Saturday, October 04, 2008

Second Life and language learning

Interview with Thom Thibeault
Let's start out with a review. Language teachers may or may not know that Second Life is a virtual reality, a place where people can go to build any kind of environment, meet people and speak any language, in both voice and chat (right?), both in groups and in person. In order to do this they have to install SL on a computer and craft an avatar that can be of any sex or have any appearance. Can you briefly tell us some good reasons that language teachers should be willing to do this, so that they can teach languages better? What advantages does it offer to us?

Classes have a sterile, uninspiring environment, a lack of stimulus. If you want social interaction, which is what language is all about, you have to simulate it. In SL it's much easier to simulate social interaction, because you already have it. You can have dance clubs, beaches, and cafes just by finding them or going to them. You have social context; it's motivating enough to make an emotional connection. By the way, if there is something you can't find, like a certain kind of restaurant, for example, you can just make it. SL has over a million residents, 30-60,000 on at any one time, and you can always find someone to speak to in your new language. My language is German; if I want to speak German, I type it into the search, and find places that use German. Now, just like in real life, some of these places are not places you'd want to take students. Just like real life, it has brothels, it has idiots, etc. But here, a German fun zone, an ESL group, you can find people to study and talk with.

My office is another example. Here in Faner, I have no windows, no room. In SL, you can see- a wide open office, with light. I wanted the ocean, so here it is (waves lap in toward the office). I brought in some sea gulls. I can sit in my rocking chair, and then, I created a sky box. You know how sometimes you want to move a class where nobody can hear you? If you have a sky box, you can teleport up to it, then sit on a suspended cushion…the jukebox has all kinds of music, from all over the internet…now if you sit on the wall there, you could fall 400 meters, but who cares? You can have a little risk and feel the emotions of life. You can dance…

Can you briefly describe the trouble you encounter when teaching a novice to make an avatar and walk on down the road in SL? How long does it take before a person can learn to turn around and wave to someone? What is the most difficult of the skills?

You have to teach them how to get used to the environment. Many students have learned this with other programs anyway, like video games, etc. It may take a class period to make an avatar, though customizing it is irrelevant to what we do, and you have to learn the search functions especially, and how to navigate around.

Speaking of customizing avatars, the good thing is, as a teacher, when I want realia, I can have it. Because I'm a German teacher, I have German outfits; I bought them very cheaply or made them. A creative writing teacher here uses wild outfits, but that's because he wants his students to think creatively; he wants to free them. It brings an element of playfulness into the class; people have fun in classrooms, true, but classrooms are sterile, with fewer opportunities for realia. You can bring a real object to a classroom, but you're still in a classroom. Here, for example (takes us instantly to Bavaria) is a Bavarian restaurant, very authentic. People here have recreated Munich and many other places, just for fun (takes us to Munich)…now I've been in the place that this is modeled on, so it gives me a feeling of being there, right down to the pictures on the wall, which are very authentic.

I presume that you take your students directly to a place that you have reserved on Second Life. Is there any danger that they will wander off, and, if so, that they will encounter rudeness or bizarre behavior that you sometimes hear about? Do you feel responsible for what might happen to them if they do, or do you feel that this is no problem, given that they are adults? Is there any chance that unexpected calamity will befall your little villa, while you are there, or do you feel that it is a controlled environment, unlike, say, the lab here?

In my class, they follow my instruction. This island belongs to SIU- it's a virtual 16-acre island; while in class, we're always on this island. There's a danger if you leave it open, but we control access to this island; in order to come to it, you have to belong to a group. You, as an instructor, could have privileges to come here, use it, change things, etc., but your average stranger wouldn't be able to just enter. Yes, SL has what is known as griefers. The problem is, for example, when you own half an island, and the other half is open. One day a teacher who was teaching about Egypt found some very realistic pyramids, and he showed his class. But little did he realize, some very lewd stuff was right around the corner. And you might not see it, or might not notice that you have moved from a PG area to a Mature area. In Mature areas, things can be pornographic, but that doesn't mean they are. And because there are no borders, you can easily go from one area to another. Sure, your computer tells you, in a small box up in the corner, whether you are in a PG or Mature area. But you forget to look there as you're walking or flying around. You may not even know that you're computer is telling you this. . And, the first time this guy saw the pyramids, he hadn't really scouted out the neighborhood. So he didn't have a game plan for what to do if someone wandered off.

