Collaborative Virtual Environments for Language Learning

21 Feb, 2014



Maurice Liebregt defines Collaborative Virtual Environments (CVEs) as “connected computer systems aimed at the fulfilling of a certain collaborative task within a generated 3-D virtual environment. Interaction between users and this 3-D virtual environment is possible in real time” (1).  Simply put, they are “computer-generated environment(s) where people can interact with each other, typically through the use of avatars.”(2)

CVEs in education allow for live classes to take place between teachers and students located in different parts of the world. They provide a platform for live conversation, interaction and collaboration between avatars (virtual representations of ourselves). 3-D virtual software can replicate any environment and allows learners to interact in an engaging way across distances.

          A diagram explaining a Collaborative Virtual Environment at Immerse Learning


1. Relieving learner anxiety

An ongoing research project by Monash University(3) has been looking at the impact of virtual worlds on foreign language anxiety. Foreign language anxiety (FLA) relates to the stress or anxiety that students experience when learning a foreign language, which is often related to a fear of negative evaluation or making mistakes. Research has shown that FLA can be detrimental to learning: “Students may feel comfortable during drill practice or prepared dialogues, but may freeze in ‘role play’ (E. Horwitz, et al., 1986)”.

Preliminary findings from the research show that CVEs are perceived as non-threatening and reduce foreign language anxiety in learners. The study was carried out among students learning Chinese at Monash University and found that students experienced lower levels of FLA and less anxiety about making mistakes in the virtual environment when compared with classroom learning. Overall the students found the virtual environment less stressful in terms of language use and experienced lower levels of panic when having to speak without preparation.

Further research on the affordances of CVEs for foreign language learning points to the fact that CVEs offer a sense of security in knowing that language learning mistakes are not mistakes in real life and as a result, students are more open to trying and less self-conscious. Furthermore, research by Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab(4) demonstrates the strong sense of presence that learners experience in virtual environments, which allows them to become more immersed in their learning.


2. Improved performance and memory recall

Training in virtual worlds offers students a more immersive and interactive experience than other training methods (other eLearning methods in particular), which often means improved performance and memory recall; “students become so immersed in the activities and interactions in the virtual world that they begin to identify in a new way with the words and actions of their avatar so that, as Zheng described it, “embodied cognition” begins to take place” (as cited by Lenze & Parrott, 2011).

Students and teachers can talk and interact in real time via avatars. Live communication with teachers and other students allows learners to ask more questions and receive more detailed explanation. Moreover, immersion in the language and live conversation practice with native speakers are essential when learning a foreign language, and CVEs provide greater access to native speakers and teachers, as the environments can be reached from any location. CVEs allow students to interact with fellow learners from anywhere in the world, enabling them to learn from one another and develop cultural awareness.


3. Learning language skills in context

A further affordance of collaborative virtual environments is the opportunity to replicate real life situations in a safe and controlled environment and engage in role play, which is a great tool for language learning (Patricia K. Tompkins has written an interesting paper on this topic: Roleplaying/Simulation). When learning sector-specific language, such as Oil & Gas English, where better to learn than in that particular environment, for example on an oil rig? Virtual environments enable learners to learn in context and experience and interact with the things they are learning about. Learners become fully immersed in their subject.


CVEs offer many benefits for language learners, from the immersive elements of virtual world training to the opportunity to access native language teachers from anywhere in the world. With the use of avatars, learners experience less anxiety and feel less self-conscious, enabling them to immerse themselves in learning to a greater extent and learn more effectively (read more about how avatars can affect our learning behaviour). Collaborative virtual environments provide learners with an engaging and immersive experience that is rarely achieved through other forms of training.

If you would like to experience a Collaborative Virtual Environment yourself please contact us for a live demo.

– Lara Schlich-Davies, Immerse Learning


1. Collaborative Virtual Environments in Education, Liebregt, M., 2005

2. The Risks and Rewards of Language Instruction in Virtual Worlds, an Overview of Current Literature and Praxis, James S. Lenze & David L. Parrott, Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Published in ‘Selected Papers from the 22nd International Conference on College teaching and Learning’ (2011) p. 162

3. Language Learning in Virtual Worlds: The Role of Foreign Language and Technical Anxiety, Grant, S., Huang, H. and Pasfield-Neofitou, S. in Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, Vol 6 No 1, April 2013

4. The Risks and Rewards of Language Instruction in Virtual Worlds: An Overview of Current Literature and Praxis, Parrott, D. and Lenze, J. in Selected Papers from the 22nd International Conference on College Teaching and Learning, edited by Chambers, J., pp 151-179

5. The Effects of Fully Immersive Virtual Reality on the Learning of Physical Tasks, Proceedings of PRESENCE 2006: The 9th Annual International Workshop on Presence. August 24 – 26, Cleveland, Ohio, USA. Patel, K., Bailenson, J.N., Hack-Jung, S., Diankov , R., & Bajcsy , R. (2006).


7. Role Playing/Simulation, Patricia K. Tompkins