From the very onset of Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL), it became apparent that computers have the potential to greatly enhance the language learning processes of students. The question is: Have they reached this potential yet? Let’s take the journey through the development of CALL and try to find out.
What can computers achieve that teachers can’t?
The drill and practice materials which emerged with Behaviourist CALL between the 1950s and 1970s demonstrated that computers are able to do certain things that humans are not: repeat the same or very similar exercises with a student without experiencing issues such as boredom, frustration or distraction; provide immediate and unbiased feedback; and perhaps most usefully for teachers, allow students to work at their own individual pace.
Excellent. Students can log on to a program and learn vocabulary or complete grammar exercises at their own pace, with their own feedback, without any input from teachers. It sounds ideal. However, as we now know, the repetition of a task until completed perfectly does not necessarily guarantee understanding, nor indeed suggest that the student will be able to produce any of this newly ‘learned’ language in an authentic communicative situation.
So how can we make it more communicative?
Well, it seems that during the Communicative CALL phase of the 1970s-1980s, we tried giving the computer three different roles to play:
Computer as Tutor (Taylor 1980)
Similar to its role during Behaviourist CALL, the computer has the role of possessing (and guarding) the knowledge the student needs until they complete the task. However, in an effort to be more communicative, students are required to interact with activities such as language games, reading exercises and textual reconstruction before the computer confirms the accuracy of their answers, meaning that there is an increase in student participation.
Computer as Stimulus (Taylor & Perez 1989)
Here we see the computer take on a role similar to what teachers were encouraged to at this point in time: one which facilitates learning but does not rigidly control it. The computer presents software to stimulate discussion, investigation of a topic or critical thought, and through it the exploration of language.
Computer as Tool (Brierley & Kemble 1991: Taylor 1980)
The computer is used as a tool in programmes such as word processors and spell checkers, where the learner does not explore language provided by the computer, but is assisted in the use and comprehension of language through the facilities available in this type of software.
So are we there yet?
Communicative CALL is an interesting step in various ways. It is obviously an advance over Behaviourist CALL in that it encourages much more communicative interaction from learners and its activities and approaches to learning are much more varied. However, it could be argued that it was almost a step backwards in terms of what we may have expected from computers. After all, our computers are now doing our shopping, recording our TV programmes, reminding us about the events in our diaries. Why can’t we log in and learn a language without any other external input?
The answer, I think, is that we can’t learn language through computer programmes alone because as they stand, they do not represent the unpredictable, authentic-conversation-producing humans with whom learners will ultimately be communicating. Perhaps, with the advancement of artificial intelligence, they will have this functionality in the future. Until then, it seems, we shall have to be content with using the computer as a tool to complement and enhance the role of language teachers, rather than endeavouring to replace then.
So where are we now? Integrative CALL
Since the dawn of hypermedia, we have been able to begin to integrate listening and speaking, rather than just reading and writing, into CALL. This makes for a much more authentic language learning experience comparable to language exposure in the real world. It also allows for software which can implement a variety of different kinds of tasks as well as a variety of different language aims. Contexts can be created which are representative of real-life situations and learners can interact with the virtual environment in which they find themselves, altering the level and the types of interactions, for example.
However, as explained very succinctly by Warschauer (1996), this software is still lacking in certain ways:
A program (…) should ideally be able to understand a user’s spoken input and evaluate it not just for correctness but also for appropriateness. It should be able to diagnose a student’s problems with pronunciation, syntax, or usage and then intelligently decide among a range of options (e.g. repeating, paraphrasing, slowing down, correcting, or directing the student to background explanations).
This may seem a tall order for computers and, as Warschauer acknowledges, will take extreme advances in Artificial Intelligence to achieve. On the other hand, something which is not out of our reach is the ability, provided by widespread access to the internet, for learners to communicate with other speakers of the target language from any location at any time. This can come in the form of informal chats, longer detailed e-mails, document sharing, video calls, video sharing and many other forms. Learners, in theory, are finding that they can be exclusively responsible for their own learning, find their own tools, stimuli and if they so wish, teachers across the world.
Therefore, in our current climate, the computer has now taken on the role of a more communicative space rather than a tutor, tool or stimulus. We are simultaneously exploring its potential and discovering its limitations. Until the revolution of A.I. which, who knows, may just be around the corner, it seems that we will continue to develop under the Integrative CALL heading, hopefully developing new and engaging ways to use CALL to inspire language learners worldwide.