Virtually Speaking:
Technology-Enhanced Language Learning in Australia:
Research and application perspectives
Andrew Lian

(This article has been published in abbreviated form in Education Australia,  no. 31, 1995, pp. 24-27.  Education Australia is a refereed journal.


The study of Languages Other than English (LOTEs) is currently enjoying a period of considerable growth. To a large extent, this is due to the development of national and state policies which recognise Australia's multicultural population and the need for Australians to develop a sympathetic understanding of human beings from other nations and cultures. As a result, people from all walks of life are being encouraged to undertake language study and, in certain areas, the study of language is compulsory (e.g. in primary and secondary schools) while in other areas, the knowledge of a language may have significant career benefits (e.g. in the armed forces). In addition, there appears to be a strong belief that a knowledge of another language will be of significant benefit to the nation's potential to develop trade links with other countries, particularly neighbouring Asian countries. These beliefs have seen the development of policies aiming at something like a 60-40 balance of Asian vs European languages (Rudd 1994) .

The implementation of LOTE policies has brought about the introduction, often in a less than optimal fashion, of a range of language-learning programmes in the primary and secondary school systems and in the area of teacher education. Whatever the shortcomings or otherwise of these programmes, it has been decided by policy-makers that, for the foreseeable future, language programmes will be proficiency-based. This has two clear consequences: on the one hand, students must be able to use their language skills for genuine communicative tasks in the contexts of their personal or professional lives. On the other hand, no matter how generous the funding for language programmes, it is unlikely ever to be sufficient to produce the hoped-for result of a nation of citizens most of whom will be able to speak a language other than English more or less fluently.

Though the reasons for this state of affairs are complex and diverse, it seems clear that language learning initiatives will come under serious threat if the administrators' hopes are not realised. And yet, in the light of the actual implementation of LOTE programmes there is some risk that they may be disappointed.

Typically, language-learning for proficiency requires time on task (at both global and focused levels) coupled with purposeful language activity in a culturally-rich environment. Ideally, given that each learner has different needs, language programmes should also be individualised. Federal and state governments are making funds available particularly to the primary and secondary sectors, but it is questionable whether the programmes currently being developed will be able to produce the desired result as funding appears to be insufficient to provide the population at large with the necessary language-teaching staff and the necessary language learning experiences (e.g. in-country learning). Furthermore, given that not all languages will be supported to the same extent in all educational sectors, students are likely to experience difficulties in continuing their studies as they migrate from one school to another, from one university to another or from one education system to another.

In short, language educators are now being asked to empower large numbers of students through language rather than asking them to become part of a small intellectual elite. As a result, language educators have to find ways of increasing their efficiency ratings by achieving success in large-scale language learning programs which need to take account of the large diversity of students' motivations, proficiency and levels of achievement- in the most cost-effective way possible.

Interestingly, theoreticians of language teaching and learning have shared this anti-elitist view of language-learning as they have often had to battle with the problems of migrants trying to make new lives for themselves in countries whose language they do not speak. For migrants, failure at language is not a real option. The inability to operate in a language can and often does have disastrous results: poverty, unemployment, social discrimination.

Effective and efficient solutions to language-learning have to be found and are being found. In the context of LOTE education, they also have to be transferred into the standard educational system where, unlike migrants, students try to learn languages away from the communities that speak them and where, also unlike migrants, the impacts of failure to learn a language are less visible. In one sense, it probably does not matter very much if a person fails to learn French at university.

The above considerations have given rise to the development of the notion of language-learning environments which, in some way, try to reproduce some of the advantages of in-country experience. Effectively a language-learning environment can be thought of as consisting of a set of conditions conducive to language-learning. In particular, environments could be characterised at very least by their potential to support purposeful language activity (whether "active" e.g. speaking or "passive" e.g. listening), by facilitating access to rich cultural information and by finding ways of catering for students' motivations and needs, both of which are often unpredicted and, indeed, unpredictable. Ideally, they would be able to cater for individual needs through the development of something like "an open, negotiable and negotiated, highly task-oriented, resource-based learning network where people progress at their own pace in a relatively asynchronous fashion. This view is in contrast with many of the current institutional practices where students are all expected to learn in the same way and at the same time, all in lock-stepped synchrony. In other words, one is looking for a learning space where heterogeneity in the learning population can be seen as a blessing to be exploited rather than as a curse to be suffered" (Lian, 1985). Environments should also facilitate awareness-raising, the development of learner autonomy and should assist learners to realise the extent of their own progress while actually making progress (Lian, 1987, Lian 1994).

