Computer-Assisted Language Learning

Computer-assisted language learning (CALL) is a rapidly growing field and an obvious next step in language pedagogy. But how should it best be utilized? What's are its current strengths and weaknesses compared to more traditional language teaching methods?

CALL activities are typically done by individuals, with little interaction among the students. Because of the availability of automatic computer feedback, each student can potentially work on a different activity with little or no extra work created for the instructor. Student performance can often be automatically evaluated, so activities can also be tailored to each individual student. This amount of student-driven learning is almost impossible in a traditional classroom.

The computer can easily randomize the order of data to be presented, so closed format exams can be administered in an unbiased and relatively cheat-proof manner. In general, evaluation of a student's current proficiency can be done more efficiently. The computer program can adjust the difficulty level of its questions as needed. With modern artificial intelligence techniques, a sort of virtual immersion in the L2 can be engineered, albeit with somewhat restricted language.

Any activity in which the student is supposed to write or speak freely could be difficult to develop. Currently, computers are still not very good at interpreting natural human language. There would have to be certain strict parameters in place to aid the computer both in generating target forms and in interpreting human responses. Aside from this concern, in a computer lab, speaking activities will likely be avoided at all costs by self-conscious students. This poses a problem for developing spoken language skills.

There usually aren't enough class hours available to effectively develop the student's target language proficiency, and traditional homework assignments typically do little to develop fluency. With CALL activities, student responses can be time sensitive, much as they are in the real world. However, for reasons I've stated, the responses probably won't be oral.

Aside from the general technical difficulties you're likely to encounter in any extended interaction with computers, CALL activities may present problems of their own. Because of the flexible, student-guided nature of many of these programs, assigning students a grade for their activities could prove a bit tricky. Should you reward the student who rushed into difficult activities and made all sorts of mistakes or the student who played it safe and performed perfectly at tasks below their level?

All in all, CALL can be an invaluable addition to the language instructor's repertoire. At present, however, it is hardly a replacement for more traditional instruction and, more importantly, real-world practice with spoken communication.

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