BlogJuly 2014

The Evolving Language Center

Harold H HendricksBy Harold H Hendricks, IALLT President (2013-2015) and Supervisor of the Humanities Learning Resources Center 




The phone rang recently and the voice on the other end asked for my advice on the renovation of a language center.  Specifically, the concern was that the architects had removed the traditional language lab from the plans with the comment that language labs are obsolete.  The dilemma for this language center director was that the language instructors still use the old system as an integral part of their instruction and assessment and were hoping to continue doing so with a more modern replacement.  What to do?  After discussing this specific question, others followed: What does a language center look like in the 21st Century?  Is one even needed? These are all very valid questions.

For decades, the traditional language lab, with carrels and headsets, was where the technology students came to for simulated language conversations with tape or computer.  Features such as pairing or grouping allowed live language production to be recorded for later assessment.  The equipment was expensive and often complex, but it was deemed cost-effective when compared to the few alternatives of the time. As new technologies emerged that the way we consume media and communicate throughout the world, the language “lab” evolved to the language “center,” where live television, computer carrels for CALL software and internet access, tutoring, faculty development, and a variety of audio, video, and other services were added around the core language lab facility.  Still, the main purpose of the center was to provide a place where students could access technology-enhanced language activities.

Fast forward just a few years.  The freshmen that came in with the first iPads have just graduated. Yes, the world has changed that fast!  This fall when the new freshmen arrive they may possibly carry with them phones and tablets that rival the first Mac Book for processing power and equipped with a camera and sound system photographers and audiophiles once envied in top-of-the-line equipment.  What’s more, an avalanche of apps allow a student to choose from every conceivable flavor of flash card, vocabulary building, memorization, grammar review and dictionary tool in almost any language offered at any university.  Our students carry with them technology far superior to what we once required them to use in the language lab.  And far more importantly, the main function of this mobile technology is to speak, see, and text with other human beings anywhere in the world.  With such “centralized” technology and access in their pockets, what need for a “center” for students to come to?

The short answer to these questions is, “It depends.”  It depends completely on the institution asking the questions.  Unlike the former days of standard language lab design with standard functions based on a fairly standard textbook methodology, today’s language center is customized for the particular needs of the departments and institution designing it.  For many, the size of the center can contract, since more of what the center once offered can be carried to the classroom where sound and projection are typically standard now.  There are language lab apps available for mobile devices, so for those who still wish to record paired conversations or push sound files or grammar exercises to the class they may do so in their classroom. For others, the area needed for a center may actually increase, as in those institutions that have moved assessment out of the classroom and are investing in space for proctored testing, formal OPIs, live lab and tutoring, based on the students’ schedules.  Others are transforming rigid carrels to open, comfortable areas where conversation groups, planned or spontaneous can take place.  Some are building kitchens and cafes, open areas for dancing and play, setting up gaming areas, providing small video conferencing rooms or pods, and providing access to streaming video services to replace the collections of video tapes and DVDs.  And yes, there are still centers that build space for the latest versions of the standard language lab using the latest computers, laptops or tablets, which may be stored in place or in carts.

No, the language center is not obsolete. It is just evolving.  This is actually a very exciting time for language center directors, for the possibilities of designing and customizing space and facilities has expanded far beyond the limitations of the past.  Creative and innovative ideas from teams of faculty, architects, and center directors are popping up around the country, and the students come to them, not for the technology, but because they enhance the very thing language provides: human and social interaction. The spaces enhance the use of these new technologies that drastically reduce language and cultural barriers.

The International Association for Language Learning Technology has followed these trends for almost fifty years now and regularly publishes a volume on language center design and another one on language center management.  IALLT sees a great need to assist language center directors, language faculty, as well as departments, colleges, administrators and architects answer these fundamental questions as they plan new academic spaces and renovate old ones.  In addition to the publications on design and management, IALLT is beginning the task of developing tools for assessing language centers and their functions.

If you have an interest in working on such a project, please consider volunteering some of your time and expertise as we develop ideas and methods.

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