A critically important element of any environment should be the provision of a support structure managed by competent language teaching professionals. Such a support structure would normally include some kind of classroom teaching involving lessons and exercises but would also include the provision of access to resources of all kinds organised in such a way as to help learners solve communicative tasks.

The role of modern technology
Modern technology can help to provide some of the necessary infrastructure for language-learning environments. The rest of this article will focus on trends in Australian Technology-Enhanced Language Learning (TELL) and examples will be drawn from the author's immediate areas of research as an illustration of the sorts of developments occurring in Australia and elsewhere.

Access to language and cultures
If Australia is to meet the challenge of internationalisation, it needs to find ways of putting its inhabitants in touch with the languages and cultures of other nations. One of the simplest, most effective and most obvious ways of doing so is through the use of television and other audiovisual channels. Currently, the principal way of receiving such information is through SBS. This service is excellent but, it is necessarily insufficient.

Further, because programs screened necessarily represent only a small sample of all programs available in a particular LOTE, viewers are prevented from gaining important linguistic and cultural insights into the realities of the social interactions of peoples from other countries.

To counteract some of these difficulties, educational institutions are opting increasingly for the installation of satellite dishes to enable them to receive programmes in other languages. As an example, James Cook University can receive large quantities of unmodified broadcasts from China, France, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand and the USA. Thus, students can be exposed to both high culture (intellectual debates, book reviews, concerts) and popular culture (news broadcasts, advertising, game shows, sporting events). The programs can be recorded and used in class or for private practice by students. All that is required from learners is commitment to having an interesting time. Experiencing these authentic, highly contextualised, language events will assist in the development of an in-depth understanding of what it means to be French, Indonesian, Chinese, Japanese etc. i.e. to help define the people whose language and culture are being studied.

The availability of these kinds of systems is of considerable value. Yet, in some sense, they are insufficient as they lack the important dimension of direct interaction between students and speakers of the target language.

The information superhighway.
The much-publicised information superhighway can be a boon to language teachers and learners alike. The term superhighway is a way of referring to the provision of access to people and information through the development of world-wide computer-based networks such as the Internet and its Australian affiliate the Australian Academic Research Network (AARnet).

Suddenly (or so it seems, as the fruit of many years of unrecognised hard work by a multitude of people is now quickly becoming visible) the isolation of language learners in Australia is being significantly reduced.

AARnet, which currently provides Australia with its most comprehensive network provides a number of services which are of immense value to all who are interested in keeping in touch with other languages and cultures. These services include electronic mail, bulletin boards and on-line "chat" or conferencing systems.

Electronic mail
Electronic mail (or e-mail) consists of the ability to receive and send messages to individuals and groups anywhere in the world provided they are connected to an appropriate network.

At the individual level, persons can write to each other at any time of day or night using a mail program which takes the written text and forwards it to the addressee, wherever he or she might be, often in a matter of seconds. The recipient does not need to be connected to a computer at the time of delivery of the message. Typically, messages sent do not consist of elaborate letters, but of short informal notes thus facilitating the process of communication. Of course, in a language-learning perspective, it may not always be desirable to communicate informally as it is important for learners to discover and practice generating a range of written genres. Nevertheless, using electronic mail systems to exchange information and keep in touch with others is very convenient as in most cases responses from the addressee can be obtained in only a few hours from almost anywhere on the globe. This immediacy is highly motivating and encourages people to keep in touch with one another.

At the group level, communication can exist between people with similar interests, e.g. teachers of foreign languages, engineers, neurologists. Affinity groups such as these are serviced by communication systems called lists and newsgroups. Although the lingua franca of communication across computer networks is English, special lists and newsgroups have been established for people who wish to communicate in a range of other languages. In French, for instance, there is a causerie or chat list where people write to each other in French about matters which interest them. Occasionally threads emerge and these form the subject of continuing discussions e.g. the quality of Australian wines as opposed to that of French wines. Requests for help are often sent to lists, e.g. "What is the Indonesian word for independence?" Questions such as these are answered very rapidly. Thus people from different languages, cultures and backgrounds discover about each other in a sympathetic and supportive manner to the benefit of all concerned.

