Children Learning a Foreign Language Using a Software Program: Language Adventure I.*

Ali Borjian & Amado M. Padilla
Stanford University

The goal of this study was to examine the utility of a new software program that was designed to teach a second language to young children with an emphasis on oral production. Three elementary school students who volunteered to be introduced to a foreign language utilizing a language software (Language Adventure I) participated in this study. The students were observed twice a week for eight weeks. The focus of the observations was students' level of engagement as well as their enthusiasm about the program. The results indicated that the students were generally quite enthusiastic about this software. Students noted that the most exciting part of the program was when they had the opportunity to record their own voices.

Children Learning a Foreign Language Using a Software Program: Language Adventure I

The ultimate goal of computer usage in education is to improve the educational attainment of students. Therefore, it is important to study what makes educational software effective in improving educational attainment of its users and under which circumstance students electively utilize computers. To be fully engage with an educational software students demand that the software be interactive and fun to use. Further, Kay (1993) emphasizes that the computer users must have a strong desire and need to broaden their skills and knowledge in use of computers before signi6cant computer usage will take place. Levine and Donitsa-Schmidt (1997) argue that computer experience positively affects perceived computer self-confidence and computer related attitudes. The authors discuss three main factors that affect the manner in which students fully utilize computers: 1) computer-related attitudes; 2) beliefs in own ability to be a successful computer user; and 3) amount and nature of experience with computers. Accessibility must also be considered when discussing experience with computers.

Computers have been used to enhance language teaching for many years (Cohen and Riel, 1989). Computer-assisted language learning (CALL) software has provided a variety of applications such as vocabulary tutors, spell checkers, word processing, and reading and writing tutors (Roblyer, 1997). Overall CALL software has emphasized the structural elements of the language, rather than communicative objectives (Dudley- Marling and Searle, 1989) . However, computer-based technology in teaching of foreign languages has been improving (Pusack and Otto, 1997).

Some researchers and software developers are now interested in a medium that will provide the learner with a more natural means to interact in the target language. Furthermore, they are interested in not only providing software that is an effective teaching too1, but which is also motivating as well as entertaining. Although the majority of foreign language software currently available concentrates solely on comprehension an( listening skills, some software developers strive to design language teaching software that follows a natural approach to learning a second language. One such language program is Language Adventure I developed by Instinct Corporation.

Language Adventure I is a multimedia language teaching software designed to encourage oral production of the target language. Language Adventure I was designed for children between the ages 6 to 12. The program teaches pronunciation and vocabulary for English, French, German, Italian, Japanese and Spanish. In addition to teaching colors, numbers, and common objects, the program teaches basic grammar following a first language acquisition order. Language Adventure I entertains the user through a story. The main characters in the story are a blue alien named Una, her orange-haired brother Om, their bionic dog Pico, and an alien professor whose job is to help the user. The brother and sister team travel through time and space in search of Pico. The user follows them and shares the adventure in the selected language.

Language Adventure I has been used in individua1 and group settings with children between the ages of 6 and 12. In one such setting, a second grade teacher reported that her children were quite enthusiastic about the program. The purpose of this study was to further investigate the use of Language Adventure I with young children by observing them closely as they used the software to learn a language that they selected for themselves. The goal was (a) to assess the interest value that Language Adventure I had for these children and to (b) determine the types of concerns that emerge when using Language Adventure I with young children learning a foreign language.

The participants of this study were three elementary school students in grades two and three. The students were enrolled in a suburban private school in northern California. Two girls and one boy were selected from a pool of volunteers who indicated that they were interested in participating in this study. With respect to their foreign language experience, all of the participants were native English speakers, but had the opportunity to learn Spanish at school since the first grade.

The software program used in this study was Language Adventure I. This software is a story-based language teaching program that uses the same script to teach English, French, German, Italian, Japanese and Spanish. The program allows the user to indicate his/her native language as well as the intended language to be learned. There are six main units in language Adventure I, but the program offers hundreds of interactive learning exercises.

Students watch and listen to an animated story narrated by a native speaker. When they reach a narration exercise, the animation stops, requiring the child to repeat and record what was just heard. After recording, students will hear their own voice for comparison to the narrator. The program introduces age appropriate vocabulary as well as grammatical structures that are very similar across the six languages.

Language Adventure I is Window based and requires a 90 MHz Pentium processor. 32 Mega Bytes of RAM is recommended to run this program. Three Mega Bytes of hard disc space is needed for the installation of Language Adventure I. Furthermore, 60 Mega Bytes of hard disc space is needed for each user. In addition to a CD-ROM drive and a 16 bit sound card, microphone and speakers are needed to fully utilize the capabilities of this software.

