess and verify "chunks" of language in the text (the underlined portions on the screen),

(g) obtain information about "chunks" of language in the text,

(h) practise saying selected portions of the text (including comparison of their voice with the original recording),

(i) develop awareness of rhythm and intonation structures of authentic text through forward build-up and backward build-up exercises.

All of these functions are under the learners' control. They choose the material which they wish to study (e.g. an interview, a news broadcast, a game show) and they then choose those aspects of that material on which they wish to focus (e.g. words, chunks, the entire text, intonation patterns, pronunciation). Essentially, they are catering to their own needs, motivations or preferences in ways which would simply be impossible in a regimented/text-controlled environment.

A feature of this program is that it contains an authoring system which reduces considerably the burden of lesson-writing, thus allowing teachers in the field to develop their own materials with relative ease.

Screen layout from MMBrowse

Audiovisual database (Lian & Lian, 1994-1996)
Here a number of authentic video or audio-based interactions have been recorded onto disk. They are then retrieved at will according to categories such as: language, dialect, subject, activity, function, register, participants, power relationships, attitudinal tones, setting - time, setting-place. These categories are supported with a transcript function and a comments function. Categories are not only valuable for the purpose of retrieving information but also act as possible guidelines for analysing the organisation of text in general.

All categories are searchable and each can be related to the others in arbitrary ways according to the wishes of learners.

For instance, learners who need to prepare "A day on French television" might wish to examine a French television advertisement about dental plaque-removers. They can search according to the criteria of French language, the activity of advertising and a function containing the word "plaque". By clicking on the words AV resource, they are then able to see the advertisement and to read the transcript and comments relating to the interaction which they have just witnessed. If they wish to, they can compare the advertisements they find with similar advertisements in other languages.

Other interesting studies which database systems such as this might facilitate include the possibility of cross-linguistic and cross-cultural comparisons of a broader kind e.g. How does English advertising work as opposed to Chinese advertising? Alternatively, it can also be a valuable tool for answering more sociologically-based questions such as: "How are women represented in the advertising discourses of Chinese, French, German and Japanese cultures?". Information can be quickly retrieved and contrasted. Imagination and need will ultimately determine the range of possible uses of systems such as these.

In other words, the database is a kind of audiovisual dictionary which gives learners accurate, instant access to relevant audio and video information. By cutting down on the drudgery of information retrieval and management the learners' environment is enriched considerably.

It is expected that in 1997, a prototype version of this database will be made available for use across the Internet.

Screen layout from the audiovisual database
Example taken from Words Will Travel by J. Clemens and J. Crawford (eds)
ELS publications, Sydney, 1994

Dialogue practice system (Lian & Lian, 1996b)
The third system described is designed to allow people to practise speaking in a language even though they have no one to talk to.

Imagine for instance a situation where, as a learner of English as a second language, it is necessary to make small talk at an Australian party. A likely dialogue is placed on the screen and the learners can take one of the parts. They can rehearse each utterance by listening to it, recording it and comparing it with the native speaker version. They are provided with a digitally-filtered version of each sentence designed to develop their awareness of the intonation patterns involved. They can listen to the whole of the original dialogue as produced by the native speakers. Next, they can enter a simulation mode where they are able to take one of the roles while respecting the time constraints of natural language interactions. Finally, they can listen to the whole dialogue in which they have just participated. This will give them the opportunity to assess their performance as a participant in the dialogue, enable them to make a critical appraisal of their performances as compared to the various native-speaker models and eventually alter their productions appropriately.

A more sophisticated version of this program, based on dialogue generators (Joy & Lian, 1983) is to be developed in the near future.

Screen layout from the dialogue
practice system

For maximum effectiveness, programs of the kind just described need to be integrated into a coherent intellectual framework for language-teaching/learning designed to respond to the needs, motivations and differences of learners and where learners, teachers and technology all function in a harmonious and symbiotic relationship with one another (cf. Lian & Mestre, 1983, Lian & Mestre, 1985, Lian, A. B. 1996, Lian, 1987).

There is little doubt that technology will make increasingly large contributions to language teaching just as it is currently making to every other aspect of our lives. Networking will make systems available from home or wherever appropriate, thus increasing access, bringing about economies in terms of space, furniture and administrative personnel while increasing the overall effectiveness of the language-teaching/learning enterprise. As a result, language learning will become more efficient, satisfying, flexible and convenient. Most importantly though, if they are to work, systems will need to be driven by sound and coherent theoretical approaches to language learning.


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