Bulletin Boards
An extension of the notion of electronic mail is that of the bulletin board. Bulletin boards are systems which make information available by grouping messages under headings. For instance, a bulletin board for students of languages might have the headings "Japanese", "Spanish" or "Chinese". Selecting one of these headings would provide access to materials in the appropriate language. In addition to presenting information, some bulletin board systems incorporate an electronic mail facility.

The most sophisticated version of a networked bulletin board is the World-Wide Web (WWW). This is a system which allows users to interact in real time, i.e. immediately, with multimedia information (i.e. ordinary text but also colour graphic images and even sound) across the Internet. Effectively, the system spans the whole of the computerised world.

The facilities being developed for this kind of communication interchange are opening up a new world for people interested in languages and cultures. For instance, it is possible to connect to a WWW site run by a university, say in Switzerland, which will display high quality colour photographs of its campus. Alternatively, it is possible to connect to an interactive map. An interactive map consists of a drawing of the map of a country. Clicking with a mouse on the name of a city might display a number of photographs of that city or, alternatively, it might connect the user to a bulletin board of information about that city. Thus one could electronically visit a Beijing university, read the front page of the German review Der Spiegel, attend a virtual exhibition of impressionist paintings in the Louvre art gallery or consult a multilingual dictionary. A significant advantage is the ability to print information viewed. But text information is not the only kind of information available. Some sites specialise in the distribution of audiovisual materials, including digitised movies and audio files. Thus, it is possible to receive free of charge, 2 hours of the French radio programme Parler au quotidien, which described peculiarities of the French language for native speakers of French. It is also possible to obtain music from all over the world, including China, Japan and France.

This has resulted in an information glut as large number of computer users the world over are generating huge amounts of attractively-presented materials to be shared with the rest of the world. This authentic material - a boon for language learners - can be accessed from a computer on one's office desk or a self-access centre workstation in places such as Townsville in the relatively remote area of northern Australia..

Conferencing systems
Conferencing systems are computer programs which allow people to communicate with one another in real-time. This is achieved by linking people across networks through the use of special software. One such program is called IRC (Internet Relay Chat) (Mathiesen (Lian), A. B. 1993). It allows users to share information by typing messages to one another while they are all connected to the system. Thus, at an agreed time, people, say from Japan, Belgium, Finland, Mexico and Australia might "meet" to keep in touch with each other or to discuss a particular topic. "Meeting spaces" can be set aside where only the messages belonging to a particular group are ever seen on the screen. This is necessary to avoid confusion given that literally thousands of people are simultaneously logged in to IRC. Thus, persons interested in communicating in a language other than English can, on running IRC, join a foreign language group, e.g. français, indonesian or nipppon, where they will have the opportunity to communicate in the (admittedly written) target language with both native and non-native speakers of that language. Given the different time zones in the world, people can log in to IRC at almost any time of day or night and confidently expect to find someone to "talk" to. Once friendships are established across the network, people can agree to meet at specific times and thousands of people do in fact meet in this way on a daily basis. More obviously serious applications are possible too. It is possible to create groups for people from around the world who need to do business or research. For instance, a group of applied linguists wishing to write a grant application could "talk" to one another before each person wrote his/her contribution to the project which is then mailed electronically to the project coordinator for final collation and distribution. This sort of communication system greatly facilitates collaborative work and enhances the quality of the final product.

Newer systems such as IVC (Internet Voice Chat) also allow for voice to be transmitted so that people can hear each other as well as write to each other. And there are even videoconferencing systems, such as CU-SeeMe which allow people to see as well as hear each other across the network.

For second language learners, the advantages of this kind of facility are considerable. A critically-important aspect of language-learning and, therefore, of language learning environments is the ability to interact in the target language. Ideally, such interaction should be with native speakers and should be purposeful, i.e. should reflect a genuine need by the speakers to achieve an objective through the use of the target language. Traditional classroom settings tend to be rather limited in the provision of opportunities for genuine interaction, especially interaction across a range of different subjects. Computer-based communication systems provide an opportunity to remedy this problem, at least in part, through the use of conferencing systems such as the ones described..

An inevitable factor to be considered in the provision of networked systems is that of cost. The cost of running these systems is high. Currently, in Australia, AARnet is supported by universities which bear the costs themselves and which make the service available to members of staff and students. Occasionally, they will give access to AARnet as a community service but it is true to say that, until now, most of the users of international computing networks have been academics and students. The situation is certain to change over the next few years with the proliferation of commercial providers of access to international networks. It will be interesting to observe developments, particularly in the area of costs.

