Incorporating Technology into the
Foreign Language Classroom
Matt D. Stroud, Ph.D.
Trinity University
San Antonio, Texas

September 14, 1998


It is rare to find a college or university these days that has not invested heavily in computer hardware and software to support instruction. Instructors, many of whom were trained long before there was such a term as a "PC" feel the need and the desire to use computers to enhance instruction, but they are not always certain of the best way to proceed. True believers in the computer revolution (as well as hardware and software marketers) want us to accept as fact that the computer is the solution to every problem and will even make better situations that are not problematic. Luddites cling to the notion that all a good teacher needs is a book and a student. Somewhere in the middle lies the vast majority of instructors who want to use computers to enhance learning without necessarily spending all their waking hours writing code and teaching students computer skills rather than course content.

In foreign language education, the goal of computer-assisted language learning (CALL) is no different from the goals of foreign language education in general: to provide students resources and experiences that will provide instruction and practice in speaking, reading, writing, and listening to their target language, as well as cultural information necessary to a full understanding of the people and the language they are studying. In a great many ways, the incorporation of the computer into the foreign language classroom is just the latest in an ongoing sequence of technological innovations that arose after World War II.


History: From audio-lingual to multi-media. The language laboratory with which most Americans are familiar was a creation of the boom in education and technology after World War II. The audio-lingual method of the 50's and 60's demanded a great deal of repetition and creation of language within established patterns such as the person-number substitution drill (yo hablo... t? t hablas... l? l habla... etc.). During the height of this method in the 60's and 70's, schools and universities often had several large rooms dedicated to carrels in which students would sit, either by themselves or in a class, and answer questions posed to them on audiotape, or repeat utterances for the purpose of checking their own pronunciations or grammar. From an instructional point of view, it was not unusual to devote a full day of class (one-fifth to one-fourth of the entire course) to taking the class as a whole to the lab. As audiotape technology became more inexpensive and widespread, students began to listen to their tapes at home. Language labs made available high-speed copiers so that students could make a personal copy of the lesson to listen to at home. Publishers were made aware of this trend, and began to bundle individual audiotapes with the textbooks. The ease of personal access to audiotape technology had two immediate consequences. First, attendance at language labs began to drop as it became unnecessary for students to sit in carrels to do their homework. Second, anecdotal evidence began to mount that students were simply not getting the same benefit from listening to tapes at home. Professors complained that students were not listening to the tapes properly, if at all. They would rarely repeat a tape until they got the answers right, and they were not checking their answers properly. Students, who by the 80's were accustomed to being entertained at home via television, Nintendo, and personal computers, complained that the tapes were just too boring to be believed, and they were simply unwilling to spend the time repeating drills the way their parents had. The final nail in the coffin of the audio lab was the death of the audio-lingual method itself. New research noted that it was not necessary to bore students with repetitive drills in order for them to learn language, but it was important to engage the students in the language as often as possible.

As early as the 60's and 70's, foreign language methodologists began to experiment with computer-assisted language instruction. The early efforts, dependent entirely upon the access one had to the computer (usually a line-by-line terminal attached to a mainframe), were little more than electronic workbooks. The student would be asked a question, type in an answer, and be given immediate feedback whether the answer was wrong or right. Some programmers favored the game model, in which one played simple games like "Hangman" in the second language. Some students, those particularly interested in language or computers, were inspired to learn in this way, but for most, the experience turned out to be as unpleasant the audio lab: one had to go to a public place, sit in a carrel, and do repetitious work. Only this time the students had to contend with unfamiliar technology, user interfaces that varied greatly from machine to machine (especially in the approach to foreign characters), and, as with their experience listening to tapes at home, little to no supervision. At the same time that MTV was revolutionizing the visual vocabulary of a generation, computer screens full of text or excruciatingly amateurish graphics.