I understand that language teachers are using SL in a number of ways, and beginning to present on the ways they've developed, at places like CALICO, where there were 12 presentations on language teaching in SL this year, as opposed to 0 the year before. Can you give me an overview of some of the ways they have developed?

There's a website at, U of I I believe, that has a list of activities. One thing we do a lot is that SL will log instant messages, and drop them in your box, so that it's very easy to have an IM conversation, then review it for grammar or whatever, later, and we do this a lot. We learn from our mistakes. If you have twenty students practicing conversations, monitoring them all is a problem anyway, so this is one way we can look at what happened, and practice it again. But you can provide the environment here. In class, for example, if you want to have them order a hamburger, you have to imagine the restaurant. Here, you can find one, or make one, so that you are there. They have the conversation in chat. It's a real-time conversation; they e-mail it to me as an attachment.

In what way is the way you teach a language, German, on SL different or innovative? Can you briefly describe what you do, and the element of what you do that you consider unique?

Next semester I'm going to teach them how to give directions, so do you see this pond? (clear blue pond appears in front of avatar). On a system of bridges over the pond, where the bridges and turn in various directions, one person controls the avatar, and the other gives directions from the side of the lake. But there are four people doing it at once, so they might bump into each other. Now, in the lake, I've got piranhas (avatar steps into lake, piranhas attack, cloudy red blood appears in lake). So it adds a little emotional context to the situation. Or here's another example. In German, there is a system of directional prepositions; on for example is different depending on whether it is horizontal or vertical. Here I find it easier to just create something that will show the difference; you can actually show the difference. The social and affective aspects of language can't be emphasized enough. And, at this level, (introductory German) if they like a language, they'll continue with it, so it's especially important. Language is often sterile (not CESL I realize) but this is a way to make it come alive and show what can be done with it.

We ESL teachers have taught without blackboards, chairs or heaters, in many kinds of adverse conditions, so we're a pretty hardy bunch. But can you tell us what kind of hazards we would encounter in this new environment? For example, how is the quality of the sound, when you talk? Can you see the blackboard from the back seats, or do you not use blackboards? I understand that you may use more dialogue and less teacher-fronted classroom experience on SL (maybe), but can you give us some idea of how the day-to-day teaching situation is different?

Students do have to have the skill of controlling the camera, so we can see the avatar's face, for example. You have to be able to get around; we fly a lot here. For example, I want the web on my island, so I got this huge box (looks like large-screen tv, but has no frame; it's only the web, and it sits squarely on the island, which itself is like a diving platform in the sea, covered with Astroturf. ) You have to be able to get up near this web device in order to see it. But, once you know your way around, there's very little danger. Nobody can kill you without your permission. You can wear collars that let people control you, and people do this because they want to, but nobody can make you wear one. For example, you don't have to give your personal information to anyone. You can create a profile, and that lets people contact you, if you want. I have 14 avatars, for example, (these are called ALTS) and it's mostly because of permission levels. For example, I can make something but I'm a director, so it appears different to me than to them, and I need to see how it appears to them, so I go use this ALT, and go in and experience it as they would. I have an ALT that I use for fun, that's different from my German teacher that I'm showing you now.

Actually I don't run my entire class on SL. I have a regular class here and we go onto SL for certain activities where I need it and need its environment. I put things in there and have them go in and pick it up, for example. But that's a little different from teaching entirely online.

I have heard online teachers maintain that teacher-student contact is actually increased, online, where you must chat a lot more, but where teachers don't actually meet students f2f. Do you have any comment on that? In what way is the student-teacher relationship different?

The answer above applies to this question, really. You can make life very realistic here- for example, you can learn different poses, and get used to them, and you can dance, learn salsa and tango, for example. You can actually buy gestures, which you program into your avatar, and that will make it more realistic.

There are a number of classes that are entirely online, but this question does not relate directly to me, since I know my students personally before we ever get there. So it's not like I would talk to them more in SL than I do already. I know who they are, regardless of what they do with their avatar.

What kind of effects have you noticed related to the ambiguity of gender of the person you might actually meet and talk to on SL? I'm interested in both the social aspects of not really knowing who you might be talking to, and the language aspects. Do you notice any flattening or change of language that people actually use on SL? Also, is there any way that the virtual environment influences the way people talk? For example, does SL English have its own dialect? Or is it mostly just words that are unique to the environment?

