Using high immersive virtual reality to enrich foreign language teaching

Students who study a second language mainly practice their intercultural language skills in conversations with their teachers and fellow students in Utrecht. Not so in the bachelor programme 'Spanish Language and Culture' where Kristi Jauregi Ondarra and Silvia Canto use the possibilities of social virtual reality to bring students in contact with students elsewhere in Europe. Although speaking in a non-native language is often perceived as difficult and exciting, the possibilities of social VR offer a virtually safe place to practice this together, where you feel completely immersed in the same place as your conversation partner.

With the VR glasses (Oculus Quest) the students, together with students from other countries, carry out tasks aimed at developing their intercultural language skills. For example, depending on their level and the course objectives, they discuss themselves, their own and other cultures, stereotypes, misconceptions, customs, interaction styles and their identity as intercultural citizens. In this way, the students are completely immersed in a virtual scenario, with the aim of communicating with and learning from each other in a realistic and safe environment.

Kristi's curiosity, enthusiasm and focus on improving education have led to the development of two beautiful courses with a clear VR element. But also that data is structurally collected to gain insight into the effects of VR education on the learning process of students. Students experience the VR projects very differently. One is extremely enthusiastic, sees the absolute added value and is completely involved in the task, while another can be very sensitive to all the stimuli they receive through the glasses and feel this as a nuisance (cybersickness). Fortunately, you can experience VR at different immersion levels: totally immersed with glasses, or 2D via your computer. Instead of putting everyone in VR, Kristi argues for differentiation: offer it but don't force it. That way, students can choose what they like best. However, she does see a great added value of VR, because it is much more realistic, offers a richer learning experience and promotes concentration and social interaction.

A VR environment gives another dimension to education. It is as if you are actually in a situation where you get together with friends, communicate and work together in a safe environment. Social interaction is the basis of language acquisition.

Kristi Jauregi Ondarra is a senior researcher at Utrecht University. She is involved in the Educational Minor and Educational Master Languages, in Intercultural Communication and in Spanish. She researches the added value of integrating online intercultural cooperation projects (telecollaboration or virtual exchange) in language curricula.

Silvia Canto is a lecturer and researcher at Utrecht University, attached to the Educational Master's in Languages and the Bachelor's in Spanish Language and Culture. Her research focuses on task design and the integration of synchronous telecollaboration practices in language teaching.