In the past few months, a question has frequently been posed on whether there is any evidence or research on the effectiveness of language labs in foreign language teaching. Before we continue further it seems important to define the meaning of language labs of today, as this is the technology we should focus on and not the labs of the ’60s or ’70s.
Information and Communications Technology (ICT)
Apparently, modern language labs are an inseparable component of the school ICT environment. After all, most of them require computers, preferably in a LAN network and with access to the Internet (at least in a teacher’s position). They promote the use of digital learning resources and integrate computer-specific features such as databases, chat or instant messaging.
All this is infused with audio communication which is mainly delivered via headsets, and teacher control capabilities (monitor, intercom, remote screen control, etc.) Thus, when we think of modern language labs, often referred to as multimedia language classrooms, centres or suites, or digital language labs, we should not separate them from the ICT infrastructure in a school.
We need to look at them through the prism of ICT, and when we ponder upon their effectiveness in teaching and learning we have to consider both the benefits of a computer classroom setting as well as the benefits of the language lab communication facilities (pair, group discussion, intercom, telephone dialing, monitoring, etc.).
In my opinion, modern language labs can only be effective as much as ICT is effective in teaching. In fact, there has been some research on the effectiveness of
ICT in language teaching and the results suggest that the schools that implement ICT in Foreign Language Learning (FLL) get better results in teaching than those that do not. One can assume that such evidence should also apply to language labs.
Language Labs and Language Teaching
To return to the question posed at the beginning of this paper, I am fond of an answer given by Graham Davies who wrote in the LinguaNet forum on the effectiveness of ICT (Davies: 2004):
“Did anyone ever ask how effective the book is in teaching foreign languages? Did anyone ever ask how effective the blackboard is in teaching foreign languages? Did anyone ever ask how effective the tape recorder is in teaching foreign languages? My personal view is that computers are just another aid and their effectiveness depend on how teachers use them, i.e. in the same way as the book, the blackboard and the tape recorder depend on how teachers use them.
The right question to ask is: How effective are teachers at using ICT CALL in language teaching? No resource, however good, will deliver successful learning outcomes is used inappropriately. It is not what ICT can do, but what you can do with ICT.”
In our case it can be translated to the following statement: language labs can only be effective when used appropriately by teachers. And to use a wide range of labs’ facilities in an appropriate manner. Teachers must be prepared to invest their time in training, class preparation, and new methodologies.
Even though Davies’ approach seems to be a correct one, one just cannot finish a debate with the sole opinion that the effectiveness of labs depends on how they are used by teachers. For the commercial reasons we still need to be able to produce sales pitch for our international sales force, especially a new generation of sales partners as well as a new breed of language teachers.
Therefore, I have collected a few ideas, some of them “straight from the horse’s mouth” i.e. end-users, with a hope that they will be found useful for negotiations and product presentations. These ideas focus only on the benefits of the language lab functionalities (communication and modes of learning) rather than the advantages of a PC lab.
They do not describe things that can be done by computers, but only the communication benefits of a turn-key language lab.