Active learning in the language lab

Students interested in learning a new language or improving their English thrive when labs are transformed into active learning spaces
By: | Issue: June, 2019
May 21, 2019
At University of Wisconsin-Madison, tables in the language lab can be easily arranged and rearranged, or pushed aside for more group space.At University of Wisconsin-Madison, tables in the language lab can be easily arranged and rearranged, or pushed aside for more group space.

Learning another language has traditionally involved sitting in front of computers wearing headphones, listening to recorded lessons, and repeating words and phrases. It’s a passive, old-school process, which is increasingly being replaced by more active approaches that rely less on rote memorization.

“We’ve moved into a much more communicative way of learning languages,” says Felix Kronenberg, editor of From Language Lab to Language Center and Beyond (International Association for Language Learning Technology, 2017) and an associate professor of linguistics and language at Michigan State University.

“We have to make language learning more engaging for students, and language centers can help do that,” he adds.

Active language-learning labs—which are cropping up, but are not yet the norm in higher ed—aim to help students learn languages through a combination of multimedia tools, games, cultural activities and opportunities to practice conversational skills in spaces designed to be reconfigured to suit various uses. The approach is both more fun and more effective than 
listening to lectures, memorizing words and conjugating verbs, notes Kronenberg.

At a time when enrollment in second languages is down—dropping 9.2% between 2013 and 2016, according to a 2018 Modern Language Association report—transforming language labs into active learning spaces could help attract new students. Here’s how two institutions approached creating an active language lab.

University of Wisconsin-Madison: Space to learn

When Daniel Pell applied for a grant to establish a new learning lab for English as a second language students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he included with the application a photo of students sitting in rows of desks and wearing headphones. Dating back to the 1950s, the photo reflected how the school was still offering language education.

“Rooms where students are all facing forward with headphones on are not where communication happens,” says Pell, a senior strategic learning technology consultant. “Students learn a language by using it, which means having real face-to-face conversations, discussing ideas, reviewing their work.”

At Rhodes College, lab activities include a weekly yoga class taught in German.

At Rhodes College, lab activities include a weekly yoga class taught in German.

Pell knew it was harder for ESL students to learn English in the existing language lab where desks and computers dominated the space. So he applied for, and received, a $100,000 grant from the university’s College of Letters & Science to transform a 575-square-foot former office into an active language-learning lab.

The new space, which opened in 2016, is equipped with modular tables and chairs that can be reconfigured for improved interactions. In a single class, tables can be arranged and rearranged for students to work in pairs or in small or large groups. The tables and stackable chairs can also be moved to the perimeter of the room, opening up the space for activities.

“It’s hard to get the kind of interaction you want when the furniture in the room is working against you,” Pell says. “When you can arrange the furniture to create intimacy between the students, the conversation happens more naturally and so does learning.”


Related at UB Tech®—Thirteen sessions on streamlining collaborative learning in the Active Classroom track. Details


Even the devices—iMacs with 28-inch screens and iPad Pro tablets—were selected because they allow students to tuck them out of sight to facilitate conversation. An 80-inch television screen hangs on the wall, and a wireless hookup allows students to control the screen from their laptops so they can show their work to classmates.

“An active language-learning lab is not about having the best technology,” says Pell. “It’s about creating spaces for communication to happen.”
Although university officials aren’t asking Pell to track the impact of the new space on learning, he believes its success is evident each time ESL students walk into the lab.

“The furniture doesn’t create barriers,” he says. “You don’t have to fight to get students to start talking and interacting with each other. The new lab has made a huge impact on learning.”

Rhodes College: An active pursuit

The activities scheduled at the Language Learning Center at Rhodes College in Memphis might seem at odds with learning a new language. But Wonneken Wanske insists that tasting chocolates, building gingerbread houses, learning to knit, attempting new yoga poses and making paper flowers are integral to language learning.

Essential elements of an active language lab

Modular furniture: Students should be able to move the tables and chairs to accommodate independent study, partnered projects, and small- or large-group work.

Technology: Smart televisions, laptops and tablets can be valuable tools in language learning labs, but screens should complement learning, not dominate the space.

Activities calendar: Holding game nights, conversation hours, potluck suppers and other cultural immersion events in language labs helps students connect to their target language outside the classroom.

Extended hours: Unlike conventional classrooms or computer labs, active learning labs should encourage connection, regardless of the time.

“The old format of teaching language is obsolete,” says Wanske, assistant professor of German and director of the center. “Language teaching has moved to a more social model.”

Rhodes College transformed its language learning facility into an active lab in 2010, abandoning rows of desks with computers in favor of modular furniture that can be moved or rearranged to accommodate morning classes, afternoon meetings, tutoring sessions, professional development sessions and evening events. Events have ranged from cultural festivals and photography exhibits to conversation hours. The 1,027-square-foot center is open 24/7, and students are free to rearrange the furniture to suit their needs.

The center is stocked with board games, books and other analog language-learning resources, as well as tech tools such as computer stations, charging stations for mobile devices, and wireless printing. Students can work on group projects or leave messages for each other on the walls of the lab, which are covered with whiteboard paint.

Wanske collaborates with stakeholders, including instructors and students, to generate ideas for programming at the college, and students often organize events as part of their coursework.


Related: Say ‘oui’ to online language learning


The active language-learning approach has attracted a lot of attention. During the annual Day of the Dead festival, more than 200 students come to the center to take part in cultural activities, sample traditional Mexican foods and gain exposure to opportunities to learn new languages. Weekly yoga classes taught in German draw up to 20 students—and only a fraction of them are taking German classes (or any language classes at all). At the end of a class, students have learned the German words for hand and foot as well as for several animals, such as dog, snake and pigeon, thanks to the names of different yoga poses.

“The more you’re exposed to a target language in engaging ways, the easier it is to learn,” Wanske says. “It’s a great recruiting tool.”

Jodi Helmer, a North Carolina-based writer, is a frequent contributor to UB.


Interested in technology? Keep up with the UB Tech® conference.