Students were given the opportunity to work individually with the software program. They were allowed up to two hours per session to work on Language Adventure I, but were instructed to discontinue whenever they got tired. Students were asked to decide on a target language. Two students chose to study Italian and one decided to learn German. Students were given the opportunity to use Language Adventure I twice a week for eight weeks. Since the elementary school did not have the required hardware to run the program, the students were accompanied to a nearby high school computer lab.

Through observations and interviews the researcher was able to gauge the level of involvement and motivation of the students utilizing the program. The students were asked for their opinions regarding various aspects of the software as they were using the program. Their comments and opinions were then recorded in a notebook. In addition, their oral proficiency in the target language was also monitored for their progress.

Results and Discussion
Students were generally quite enthusiastic about this program. Students noted that the most exciting part of the program was when they had the opportunity to record their own voices. Of the three students participating in this study, one was able to complete the program fully. This was due to the fact that she had the necessary computer hardware to run the program at home. The second female participant completed about 80 percent of the program and the male participant finished about 40 percent of German and about 20 percent of French. All of the students indicated that they liked the characters Pico and Una. One child explained that she liked Pico because she had a fondness for dogs and he seemed like a lot of fun. They were 1ess enthusiastic about Om. One of the students noted that Om did not seem particularly bright and kept on repeating the same phrases. Students also indicated that they did not like the way the professor looked. They stated that his voice and the way he shook his head as he spoke were unnatural and distracting.

The females were generally more enthusiastic than the male. This may be due to several reasons. The girls attended the same class and were interested in learning the same language (Italian). Although the girls were friends, a competitive atmosphere existed among them. This may have had a particularly important ramification since it seemed to motivate the girls to work on the program even more than they might have if working alone. This competitive/cooperative atmosphere also appeared to help the students focus on the learning task. Furthermore, they stayed on tasks longer. Most importantly, the girls had two years of foreign language (Spanish) at their school and possibly their introduction to Italian was less intimidating. Conversely the male only had one year of Spanish and was now interested in learning German. His reason for wanting to learn German was quite fascinating. He was an "Indiana Jones" enthusiast having owned the video collection and having seen the movies several times. He was curious to know why Indiana Jones could not speak German even though all the Germans in the movie(s) were bilingual. Although this participant was enthusiastic in the first few sessions he soon stated (very politely) that he was getting bored. He indicated that the program did not have enough "action" for him and this was causing him to lose interest. It may also have been the case that without a partner and someone to share his learning of German, he found it more difficult to keep motivated.

Children were quite keen about comparing the accuracy of their pronunciation with that of the native speaker narrator of the program. Furthermore, students were quite accurate in diagnosing their own pronunciation of the target language. Hearing themselves speaking a foreign language provided a considerable amount of enthusiasm and the students were willing to work on the program as long as fifty-five minutes per session. One female student stated that the program was "very entertaining and made me want to work on it for a long time". The children indicated that the most exciting part of the program was when they had the opportunity to record their own voices. " I liked hearing myself on it" was the comment of one of the children. Through comments and nonverbal behavior the students expressed their satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) in accurately producing phrases required by the program as Una, Om and Pico move their story line. One female student stated that: " I would listen to it and if it didn't sound anything like it at all, I would do it again and try to make it [the pronunciation] better".

The children did indicate that some of the sentences were too long and perfect repetition was sometimes too difficult. If some sentences where too difficult to repeat, the student provided utterances that were quite different than the ones that were provided by the program. One female student suggested that the sentences provided for repetition should be shortened so they could more easily repeat them. Children also felt that the sentences should be presented twice so they could have more practice hearing the pronunciation of words and sentences before attempting to repeat them. The learners also stated that instead of six lessons, more (but shorter) lessons should be provided. Furthermore, they indicated that the machine should prompt the user to repeat an utterance if it is completely different than what was provided by the program.

The students in this study held positive attitudes towards computers. This is partly due to the fact that they all had computers at home and had access to computers at school. They used their computers to draw, play games, email friends, and gain access to information. The programs familiar to these students were: Clarisworks, KidPix, and Where in the U.S.A. is Carmen San Diego. Furthermore, they used the Internet to learn more about some of their favorite Hollywood stars. This was done at home since their school policy did not allow students to use the Internet. When asked why computers are important these children all responded: "...for writing reports and getting into college". Furthermore, the third grade students emphasized the importance of computers for writing reports since they "...didn't have to write the whole thing out". Yet, the student who was the most enthusiastic about Language Adventure I, happened to have a computer that met all the system requirements of the software. She therefore, had additional opportunities to use the software at home. Based on interviews with this child, it became apparent that becoming more familiar with the software made her more enthusiastic about working with Language Adventure I. This child shared that she was so enthusiastic that she worked on the program for more than one hour at a time. She also added that she was able to complete the Italian section of the program and proceeded to repeat the lessons from the beginning.

