CHWP A.7 Heimpel, "The Multimedia Network-based Language Learning Centre: An Historical Approach"

2. The Uses of Language Labs

Despite its rather volatile history, the LL was one of the most large-scale, universal and enduring applications of technology in humanities teaching/learning. The history of the LL began as early as 1906 with the use of phonographs for language learning by the American Military and Naval Academy (Léon 1962). Other early initiatives included the "phonetics lab" at the University of Utah installed by Ralph Waltz in 1924, with the eventual improvements to sound he engineered with G. Oscar Russell for the "practical drill laboratory" at Ohio State University in 1931 (Léon 1962). Waltz's installations were virtually identical to modern LL, which would appear many years later in the late fifties: sounds were sent simultaneously from a central point to various listening stations; listeners could record themselves in order to identify and correct pronunciation problems (Léon 1962). With the invention of the tape recorder in the late thirties and its constant improvement over the years, LL became increasingly common in the United States. In 1949, in a survey of 28 institutions in the North Central United States, 17 were using phonographs, while 9 were using one or more tape recorders. By 1957, there were about 100 LL, 300 by 1958 (Léon 1962) and, by one expert's estimate, 15,000 world-wide by 1970 (Thomas 1988).

Curiously, with all of the changes in technology over the years, the pedagogy of the LL had remained virtually unchanged since Waltz's time. For the most part, labs were used for repetition exercises, answering questions and tests (Léon 1962). Compared to the traditional approaches to second language acquisition -- grammar, translation and vocabulary drills and the so-called "reading approach" -- the work done in LL may have seemed quite exciting. Indeed, language teachers often expressed unbridled enthusiasm for their LL and their seeming magical effectiveness. One such glowing assessment was supplied by Professor Deborah Aish Metford in her article "Happiness Is... A Language Lab" (Metford 1978). Each fifty-minute lesson (thirty-five-minute tape) began with a bell calling the students to their booths where they would listen and respond to a tape played on a central console "manned" by their instructor. The lesson was divided into four sections consisting of: 1) structural listen-repeat exercises; 2) translation from English to French; 3) a song; and 4) listening comprehension passage with questions. According to Metford, the structural listen-repeat exercises reinforced the grammar presented in class the preceding week. This approach, of course, assumed certain powers of memory and/or diligence on the part of the student, which perhaps should not be taken for granted. In the worst case, students merely went through the motions, falling into a pattern of "mindless parroting" (Taggart 1981). Worse yet is the possibility that students simply did not make the connection between sounds and meaning (Calvé 1977; Rebuffot 1981). Accordingly, they could perform rote transformations, but once put in a real-world situation, they were unable to apply their knowledge of French to the communicative situation at hand. [4] This criticism can be applied equally to all of Metford's exercises. In short, students who performed well in the lab may have only mastered lab-type exercises and not French.

Other criticisms applied to the methods of Metford and others include practical points such as the intrusive presence of the instructor-monitor; intimidating equipment and the dehumanizing environment, such as the ever-imposing gong used to cue students and other monotonous procedures; and, of course, the simple fact that pattern drills (structural exercises) were often too simplistic to hold students' attention (Thomas 1988: 143-5). In a survey of Swiss high school students in the Fall of 1973, similar concerns about the use of LL were identified: 1) fatigue: monotonous tasks; shorter lessons needed; 2) the presence of the teacher: the teacher seems to be part of the machinery and little real help to students; 3) lab work in general: students should be allowed to work at their own speed; repetitive, predictable, monotonous work; 4) lab exercises: one does not learn the system of the language, but rather the structure of the exercise (Weber 1976). Finally, the various responses to the preponderance of criticisms amassed since the mid-sixties resulted in a "new" LL, that is, a new use of LL.

However, before examining the so-called renaissance of the LL, it should be emphasized that most of the problems cited by critics of the LL could have been resolved without having to revolutionize its use. Both Thomas and Weber are clear on this point in their articles and, in fact, provide their readers with a series of useful, practical solutions (Thomas 1988; Weber 1976). Clearly, the problem with LL went far beyond claims of dehumanization and the monotony of dull, tiresome exercises (which nevertheless can and have been improved upon). [5] These were merely symptoms of a more serious problem, which was the fundamental misunderstanding of technology, its uses and limits and a deep mistrust of its introduction -- read incursion -- into language teaching.

The first casualty of the "new" LL was undoubtedly the Audio-lingual approach. Instructors no longer believed that a second language could be acquired through endless drills in the lab. Accordingly, the role of the LL was reduced to that of a support for work carried out in the traditional classroom setting. Students no longer were required to be glued to their workstations, where they would all listen to the same recording disseminated from the monitor's console. Also, in many cases, graduate students were hired to provide assistance to lab users, which relieved some of the stress associated with having one's instructor lurking about. Instead, cassette tapes were copied and made available for students to work individually and on a drop-in basis in most cases. Students were thus able to perform at their own speed, without the bothersome and stressful litany of gongs and bells associated with the "old" lab. The role of the lab as a testing facility was also given a minor role in the "new" lab, which, again, improved its image in the eyes of students. In theory, this new use provided an almost ideal learning environment for the dedicated self-learner.

Acting on the revived enthusiasm for the LL, many textbook publishers revamped the lab programme included with their texts. Many students exploited this learning opportunity with commendable success. However, over the course of the eighties, most textbook publishers were not very diligent in their updating of material. The material presented in textbooks, despite efforts to update it, often appeared out of touch with society, even two or three years after publication. For example, in one French textbook I have had occasion to use, students were asked to match up certain French figures with their respective accomplishments. The answer for Simone de Beauvoir, to the chagrin of many students and their instructors, was: l'amie de Jean-Paul Sartre. Meanwhile, other instructors still created material around their own sound documents, most often news clips and commercials taped from the radio. The value of such "authentic documents" in language teaching has been well proved (Lister 1976). However, rarely did instructors have the time to prepare constantly new tapes and lessons, which is almost certainly what was necessary. The cost of new resources also became a stubborn problem: where was the money to come from (Thomas 1988)? For all the talk about and enthusiasm for communicative teaching strategies in the eighties and nineties, method could not compensate for the lamentable lack of quality teaching resources, of lab programmes in this case. Consequently, students often reacted quite negatively to lab work, viewing it more as punishment than anything else. Indeed, I am quite certain that for whatever reason or reasons, some instructors merely offloaded what they saw as the burden of technology on their students. Thus, if there is blame to be assessed in the decline of the "new" LL, then it falls squarely upon instructors' and course administrators' indifference or inability to remedy the lab resource problem.

Nonetheless, some LL continued to grow and flourish in the eighties by supplementing their traditional equipment with various interactive and multimedia technologies. As Professor Alain Thomas writes:

However, one must not exaggerate the importance of these accessory technologies because clearly, it was the micro-computer which was responsible for the most significant technological advances in language teaching/learning in the eighties and early nineties.

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[4] See Calvé 1977. On a theoretical level, this criticism corresponds to the rejection of the behaviourist model of learning: Stimulus - Response - Reinforcement. In particular, new models at the time, such a Chomsky's generative-transformational grammar, suggested that language is much more than the imitation and generalisation of the rules behind utterances.

[5] See Calvé 1977. Calvé quite rightly makes the point that some so-called structural exercises are much better than others, and that the outright rejection of this type of exercise constituted a somewhat rash and unthinking response to the problem.