Learning language in virtual reality: Mondly VR
Updated: Oct 19, 2022
Find out about the Virtual Reality language learning application, MondlyVR, available on the Oculus Quest2 for just $10. As a very brief summary, I'd say language teachers don't need to be afraid for their jobs just yet - VR language teaching has a way to go still...
Here's a summary of scores awarded using our CACEL criteria, based on criteria for selecting digital tools/materials by Kidd (2019) at Cambridge's World of better learning. The stars are awarded out of a potential 5 for each criterion.
Useful if you're planning a trip to the moon
Here, we ask ourselves whether the game exposes learners to rich, relevant and comprehensible input and in short, yes, to a certain extent, it does. It includes vocabulary related to everyday life such as fruit and vegetables and dialogues for the train, taxi, restaurant, hotel and shops. These could be described as authentic contexts for language use and therefore, potentially effective for 'helping to bridge the gap' between the virtual classroom and real world events (Guariento & Morley, 2001). There are, however, perhaps some topics that would be less useful, such as animals and space - unless anyone is planning on taking a trip to the moon, in which case, go for it! Even at advanced levels though, the content never really goes beyond the phrase level. There are no texts to engage with and the focus is nearly always on vocabulary items or pronunciation of functional phrases. What about grammar and reading, writing and listening? It seems that currently MondlyVR only provides some minor pieces of a much larger language puzzle.
It goes without saying that access to this app is only for those who are in possession of an Oculus Quest2 headset, and for many, those aren't exactly cheap, retailing at around €450. The app itself is just €10, which seems fairly reasonable. In terms of whether the app would meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, I'd probably have to say no. If you're hard of hearing or deaf, for example, and learning language through lip reading, this app isn't for you because the avatar's mouth does not move in line with the words. There is also no option to view phonemic script to help with pronunciation of the new words or phrases, an aspect many language teaching scholars would argue is fundamental for any learning focussing on pronunciation, as this app seems to be doing (Underhill, 2005). One positive aspect of this app though is that it makes language approachable for absolute beginners of a language, offering instructions in the learner's first language and guiding them through with little grandad jokes, anecdotes and fairly well-known facts - a cat does really have 9 lives, right? This use of the first language, of course, does bring drawbacks that will be mentioned later but as an absolute beginner, MondlyVR could provide some initial building blocks.
Just listen and repeat, listen and repeat.
If repeating the words of a programmed avatar teacher is considered communication, then I guess we could say yes, there is communication. But in reality, what we need is meaningful communication (Richards, 2006), and there is little of that here. For the most part, you are simply repeating the words of 'the teacher', which is reflective of a rather outdated approach to language teaching known as the audiolingual approach, a method that was criticised for being unnatural, too 'robotic' and grounded in the old-fashioned learning theory of behaviourism (Harmer, 2001). It's just listen and repeat, listen and repeat. In the dialogue activities there is some option in how you respond to questions as three phrases are presented; however, you then again select that response and listen and repeat. What's perhaps most disappointing here is another missed opportunity for game mechanics as these scenario activities could be an opportunity to try and complete a mission, for example, successfully booking a hotel room or complaining about a meal. This would add a gamified feature and a task to represent the modern-day approach to language teaching known as task-based teaching. For now though, it's just a lot of listen and repeat.
Is this a tool we'll want to keep coming back to, motivating us and challenging us to improve our language skills? My feeling is maybe not right now. It doesn't currently take advantage of the game mechanics that we might expect a VR game to employ, such as leaderboards, points scoring, badges, challenges, problem-solving, collaboration etc. (Reinhardt & Thorne, 2016), the likes of which have made Duolingo the go-to app for language learning all over the globe. Nor are there the little quizzes or games we often play in the language learning classroom to check our understanding or memory of words or phrases. Gamification can increase motivation (Wu & Huang, 2017) and perhaps the most obvious area of the app that could lend itself to some gamified features are the short vocabulary learning activities. There are numerous activities that could provide a focus on not just pronunciation (which is the current focus), but also spelling, meaning, categorisation or even the grammar of the language. British Council provides some suggestions here, but there are many more vocabulary activities that could be incorporated. Naturally, these limitations may be owing to the software itself and the technology necessary to produce such tools - I don't know anywhere near enough to comment on that. The graphics, the scenarios and the friendly avatar teacher could be enough to keep some coming back but more gamification would surely provide more motivation for others.
Value for money
Mondly VR claims to offer an immersive learning experience and whilst it is immersive in the sense that you are indeed immersed in a virtual space as opposed to the real world, the app is not immersive. in language learning terms. The avatar teacher speaks to you in your first language. In the vocabulary lessons, the only words you hear in the target language are the singular target vocabulary items, which represent a very small part of the avatar's spoken content. In language learning, immersion is defined as placing learners in an environment where all activities are carried out in the foreign or target language (Bakhov & Honcharenko-Zakrevsk, 2018), which is not the case here. It could be argued that there is more immersion in the speaking activities, where you find yourself on a train or in a restaurant, for example, and the interlocutor speaks in the foreign language only, but here still the phrases are translated for you into your first language. This is, of course, a useful scaffold, especially for beginner learners - but it is by no means immersive.
On a positive note, the app does allow learners to take control of their own learning, as you can choose the activities you do and in which order you do them. You also receive instant feedback on your pronunciation of words, as you are given the green light for good and a red light if you need to try again, or stars for your performance. This is testament to how far ASR (Automatic Speech Recognition) has come. The chance to practise and receive feedback can be a little inconsistent though, as sometimes you are asked to repeat target words whilst at other times you are not. Afterwards, you are tested on some of the words but not on others. There is also little to gauge your progress. However, just recently, MondlyVR added a daily lesson and in this activity, the teacher asks you to repeat some vocabulary items or short phrases and then you are scored on your pronunciation. Your score appears on a scoreboard and you can see how you compare to other daily lesson participants, which does offer a little bit of gamification.
For €10, I would say this app is value for money. It's quite easy to use and does feel appealing. Do you actually learn any language from it though? I'd say the jury is still out on that one. For language teachers worrying that their jobs will soon be taken away by robots or VR avatars, I'd also say there's no need to worry just yet!
Arnold, B. J. (2014). Gamification in education. Proceedings of the American Society of Business and Behavioral Sciences, 21(1), 32–39.
Bakhov, I., & Honcharenko-Zakrevska, N. (2018). Implementation of the Concept of Language Immersion In Learning Foreign Languages. In 5th International Multidisciplinary scientific conference on social sciences and arts SGEM 2018 (pp. 417-424).
Guariento, W. and Morley, J. (2001). ‘Text and task authenticity in the EFL Classroom’. ELTJ Vol 55/4.
Harmer, J. (2001). The practice of English language teaching. London/New York: Longman.
Kidd, D. (2019). How to select the right digital materials for your students. Cambridge World of better learning. https://www.cambridge.org/elt/blog/2019/10/29/how-select-right-digital-materials-your-students/
Reinhardt, J., & Thorne, S. (2016). Metaphors for digital games and language learning. In The Routledge handbook of language learning and technology (pp. 441-456). New York: Routledge.
Richards, J.C. (2006). Communicative language teaching today. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Underhill, A. (2005). Sound foundations. London: Macmillan Education.
Wu, T.-T., & Huang, Y.-M. (2017). A mobile game-based English vocabulary practice system based on portfolio analysis. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 20(2), 265–277.