FIU researchers will use VR to create an English-Arabic language learning community

[This story from Florida International University describes an ambitious new international and interdisciplinary project that will investigate the impacts of using virtual reality (and presence) to bring people across the world together to learn languages and share cultures. –Matthew]

FIU professors awarded Stevens Initiative grant to build virtual reality experience in support of second language acquisition

By Alexandra Bassil
April 7, 2021

With funding from a $543,439 grant awarded by the Stevens Initiative, FIU researchers will use virtual reality (VR) to create an English-Arabic language learning community: “Virtual Tabadul” (meaning exchange in Arabic). The Tabadul project will gather evidence-based research on whether virtual learning fosters second language acquisition by using virtual feedback as compared to traditional classroom style teaching methods.

The Virtual Tabadul project brings together college-aged youth in the United States and in the Middle East and North Africa for language learning and community building through VR. FIU and University of Michigan-Dearborn students enrolled in Arabic as a foreign language will be paired with college students at Oum El Bouaghi University in Algeria and Ibn Tofail University in Morocco, who are enrolled in English as a foreign language. The VR platforms will enable synchronous, one-on-one exchanges between students in 12 sessions per semester. Approximately, 1,400 students will participate over five semesters.

“We are excited to bring this advance in language learning to scale and to highlight FIU’s amazing strengths in interdisciplinary research. This could not have been possible without the collaboration of multiple scholars from diverse fields,” said Melissa Baralt, project director and professor in the Department of Modern Languages.

“Our goal is to build on the interest of students to study critical foreign languages by providing them with an opportunity to participate and learn using virtual exchanges with their peers abroad. This is more essential now in the context of the new COVID-19 reality. Virtual Tabadul will allow for the creation of pedagogic materials and task-based instruction for Arabic, and will be the first study to test the affordances of VR to maximize Arabic foreign language teaching and instruction,” Baralt said.

To adapt and scale the program for international language exchange purposes, 12 VR settings will be created based on students’ real-world needs and experiences. The new VR spaces will represent everyday scenes in the US and North Africa – an outdoor market, a restaurant, a household setting, a cultural environment, etc. Students will meet on Zoom and use Google Cardboard holders for their own cell phones to enter the real-world spaces in which they will complete language learning tasks together.

The project will be led by Baralt, along with co-directors Stephanie Doscher of FIU COIL and Lakhdar Boukerrou of the College of Engineering & Computing.

Housed in the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs, this project highlights FIU’s interdisciplinary research. Collaborators on the grant include Shahin Vassigh and Biayna Bogosian from the College of Communication, Architecture + the Arts, Ranu Jung of the College of Engineering & Computing, Arabic instructor Jamil Istifan from Modern Languages, and Ph.D. students Noha Elsakka and Salah-Eddine Mouchane from the College of Arts, Science & Education.

The grant’s goal is to strengthen positive relations between the U.S., Algeria and Morocco by bringing language teachers and college students together with young people in the MENA regions, defined as the Middle East, North Africa and Palestinian Territories. By building the linguistic capability of MENA and U.S. students with virtual exchanges and artificial intelligence, the FIU researchers aim to create a learning environment conducive to a life-changing experience.

Tabadul will provide American undergraduates with meaningful, real-world exchange opportunities exposing them to young people in a MENA country for the first time. In addition, female undergrads comprise 75 percent of the Algerian and Moroccan Arabic students enrolled, and their newly acquired English skills could further their access to U.S.-based opportunities. All students will be assessed in fluency, global and cultural competency. They will also create portfolios showing the tasks that they achieved together.

“This unique opportunity for international collaboration with our MENA partners in Algeria and Morocco comes at the time when FIU is expanding its multi-disciplinary research and education outreach to other regions of the world. The Stevens Initiative funding will allow us to strengthen these relationships and will bring new learning opportunities to U.S. and MENA youth,” Boukerrou said.

The second part of FIU’s grant will allow the researchers to measure the impact of contact hours and the learning environment for the acquisition of Arabic as a foreign language, a first in the field of applied linguistics. This research component of the program includes measuring language acquisition by testing three experimental groups: one cohort of students based on 12-meeting exposure to VR sessions, one cohort of students based on 6-meeting exposure to VR sessions, and a control group.

Students’ language learning outcomes will be assessed via traditional language assessments and via brain imaging. Thanks to FIU’s Adaptive Neural Systems Lab, the team will use functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to measure neural activity associated with successful second language acquisition in the different groups.

“We are deeply indebted to the Stevens Initiative for its belief in FIU’s capacity to advance uses of technology for facilitating collaborative online international learning,” said Doscher, director of FIU’s newest office within Global Affairs, FIU COIL.

The Stevens Initiative’s goal is to build global competence and career readiness skills for young people in the United States and the Middle East and North Africa by growing and enhancing the field of virtual exchange. Created in 2015 as a lasting tribute to Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, the Stevens Initiative is committed to helping to expand the virtual exchange field through three pillars of work: investing in promising programs, sharing knowledge and resources, and advocating for virtual exchange adoption.


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