Among the many factors that influence second language acquisition is the attitude of the learner toward the target language and the people who speak it. The variation in the attitudes of the children in this study toward their target languages influenced their overall motivation to work with Language Adventure I. One of the girls who was of Italian heritage indicated that her grandfather was particularly happy that she was now learning Italian. This undoubtedly increased her motivation to learn this language. The other girl who was relatively as enthusiastic about learning Italian stated that she liked the "sound" of Italian and thought that Italian people were nice.

In addition, children in this study had very positive attitudes toward learning foreign languages in general. They all indicated that learning a foreign language is valuable and allows them to better understand others. They also emphasized that learning a foreign language will enable them to secure better jobs in the future. These children have unquestionably learned these attitudes from their parents or other significant adults in their lives. Children in this study also displayed enthusiasm about learning in general. They avidly attended the sessions and were eager to learn. It must also be noted that the children's participation in this study was completely voluntary and they were free to discontinue their participation at any time. Yet, the male student who was the least enthusiastic about Language Adventure I participated in every activity and provided valuable feedback.

Fostering a positive attitude toward the target language (and foreign language in genera1) among young learners is particularly important. The presentation of the target language must be done in a way that maintains and/or enhances the motivation of the child to learn that language. In other words, the child must be convinced that the process of learning a second language is worth the e6ort and the energy it requires. This cannot be accomplished solely by the efforts of a few teachers and highly motivating language programs. Parents, educators, business leaders and other influential leaders must be convinced of the value of early learning of a foreign language and direct children to such learning opportunities as Language Adventure I.

Hardware requirements prevented the full utilization of the program. The elementary school computer lab was equipped with only Macs and hence students did not have easy access to Language Adventure I. They were required to go to a nearby high school in order to use the program. Our ability to fully utilize the "PC lab" was limited because the lab was also used by high school students and at times it was not available at all. Furthermore, students were only able to use the program twice a week. This frequency of use is not optimal for foreign language learning. In addition, since these observations were conducted after school, on several occasions the high school lab was only available for a short period of time and consequently the students did not have the opportunity to fully utilize the program. These obstacles greatly limited the usability of Language Adventure I. However, they are not uncommon since many elementary schools are currently only equipped with Apple hardware or older PCs.

The program froze several times in the middle of a lesson and the computer had to be restarted. As a consequence, the child had to start again from the beginning of the lesson. Not having the right kind of microphones in the beginning took away some of the initia1 enthusiasm that the students had shown for being involved in the study. However, as soon as the problem was solved microphones became the most important feature of the program.

Noise became an issue when students were working close to each other as they were working at different levels or different languages. Furthermore, students became less willing to repeat phrases when older students were present in the computer lab. They felt more self-conscious and apprehensive. The boy participant felt that a point system should be given to students as they finish each lesson. One student expressed her enthusiasm for activities at the end of each lesson. She noted that: "At the end of each lesson they give you a test which I think is good because you can review what you are doing and it's fun". She also mentioned that the drawing activities at the end of the lessons were engaging and motivating. One student believed that the program should utilize sports and animals to capture children's attention and provide motivation to follow the story.

In sum, students indicated that using Language Adventure I was worth while and requested to be involved in future projects. The scope of this project was merely observational and was meant to identity various aspects of this software program that were particularly interesting to students. A more detailed study must be designed and implemented in order to measure the extent to which students learn the target language from Language Adventure I. It is clear that children should be able to use the program on a regular basis in order to take fu11 advantage of its potential. If the program is available to students every day, (possibly at their homes) they have ample time to learn, as we11 as to practice what they have previously learned. This point is especially important since ample time for language learning is an important factor in successfully acquiring a second language (e.g., Cook, 1996). Finally, the extent to which adult supervision is needed to provide guidance and motivation is another topic in need of study.

We believe that Language Adventure I has the potential to make a positive impact on how young children are taught the basics of a second language. Since the program offers six different languages, it can be used by the same child learn more than a single language or it can be used in group settings to teach a variety of deerhound language combinations depending on student interest.

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* Posted with kind permission from: Ali Borjian & Professor Amado M. Padilla.

Related links: I Stanford University I Professor Amado M. Padilla I

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