It wasn't until the 90's that the possibilities of computer-assisted language learning (CALL, for short) really opened up. One the hardware side, personal computers finally got fast and big enough to run sophisticated programs, and networking began to make technology available for collective endeavors such as education. With larger machines came multimedia capabilities: CD-Rom, Midi ports, and the like. On the software side, the success of the Windows operating system meant that PC users could finally learn the benefits of a standard user interface that Macintosh users had known for years: learn one interface, run any program using the same key-stroke commands. Of course, the software also kept up with the growing capabilities of the hardware, and it became extremely easy to run complicated software on CD or link to the Internet with a double click. The market soon discovered the interest in foreign language instruction, especially for business, and responded with several language "methods" for the most profitable language. (It should be noted that these CDs offer little more than conversational language methods. They can teach phrases and vocabulary and some grammar, but they are hardly the same as a full language course.) Even more important than the commercial offerings was the explosion in the World Wide Web across the world. In an hour in from of a computer, a student can now visit a variety of sites in the countries in which their target languages are spoken and see "authentic language," that is, language written by native speakers for native speakers. At the same time, they learn about the culture both directly and indirectly, through pictures, audio, videoclips, discussion groups, e-mail resources, and the like. Language teachers always knew that to learn a language one had to "go there." Now, it appeared that "there" was able to come her. Since the web was available from both Macintosh and Windows platforms, even the perennial problem of hardware differences appears to have been overcome.

Programs that had hesitated to jump on the technology bandwagon when all it offered were simple programs (like the modern language program at Trinity) realized that the time had come to take advantage of the hardware and software at hand. Since the audio-lingual lab was essentially dead anyway, and since the entire campus, including the residence halls, was wired for the campus network during the summer of 1996, we could only improve current instruction by seeing what could be done to create what we optimistically called the "virtual language laboratory."

Basic Assumptions

If students won't come to the lab, then the lab can go to the students. The faculty at Trinity has by no means given up on the value of a language lab. Research has shown that language proficiency is a direct function of time spent dealing with the language. The "virtual language lab" was not meant to replace any of the tools of the past. Students would still be expected to use textbooks, audiotapes, and workbooks for drill and practice. The technology is intended to enhance the traditional classroom language acquisition experience. Because this is a kind of lab, it is expected that students will use it on their own time, that they will learn language because they are dealing with it, either by reading web pages in the target language, or by participating in student-oriented discussion groups or e-mail exchanges, or by listening to RealAudio or shortwave broadcasts, or by doing activities similar to those found in their workbooks, but adapted to take advantage of the multimedia technology.

This rationale has a number of assumptions behind it. First, on the side of language learning and instruction, it is assumed

  1. that students do not necessarily need only structured drills in order to learn, that language acquisition takes place any time the student is dealing with the target language (one might make the pedagogical leap and assume that the more students are engaged with a target literature or culture the more they will learn about those as well);
  2. that information that students discover on their own has greater impact than information they are told or that they gain through memorization;
  3. that "authentic language" is more engaging and useful (although occasionally problematic) than created pedagogical language, and that, as a result, students will be interested in accessing authentic language web pages in their target language, perhaps enough so to click on a few links of their own and go exploring, thus spending more time with the language and culture;
  4. that websites and other software appropriate to a language lesson can occasionally be brought into class, thus giving the students a common "lab" experience;
  5. that culture, which has been recognized as essential to full comprehension of another language, is easier to comprehend from real-life web pages than from the distilled cultural overviews usually written into textbooks;
  6. that language, literature, and culture are intertwined so that one cannot really know one without knowing something of the others and that one always learns something about the others by studying one of them; and
  7. that professors are willing to adapt their materials to include Internet materials and accommodate the unexpected, such as when a student brings a previously unknown site to the attention of the class;

Second, on the side of the technology, it is assumed

  1. that there is plentiful material available online already, that more is posted every day, and that instructional software not available anywhere else can be created (in other words, one can "visit" a foreign country online thanks to the copious resources available, second only to a real-time visit with target language speakers);
  2. that all students have access to multimedia computers, either through public computer labs on campus or through personal computers linked to a campus network, and that the students can enter and read foreign characters (relatively easy in Spanish and German, not so easy in Chinese and Arabic); and
  3. that students are familiar with personal computing, using either Macintosh or Windows, and that all have network-compatible operating systems (for PC's, Window 3.11 or Windows 95); and
  4. that computers are here to stay so all of us, teachers and students, should endeavor to find the best use of them for the foreign language classroom.

