Language Learning in a MOO: Creating a Transoceanic Bilingual Virtual Community

  1. 1. Randall P. Donaldson

    Loyola College in Maryland

  2. 2. Markus Kötter

    Englisches Seminar - Westfälische Wilhelms Universität Münster (University of Muenster / Munster)

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This paper presents the results of a project carried out from January to May 1998 in which computer technologies, specifically the possibilities offered by MOOs (Object-Oriented Multiple User Domains), were used to train students to become independent active learners and to create enthusiasm for language learning by providing rich cultural contexts and access to native speakers as informants. The project assessed the possibility and potential of teaching intermediate learners of a foreign language (in this case, English and German) via the Internet.

Two groups were involved: one in Germany, and one in the United States. The German group consisted of eight enrollees in an adult evening school class in English at the intermediate level. The American participants were a group of thirteen college students in their fourth semester of German. Each group consisted of native speakers of the language the other group was learning. The groups met together in a virtual classroom in a pre-selected MOO for two hours each week.

Each participant in a group had two partners in the other group. Partners served as linguistic informants and cultural guides for their counterparts. Together, partner teams worked on projects assigned by their respective instructor. The American half of the partnership worked on projects concerned with Germany and German culture and undertook their investigations in German (for them the target language). The German group worked on tasks in English focused on English and American culture.

The project sought to combine the principles of autonomous language learning and tandem learning with the resources of the Internet to provide a rich learning environment for language learners with an intermediate ability level. Autonomous language learning (ALL) seeks to enable learners to monitor their learning process by assuming increased responsibility for the on-going evaluation of both their progress and the means they utilized to get there. ALL thus aims at the development of language and language-learning awareness with the result that the learners become much more aware of their needs and are both better motivated to learn and, in the long run, more competent in their use of L2.

ALL comprises both group work and individual work, with the former being the preferred means of learning. It focuses on process rather than product, requires the active participation of the learners throughout their work, asks the learners themselves to assess whether or not they succeeded in reaching their objectives and what they could or should have done.

Tandem learning aims at a mutual support between the native speaker of a language and the learner of this language who at the same time is a native speaker of his or her partner’s target language. Among the many advantages of this approach are the fact that learners have more than just one informant (the teacher) who can illustrate aspects of the respective L2 and who can provide written and/or spoken examples to assist with problems or questions concerning issues in question, that learners use L2 for authentic purposes in the learning process, that partners become valuable informants about the culture of the respective target-language community and thus provide an amount of information that far exceeds the data being provided by textbooks, videos, etc.

Two principles are fundamental to tandem learning: the principle of reciprocity, i.e., both of the languages should receive a similar amount of attention and time, and the principle of learner autonomy. Tandem learning requires and promotes the ability to learn a “language autonomously.” For the present project each participant was paired twice on a one-to-one basis so that each individual had two partners who were natives of his or her L2. No one was obliged to work exclusively with a given partner, but the sheer existence of two partners ensured that there was always someone available.

The MOO has proven to be an almost ideal space for this approach to language learning: "When users sign on to a MOO they are dropped into a text-based virtual reality; a database that is "divided" into many rooms or locales. The user is virtually in this room and the room will have a description, may contain other objects [...] and allows synchronous communication with other users in the room." [1]. Although the text-based nature of a MOO means that speaking and listening are initially absent, that fact can at times prove to be a benefit. Those who might have been inclined to remain passive in an “ordinary” classroom took advantage of the option of “listening” to on-going communication before deciding to get involved. Learners tended to forget their anxiety about speaking a foreign language, which in turn led to a much less stressful learning atmosphere.

This paper will focus on the L2 competence required to participate in such a project, the effects of the virtual nature of the learning environment, strategies employed by the participants to improve their TL competence, examples of learner strategies in the MOO, and participants' feedback concerning their attitudes about bilingual language learning in the MOO.

The most tangible result which regular meetings in the MOO seemed to foster was a growing sense of commitment to and responsibility for the agenda for each successive meeting. Relationships developed between partners in the various pairs, and a genuine sense of community arose within and among the various groups. Partners summarized the activities of the current session, planned for the next meeting, and generally assumed responsibility for the on-going process. Despite often rather notable differences in age, background, or language ability, partners often showed real concern for the learning of their counterparts. The conversations in the various groups were often very natural and animated. Language learning in the MOO, if nothing else, took on the flavor of an authentic everyday experience


1. Sanchez, Barbara (1996). MOOving to a new frontier in language learning. In: Warschauer, Mark, ed., Telecollaboration in Foreign Language Learning. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Second Language Teaching and Curriculum Center, pp. 145-163.

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Conference Info

In review

"Virtual Communities"

Hosted at Debreceni Egyetem (University of Debrecen) (Lajos Kossuth University)

Debrecen, Hungary

July 5, 1998 - July 10, 1998

109 works by 129 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ALLC (10), ACH/ICCH (18), ALLC/EADH (25)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC