Dear visitors,

Thank you for your interest in our project. Below we provide a more extensive rationale and motivation for why virtual reality environments are an ideal method for foreign language learning.  We gladly welcome your comments, suggestions, or any other help you can provide. If you would like to see our project grow, here are several ways you can contribute:

  1. Add to our list of useful journal articles and websites
  2. Share your opinion on the article summaries we are posting
  3. Help us find courses on video games and education
  4. Help us with ideas for funding. Our funding needs are the following:
  • Support for the doctoral student doing this study
  • Funding for potential programmers who would be interested in building the virtual world

Companies who want to support our research can contact the following people:


Jimmy Tong, M.A., Psychology Dept Doctoral student, Boston University

Catherine Caldwell-Harris, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology, Boston University

July 21, 2008

How is adult language acquisition different from child language acquisition?

Young children are known to acquire a second language with far greater mastery than adults (Johnson & Newport, 1989). The advantage for early learning is so striking that researchers have posited an innate species-specific language acquisition device which would match language input to a universal grammar (Chomsky, 1995). However, universal grammar has come under attack due to the lack of neuroscience and genetic evidence. Our team suggests that the role of the social-emotional explanations have been incorrectly overlooked due to earlier obsessions with nativism. We suggest that language learning is inherently more rewarding for children than adults. Indeed, research has shown that motivation for learning a second language declines with age (Kormos & Cziser, 2008), making adults very unlikely to master a foreign language or enjoy conversing in their non-native language.

Researchers have long proposed that early language acquisition is possible due to a drive for infants to emotionally connect with caregivers (Fernald, 1989; Bloom & Beckwith, 1989; Locke, 1993). Adults attempting to acquire a foreign language in the classroom lack this emotional interaction, which may provide an explanation as to why classroom language learning tends to fail abysmally. Even with extensive classroom exposure, studies looking at adult bilinguals show that the non-dominant (classroom) language can differ in emotional intensity from the dominant language (Harris et al., 2003). Simply put, successful language learning is heavily dependent on the social context of learning and adults trying to master a second language are at a disadvantage compared to young children in this aspect.

Is it possible to improve language learning for adults by making it more emotionally engaging?

The language-learning environment of the young child is more advantageous to the adult language-learning environment due to two main factors: a) the use of infant-directed speech or motherese and b) extensive personal contact with caregivers.

Infant-directed speech is more emotionally intensive than adult-directed speech because it is more perceptually salient (Bock & Mazzella, 1983) and seems to communicate positive affect (Wolff, 1963; Santarcangelo & Dyer, 1988). Not only is infant-directed speech better at capturing and maintaining attention than adult-directed speech (Werker & McLeod, 1989), but it is also a richer form of input due to its exaggerated characteristics. Indeed, Golinkoff and Alioto (1995) have shown that infant-directed speech is successful in teaching adult English speakers with no previous experience with Mandarin how to recognize lexical items presented in Mandarin (whereas adult-directed speech failed to show the same result). Whether the success of infant-directed speech is due to enriched input or conveyed positive affect or both remains unclear.

Although infant-directed speech is an important factor for young children acquiring language, Kuhl and colleagues (2003) showed that it must be combined with social interaction to be successful. Their study examined phonetic learning in young children using a video presentation of a Mandarin speaker versus a live Mandarin speaker. Their results showed that only children exposed to the live Mandarin speaker demonstrated learning, emphasizing the importance of emotional reward from personal interaction in early language learning.

To our knowledge, there is no study that examines the effects of live personal interaction with infant-directed speech in adult language learning. However, it has been observed that adults modulate their prosody, word-choice and vocabulary when speaking with those who lack fluency. This register has been called “foreigner-talk” (Wooldridge, 2001). Foreigner talk shares many properties of infant-directed speech: It is slow, has heightened intonational contours, and uses simple vocabulary and grammar. It uses less repetition and rephrasing than infant-directed speech, and is geared towards strengthening communication, rather than holding and directing attention. We propose studying the efficacy of foreigner-talk in different learning environments on adult language learning.

Is there an alternative to live personal interaction that may be just as emotionally rewarding for adults?

Given the time-constraints of a normal adult life, it would be unrealistic to design a language learning program with extensive live personal interaction outside of an experimental setting. However, adult language learning using virtual interactive objects remains unexplored. Studies have shown that video games can elicit feelings of psychological reward in humans (Koepp et al., 1998). Unlike the non-interactive video presentation in Kuhl and colleagues’ 2003 study, a virtual environment with humanoid objects that respond to user commands would be highly interactive and possibly highly rewarding as well.

What does our team propose and how are we different from existing foreign language programs?

Our project has two main goals: a) to test a scientific hypothesis and b) to assist in the development of a new language learning product.

a. Studies have shown that infant-directed speech and live interaction are essential for early language acquisition (Kuhl et al., 2003). Although infant-directed speech has been shown to be successful in adult lexical learning of a foreign language (Golinkoff & Alioto, 1995), the effect of infant-directed speech (or its socially appropriate analogue for adults, foreigner talk) in different learning environments for adults remains unexplored. We suggest three learning environments, which we will construct with foreigner-talk vs. normal adult-directed speech: 1) video presentation, 2) live interaction, and 3) video game/virtual interaction. We hypothesize that video presentation will produce the poorest results, while live interaction and video game/virtual interaction may be equivalent.

b. Currently, foreign language learning is dominated by the classroom setting, where foreigner talk and emotional interaction are scarce. Popular language learning software (e.g. Rosetta Stone) use video clips but still lack interactivity.

We propose that a video game environment would be more flexible time-wise than foreign language classes, more feasible than constant live interaction, and sufficiently emotionally engaging. Minimally, this would require the user to interact with a virtual humanoid object that speaks using foreigner talk (or switched to adult-directed speech for more advanced users). For example, the user could move around with an avatar and interact with common objects while the humanoid object produces sentences describing the other objects using simplified language and enhanced prosody. One variant would allow the user to specify attributes of the language guide so that the native-speaking interlocutor would speak more like a parent, a helpful peer/friend, or a teacher. We hope to design a number of different environments, including one that places the user in a virtual foreign country, allowing the avatar to walk around and interact with a variety of humanoid objects, hearing common everyday sentences in infant-directed speech or foreigner talk. Adding variety to the humanoid objects would maximize emotional engagement. For example, the user’s avatar could practice conversing with a date over dinner or a colleague over lunch. This would capitalize on the popularity of interactive video games (e.g. The Sims, Second Life, etc.) and contribute to the language learning industry.

Already, video game giants such as Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony are pushing for more casual lifestyle titles. Games such as Brain Age challenge players with math and logic puzzles, so language learning titles would fit in with ease.

Special applications

After developing a prototype for foreign language learners, the idea of video games as an ideal language learning environment has potential to address the problem of literacy acquisition for deaf children. Prof Caldwell-Harris (with Boston University colleague Robert Hoffmeister) has argued that deaf individuals have difficulty learning to read because they are being asked to do something unprecedented: learn a second language (and sometimes a first language) via print. But can a language be learned just from print? Language learning is typically thought to depend on social-emotional interaction, which is absent when deaf children struggle to learn language from the printed page. Virtual reality environments can be used to immerse learners in a world where printed material can co-exist with interactions between characters, including interaction of the learner.

Help for disadvantaged populations:
Children of immigrants who arrive in the U.S. with no prior English must pick up English at school; school officials must deal with ESL children who may be underperforming in the classroom and are a burden on teachesr.  Most of these children do learn English well and become bilingual in English and their heritage language, but they often face a struggle and frequently continue to under-perform because of poor English.  A small minority of children in ESL classes have continuing difficulty, dislike school, drop out and do not reach their educational potential.  Video games are inherently fun and children of all ages — and adults — enjoy them.  The hard-to-reach middle school or high school student who is having difficulty at school because of poor English doesn’t want yet more tutoring and remedial classes.  Video games to improve English skills could be a great solution.
Another target population who could be helped by video-game foreign language learning are the parents of these immigrant children.  They frequently find it difficult to sit through adult education classes and withdraw from English language life into immigrant communities.  This then hurts their children’s chance to become part of mainstream society. The parents may be willing to learn English via video game because its more inherently interesting than classes, and their English-learning children could help them, turning a chore into a fun family activity.

A more controversial application: Low income African-American children who are native English speakers but are underperforming in the language arts because of low exposure to literacy at home due to stresses of poverty.  Some educators have claimed that too many African American children, teens and even adults primarily speak nonstandard English.  Video games could be designed to be fun language teaching programs, with characters in the game who speak both standard English and African American English, thus teaching the correct situation in which to speak AAE (chatting with your friends) vs.  SAE (school, job interview).


Bloom, L. & Beckwith, R. (1989). Talking with feeling: Integrating affective and linguistic expression in early language development. Cognition and Emotion, 3, 315-342.

Bock, J.K. & Mazzella, J.R. (1983). Intonational marking of given and new information: Some consequences for comprehension. Memory and Cognition, 11, 64-76.

Chomsky, N. (1995). The minimalist program. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Fernald, A. (1989). Intonation and communicative intent in mothers’ speech to infants: Is the melody the message? Child Development, 60, 1497-1510.

Golinkoff, R.M. & Alioto, A. (1995). Infant-directed speech facilitates lexical learning in adults hearing Chinese: implications for language acquisition. J. Child Lang., 22, 703-720.

Harris, C.L., Aycicegi, A. & Gleason, J.B. (2003). Taboo words and reprimands elicit greater autonomic reactivity in a first language than in a second language. Applied Psycholinguistics, 24, 561-579.

Johnson, J.S. & Newport, E.L. (1989). Critical period effects in second language learning: The influence oif maturational state on the acquisition of English as a second language. Cognitive Psych., 21, 60-99.

Koepp, M.J., Gunn, R.N., Lawrence, A.D., Cunningham, V.J., Dagher, A., Jones, T., Brooks, D.J., Bench, C.J. & Grasby, P.M. (1998). Evidence for striatal dopamine release during a video game. Nature, 393, 266-268.

Kormos, J. & Csizer, K. (2008). Age-related differences in the motivation of learning English as a foreign language: Attitudes, selves, and motivated learning behavior. Language Learning, 58(2), 327-355.

Kuhl, P.K., Tsao, F.M., Liu, H.M. (2003). Foreign-language experience in infancy: Effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning. Proceedings Nat. Acad. Sci., 100, 9096-9101.

Locke, J. (1993). The Child’s Path to Spoken Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Santarcangelo, S. & Dyer, K. (1988). Prosodic aspects of motherese: Effects on gaze and responsiveness in developmentally disabled children. J. Exp Child Psych., 46, 406-418

Werker, J.F. & McLeod, P.J. (1989). Infant preference for both male and female infant-directed talk: A developmental study of attentional and affective responsiveness. Canadian J. of Psych., 43, 230-246.

Wolff, P.H. (1963). Observations on the early development of smiling. In B.M. Foss (ed.), Determinants of infant behavior, II. London: Methuen.

Wooldridge, B. (2001). ‘Foreigner talk’: An important element in cross-cultural management education and training. Int Rev Admin Sci, 67, 621-634.


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