At the same time, there are some mitigating assumptions that should always be taken into account when designing technological applications and courses:

  1. that there is no one single standard for most things online (from the essential difference between Macintosh, PC and UNIX machines to the various ways of encoding Chinese in web browsers), making life more complicated for everyone;
  2. that preparation, use and acquisition of online materials requires a lot of time, labor, and money;
  3. that not everything can be done better by computers (there will always be a need for textbooks, workbooks, teachers, etc.);
  4. that it is not always easy to remain in an exclusively target-language environment on the World Wide Web due to the astonishing penetration of English as the default online language;
  5. that not everyone reacts to computers the same way (some embrace it enthusiastically; some would rather have a root canal);
  6. that there is so far little hard evidence showing the benefits of computer-assisted language learning (CALL) in general, much less specific research establishing what kinds of computer activities are more beneficial than others

Not all of these assumptions turn out to be valid in every case, as will be explained below, but, even with less-than-ideal circumstances, computer-based materials can be effectively integrated into a language curriculum.

Operating Principles

Taking all these assumptions into account, it is not hard to develop a short list of operating principles that, one hopes, will produce the greatest benefit with the least expense, work, frustration, and waste of time. The remainder of this project, that is, the discussions of computer applications in specific courses, incorporates the following notions:

  1. We should abandon what we already have and use. Audio tapes still have a role to play, as do videotapes, laserdisks, and even flash cards. The computer should be viewed as one more tool in the arsenal of useful pedagogical instruments to enhance learning.
  2. Not everything needs to be or even should be computerized. With greater assessment of real-time experiences, it will become clear which activities are better than others. At the same time, instructors should feel free to incorporate small CALL components into their existing courses. There is no reason to adopt an "all or nothing" approach to instructional technology, and lots of good reasons not to.
  3. The computer should be used primarily for those activities that the computer does best: access vast amounts of information and examples of authentic language via the World Wide Web, help with aural-oral skills using multimedia technology, drill and practice using interactivity, etc.
  4. For reasons of accessibility, web-based applications are the easiest and best to use. While the web may not offer the richness or the depth of a dedicated CD-ROM or laserdisk, if one is creating one's own materials it is much easier to create a website than a CD-ROM. At the same time, all web materials are available to all students at all times from any computer (overcoming for the most part the lack of a single standard platform), an advantage that no other technology or computer application can match.

Online Activities

The following is a list of the most popular kinds of activities multimedia technology offers to students:


Assessment is the most problematic aspect of incorporating multimedia technology into the classroom. Given the enormous resources required to create materials, and even to find materials created by others, one would hope that there would be tangible benefits making the expenditures of time and money worthwhile. Traditional means of evaluation include dividing classes into two groups, one a control group without the use of technology, one with. The structural flaws in such an approach are numerous: the size of the groups is usually too small to render the sample size adequate for statistical conclusions; the individual variation among students in language classes is so great that it is impossible to isolate the technology variable from all the others that influence language learning ability; and the mechanisms for testing the outcomes (written and oral tests, etc.) are not necessarily designed to render a specific judgment regarding technology. For all of these reasons, the traditional social-science statistical method of analysis is probably not the most accurate; indeed, it may not provide any worthwhile conclusions at all. These are the conclusions of a number of speakers at the annual meeting of the Consortium for Liberal Arts Colleges academic computing professionals, held at Trinity University in June 1998.

Rather, it appears that anecdotal and intuitive methods, dismissed by those who insist on statistical results, may provide us in the long run with more useful information. These more human studies also take into account student affect and enthusiasm, teacher-student interaction, and subjective evaluation of student performance in class and on exams. Although one can elicit data that can be statistically useful, such as the answers to a questionnaire, the first-hand report of faculty in the classroom is also an important consideration in the decision to allocate resources to technology.

The assessment phase of the work in the Department of Modern Languages at Trinity University has just begun. As results become available, from both student and professor perspectives, they will be added to this website and can be accessed through the following link:

Final Consideration

The field second language acquisition has enthusiastically embraced technology, but the nature of the incorporation of multmedia technology has varied widely from campus to campus, dependent upon university resources, faculty interest, availability of materials in a specific language and other factors. We are still at the beginning of our understanding of how best to use these technologies. As of the writing of this report (August 1998), the Department of Modern Languages at Trinity University has undertaken half of its goal of learning about, using, and evaluating multimedia technology as a vital component of foreign language learning. We have seen the enormous offerings available to us, but we have only begun to connect the information available online with our course goals and other more traditional course materials. We will continue to investigate the question with the goal of including in our courses those materials and activities that are interesting and beneficial, and of abandoning those materials and activities that are unproductive or too costly in terms of both time and money. We firmly believe that we cannot go back, however, to a day when all one needed was a book and maybe a chalkboard. Technology is here to stay and it is up to us to deal with it, even occasionally on its terms rather than ours, ultimately making it our own.