Well, to start out with, chat on SL uses chat terms that are common everywhere: np=no problem, lol, etc. there are some that are SL-only terms, like lm=landmark, tp=teleport. So yes, you can say it's like an online dialect. With strangers, you don't know what gender they really are; somewhere I read that 60% of males who participated admitted to having female avatars at one time or another, and people have a variety of reasons to take on the persona of a female, with cybersex being only one of them. It brings up the question of how people relate to their own avatar (this is fertile ground for sociology or psychology research) and it's generally agreed that my avatar might be an idealized me, or might be an alter-ego, or he might be totally disjunct, as in, for example, I just use him. Of my fourteen, most are this last, of course. I have 7 female avatars. I use this male German-teacher one most of the time; I share an identity with him; he's a projection of myself, really. My wife is on here too, and she wanted my avatar to look like me, so it does. But people do change theirs a lot. You see lots of wild things.

With most of the things that languages do, it doesn't matter a lot, whether you know the gender of a person you're talking to; in general, if someone has a female appearance, you treat them as they appear. In some languages it does matter what gender someone is, and your knowledge of that does affect how you speak of and with someone. My feeling is that the languages will adapt; they're just being used in a different environment.

I know someone who is on here literally every minute that I am…does this person have a real life? Do they ever get off and live somewhere real? At what point does your virtual self just take over and become more real than everything else? I can't answer that. I think it does become very real; you get used to the gestures, and the way you maneuver, and you get used to the way you talk, and

I'm interested in the diversity of languages that are being taught and used in SL. Can you give me an idea of what kind of language classes there are, whether they are being given at universities or in more informal settings, and whether people are making a decent living teaching them, or being paid in Lindens and offered a room in a virtual flophouse?

The biggest is called Language Lab. There's a lot of ESL but there's also Spanish; I have a graduate student who set up classes using voice features, and creating social contexts, etc. If you wanted to tutor ESL, you could teach students anywhere, with no limitations, and that's where the world is going. I don't know what people are being paid or whether it is substantial. In general 1000 Lindens = about 4 US dollars, and it is convertible, so I think it's fair to say that though you can make money here, and walk out of SL with real money, in general the economy is very different, and it's a very freewheeling kind of place.

In general, on SL you talk to someone in two ways: local chat (anyone within 20 m can read it) or IM- private- you right click on their avatar, and IM them. So you can walk around and talk to people if you want. In general it's faster to fly. Much of SL is private; you can't go there unless invited, and it won't appear on search when you search for things. But there are freebies everywhere. You can have a free skyscraper. Or free skin; you can have a tan or any color skin. Default avatars are cartoonish, but you can get curves and shapes. Everything on SL is either modifiable or unmodifiable, transfer or no transfer, copy or no copy. Transfer means you can give it to someone, but if it's no copy, you can't give them a copy; you can give them yours but you won't have one. Modifiable basically means you can go into the programming and just change it.

We could probably say that SL offers a ray of hope to endangered languages such as Yiddish or Scottish Gaelic, whose speakers are interested in maintaining a language but isolated geographically or spread out around the world. Do you have any indication that it is being used in this way?

I haven't heard of this, but I'm sure it's possible (does a quick search for Scottish Gaelic)…there are vampire groups on here and BDSM groups of all kinds, and people with all kinds of common interests get together for all kinds of reasons. One way to find out is to search Google and use "SL" in the search; SL allows what is known as SLURLS- which you can put on a regular website; then, if you have SL, it will take you directly to that spot, and put you into that spot on SL if you want to be there. So for example one of my grad. Assistants made SLURLS and sent students off to different places in SL; two went off to a ferris wheel, which they had never seen before, and actually jumped off of it, and came back and described the experience to the class. In general, if you can imagine it, you can have it, and you can do it, but if it's not being done, it's probably because the people in real life who want to speak this language aren't aware of the possibilities of finding like-minded people on the web who want the same thing.

Let's go back to the point where you said that nobody can kill you without your permission. One teacher once recounted a story in which he had lent his avatar to a student; the student was clumsy and repeatedly bumped somebody; that person threatened him and finally killed him. How did that happen? It was my understanding that people could kill each other on SL, and that there were whole islands where that's all they do.

On the islands, it's a kind of game; you give permission to be killed, as part of playing the game. Your avatar does not have to ever give permission to be killed. Therefore you won't be killed unless you allow it.

Now I don't know what happened in the story you recounted. One possibility is that the director of the site, the person who has control, simply ejected someone. They can remove you from a site, because they have that authority. This may seem like you were killed. But I don't know what happened in that story.


about this interview...


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