Whatever the outcome of pricing policies, it is certain that computer-based communication is here to stay and it is equally certain that it will change the ways in which people interact with one another to the clear benefit of areas such as LOTE education.

Computer-Enhanced Language Learning
While networking can greatly enrich the language learning experience, students will continue to require access to more learning-focused facilities to enable their needs to be met more effectively. Some of these needs are unpredicted and unpredictable while others are individual in nature and not amenable to class-based or group-based solutions.

In this context technology, in the form of computer-enhanced language learning systems, can be of assistance.

Typically, computer programs have assisted by providing access to lesson and exercise materials, often in the form of drill and practice. The role of the computer is now changing as the emphasis is shifting toward resource-based learning where, rather than performing structured exercises, students need access to rich information and to assistance in managing that information effectively whenever they require it.

As an illustration, one of the projects currently under development involves the creation of an audiovisual database (Lian, 1988; Lian, 1994, Lian; A. B., 1996). This is a kind of dictionary which can be accessed by students wishing to discover how people interact in a foreign language. Information is provided in the form of a video clip. The image is displayed on the computer screen and the sound is heard through good quality speakers.

Imagine that learners need to discover how two friends greet each other in French when they meet. They interrogate the database using a simple "fill-in-the-blank" form, press a key and, almost immediately, are shown several clips taken from authentic sources such as commercial movies or television shows. The clips are accompanied by a range of explanations designed to raise the awareness of students not only to the words and grammar used (the perceived major preoccupation of language teaching programs) but also the situational and psychological contexts in which the utterances are appropriate.

Thus learners can quickly discover the range of possible utterances for the activity that they are seeking to accomplish and, having discovered the range, can now contrast the utterances rapidly with one another without the drudgery of locating them and, most importantly, without losing the focus on the task in which they are involved. In the example above, the database might show: Salut ça va?; Ça va?; Bonjour comment vas-tu?; Que deviens-tu?; Dis donc, ça fait longtemps qu'on ne s'est pas vu. and so on. Information provided by the system refers not only to the parameters of the situation (who is speaking, what the relationship between them is, the time of interaction and the place of interaction) but could also include an intonation graph, an electronically-filtered version of the intonation pattern to enhance its perception by students as well as access to the original video/audio document from which the example was extracted.

In due course, this system and others like it will be made available across the Internet, probably through the World-Wide Web for access both nationally and internationally.

Audiovisual databases provide students with much more than traditional dictionaries which have tended to focus on words rather than language functions or communicative events and will considerably enrich the language learning experience.

A final example describes a system under development to assist learners to gain confidence by providing them with the opportunity to rehearse face-to-face interactions in a second language (Joy and Lian, 1983; Lian, 1994).

Central to the operation of the system is a dialogue generator: a program which composes original dialogues from separate language items. Imagine a dialogue in a butcher's shop. It could be made up of the following sequences:

- exchange of greetings e.g

        -    Good morning or G'day.

- an interchange relating to a request for a variety of meats in different amounts e.g.
        -    I'd like 2 kilos of topside.
        -    Would you like something else?
        -    Could you also give me 500 grams of lean mince?
        -    There you are. What else can I get you?
        -    That's the lot thanks.

- an interchange relating to payment e.g.

- An exchange of farewells

Learners see the dialogue displayed in written form on the screen and, because of the use of speech digitising technology, can also hear it.

As texts are generated by the computer and are not pre-written, a wide variety of dialogues can be produced on the same general subject. For instance, the greetings might change, the amount and types of meat to be purchased can vary as will the amount to be paid at the end. The advantage of such a system is that students can learn about the range of utterances possible in the particular context and therefore develop a better understanding of how communication in the target language works. Learning through the use of dialogue generators is a very different proposition from re-reading an example dialogue, say on page 10 of the course book and listening to it again and again on a traditional tape recorder.

Once the dialogue has been generated, students will need to be provided with methodologically sound assistance in understanding it. This is provided in a simple way by allowing students to click with a mouse on words or phrases which they do not understand. An appropriate explanation is then given either visually or orally.

The last component of the program is a practice system which allows students to act as one of the participants in the generated dialogue. Students can choose which of the speakers they wish to be, record themselves playing that role, compare each of their utterances with those of the native speakers and, as a final step, listen to themselves in the whole of the dialogue. In other words, they can observe themselves functioning as though they were participating in the interaction. Their voice can now replace that of the customer (or the butcher or even both).

If learners really wish to test themselves in the rhythms of native speaker interaction i.e. how quickly people speak and how quickly they expect a response, they can use a so-called simulation mode. This is a timed sequencing of the dialogue where students are given only a limited amount of time to produce their utterances.

With the development of virtual reality technologies, learners will be able to interact with an imaginary but realistic environment where they will be able not only to hear but to see and participate more naturally in simulated interactions.

Of course, no one would wish to argue that systems such as these can replace genuine human interaction. Nevertheless, they can still provide students with valuable opportunities for realistic practice, especially where learners are isolated from native speakers, teachers and other learners.

This article has attempted to outline some of the trends developing in technology-enhanced language learning in Australia. With increasing sophistication in both the technology and the users of that technology, it is certain that more appropriate technology-based second language learning systems will emerge.

Yet, whatever the precise form of technologies used and programs actually produced, the central preoccupation is likely to remain the same: that of meeting more effectively learners' individual needs and objectives. This is a clear reflection of the development of modern approaches to second language-learning which are moving toward the liberation of learners from the strait-jacketed, lock-stepped and time-bound systems of traditional course structures toward systems which recognise and cater to learner differences wherever students may be located physically. Effectively the use of technology will facilitate the implementation of language-learning environments based on an infrastructure capable of offering learners the opportunity to operate individually in the knowledge that cooperative and informative support will always be available when it is required (Lian, 1988) thus catering for individual needs while meeting the non-negotiable conditions of national policy.


December, J., 1994, Information Sources: the Internet and Computer-Mediated Communication.; [Available electronically: URL =

Hahn, H. and Stout, R., 1994, The Internet Complete Reference.; Berkley: Osborne McGraw-Hill

Harris, S. T., 1995, IRC Survival Guide: Talk to the World Interner Relay Chat.; Reading. MA: Addison-Wesley

Kent, P., 1994; The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Internet.; Indianapolis, IN: Alpha Books

Joy, B. and Lian, A-P., 1983, 'The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker: Some Uses of Dialogue Generators in Computer-Assisted Foreign Language Leraning' in Australian Review of Applied Linguistics, vol. 6., no. 2., pp. 60-71

Lian, A. B., 1996, 'The Management and Distribution of Language-learning Resources in the Digital Era, in Scarino, A. (ed.): Equity in Languages Other Than English, Conference of the AFMLTA 10th National Languages Conference, Australian Federation of Modern Languages Teachers' Association, Perth, 1996

Lian, A-P., 1994, 'Dialogue Generators Mark II', Paper presented to the ALAA National Congress, University of Melbourne, July, 1994

Lian, A-P., 1988, 'Distributed Learning Enviroments and Computer-Enhanced Language Learning'; in Dekkers, J., Griffin, H. and Kempf, N. (eds), Computer Technology serves Distance Education.; Rockhampton, Capricornia Institute, pp. 83-88

Lian, A-P., 1987, 'Awareness, autonomy and achievement' in Revue de Phonétique Appliquée, 82-84 , pp. 167-184

Lian, A-P., 1986, 'Generative Computer-Aided Language Learning: The University of Queensland CALL Project and EXCALIBUR' in (Girle, R. A. ed.): Report of the First Round Table Conference: Australian Rducational Expert System Project.; Project EXCALIBUR Publications, University of Queensland, Brisbane, pp. 125-136

Lian, A-P. and Mestre, M-C., 1985, 'Goal Directed Communicative Interaction and Macrosimulation' in Revue de Phonétique Appliquée, 73-74-75, pp. 185-210

Manager, J. J., 1995, The World-Wide Web, Mosaic, and More. New York: McGraw-Hill

Mathiesen (Lian), A. B. 1993, '‘Electronic communication media and second language learning’, in On-CALL vol. 7. no. 3, 1993, pp. 15-20

Rudd, K. M. 1994 Asian Languages and Australia's Economic Future, a report prepared for the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) on a proposed National Asian Languages/Studies Strategy for Australian Schools, Queensland Government Printer, Brisbane.

Seiter, C., 1994, The Internet for Macs for Dummies.; San Mateo, CA: IDG Books

Schankman., L., 1995, Larry's Best of the best URLs.; [Available electronically: URL =]

This document has been visited
times since 15 November 1996