"Constructing" Language at MundoHispano
Please cite this paper as:
Hall, Cathy. (1998). "Constructing" Language at MundoHispano. Unpublished paper. George Mason University, Fairfax, VA.
MOO (Multi-user domain, Object-Oriented) is a text-based virtual environment that permits synchronous communication between players from around the world who are logged on at the same time. They may be working with other players on the MOO to create the MOO environment, participating in a cross-cultural social environment, or collaborating with professional colleagues from around the world, etc. Because of the nature of the MOO environment, e.g., synchronous communication and a text-based environment that can be built and manipulated by the players themselves, MOOs can provide a constructivist learning experience that is not available in the traditional second language (L2) classroom, especially those not in the target language country. Although MOOs offer a culturally rich environment for most any learning situation, this paper will focus on MundoHispano, an environment rich in constructivist learning possibilities for the Spanish language learner.
MundoHispano is a Spanish speaking MOO whose residents come from all over the Spanish-speaking world and beyond. It is a community of native Spanish speakers, teachers and learners of Spanish, and computer programmers who work singly or together to create an on-line virtual environment reminiscent of the Spanish-speaking world yet with its own special flavor. Lonnie Turbee (aka "Colega"), developer of MundoHispano, designed the core space to replicate La Puerta del Sol in Madrid, Spain with its streets that radiate out from the center and with an easy way for users to get to the airport. She then stepped back and let the community grow based on the goals, and whims, of its users. From that initial idea, airports have sprung up in different countries to receive flights from Spain, and buses, taxis, and domestic airlines have grown to support the overseas community (1998d) not to mention what has since grown within Spain itself.
For the L2 learner, MundoHispano provides a learning environment where the learner is immersed in the target language, an environment that can be difficult to recreate in a non-Spanish-speaking country. Even in the United States where Spanish is prevalent, it can be difficult to find a community where one can enter 24 hours a day and find themselves an integral part of a community of people who are there to socialize, learn, help others learn, and build the environment they live in. MundoHispano offers this environment to learners of Spanish and anyone else who cares to join the community.
In addition, it provides a relatively safe environment for the L2 learner as users join the community knowing it is also a community for non-native speakers who want to improve their language skills. There are designated asistentes who have volunteered to provide special help to new users and L2 learners. By typing the who command (@who), a list of the characters currently connected to the world is displayed. Those with asterisks next to their names are the helpers.
As mentioned above, MOOs can provide a constructivist learning experience that is not possible in the traditional L2 classroom, especially those not in the target language country. Of course, it must be noted that although MOOs can provide this type of environment, it will only be as constructivistic as the designers and/or a teacher allow them to be. The designers of MundoHispano have opened the door to an authentic and constructivist learning environment yet whether or not learners are able to take advantage of the potential of the environment will still be in the hands of their teacher. The following is a discussion of some of the concepts of constructivist design theory and how they can be implemented at MundoHispano.
Putting Theory Into Practice
Brown et. al. discuss situated learning and the idea that learners who use tools actively within a culture, build a richer understanding of the world in which the tools are used and of the tools themselves. Learning is seen as a process of enculturation where the meaning and purpose of activities are socially constructed through the interactions of its members, in other words, authentic activities are the ordinary practices of the culture (1989). Bednar, Cunningham, Duffy, and Perry (1992) and Cunningham (1992) claim that knowledge emerges in relevant contexts and that learning should be aimed at solving problems that confront the students in real life (RL).
Brown et. al. also discuss the idea of learning and tools. "Tools share several significant features with knowledge: They can only be fully understood through use, and using them entails both changing the users view of the world and adopting the belief system of the culture in which they are used" (1989). Those familiar with language learning already know language and the culture it resides in are intertwined. It is difficult to learn a language if one does not understand the culture that gave birth to it. Expressions exist and people say and do things based on their culture. By taking language learning out of context, learners are missing an integral part of the language and culture.
Brown et. al. further explain that it is common for people to talk about how a tool works but still be unable to use the tool. At the majority of academies where this writer has taught, communicative competence has been the goal of the academy, yet the in-class focus has usually been on learning isolated grammar, vocabulary, etc., with fill-in-the-blank, and multiple-choice tests. Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that learners are able to recite how, when, and why to use the present perfect, yet are completely incapable of using it correctly in a real conversation.
MundoHispano, on the other hand, puts the Spanish language learner directly into the native culture while providing the opportunity for participation in authentic language learning tasks within an authentic context. Part of language learning is learning to negotiate, persuade, describe, etc., but perhaps one of the few authentic tasks that goes on in the traditional classroom is students trying to persuade the teacher not to give homework over the weekend. It is not uncommon to find conversations in the L2 classroom to be forced and unnatural, e.g., talk with your partner about what you did over the weekend or talk about what you think you will be doing at this time next year. As hard as we try to create activities that are natural, they rarely will be because students talking with students in a classroom is not the same as students talking with native speakers in a community they are an integral part of.
At MundoHispano, students must learn to be polite in Spanish, strike up a conversation with someone, find out if that person can help them and, if they can, persuade that person to do so, e.g., help the learner build and describe his house, and, finally, end the conversation politely (Turbee 1998b ). Perhaps they will also need to convince someone to meet them another day or to stay connected a while longer so they can finish what they are doing. These are social skills which are important to L2 learning but which can be difficult to recreate in a truly natural way in the traditional classroom. At MundoHispano, whether a learner has good or poor language skills, he will need to use whatever skills he possesses in order to interact with other users. If he does not have the skills needed, he will have to learn them, just like in RL (Turbee 1998b). Thus, learning occurs due to the authentic nature of the activity and having the opportunity to speak with a native speaker 24 hours a day can be very motivating to L2 learners.
In addition to using the target language to communicate within the culture, L2 learners participate as accepted members of the culture. At MundoHispano everyone is encouraged to extend the virtual world by building and programming objects and places that are authentic and which add value to the community. This means the amount of learning activities offered is limited only by the imagination of the learner and/or the teacher. Whether L2 learners construct an area that relates to an in-class reading or build a tourist bus system because they want to, the rest of the community benefits from it. By giving users this freedom, MundoHispano has grown into a community which reflects the needs and interests of its members. Giving users the opportunity to build the virtual world instead of interacting with a pre-designed world allows them to express themselves freely, encourages diversity, engages them in meaningful learning tasks, and enhances their sense of community (Bruckman 1995).
Since examining an object will tell other users who created it and since the object does not disappear when the learner disconnects from the MOO, the learner knows his object will be there for the other members of the community to interact with. Knowing the space is being created for an authentic audience who is always looking for something new on the MOO, can provide a sense of satisfaction and ownership that is frequently missing when the teacher is the only person who will see and critique students work.
Since the goal of second language learning is the ability to use the target language in an authentic environment, not fill in blanks on a sheet of paper, assessment should emerge from doing the task, i.e., speaking Spanish with native speakers of Spanish. If we agree with the idea that experts are experts because they dominate and work within the content domain, then learners should be assessed on their ability to think and come to reasoned solutions to problems within that domain. Their thinking-process in the target language should be what is evaluated not their ability to explain the grammar of the language. In other words, completion of the task should be the test (Bednar et. al. 1992, Brown, Collins, and Duguid 1989, Cunningham 1992, Duffy and Cunningham, 1996).
MundoHispano provides learners with an authentic context within which to accomplish authentic tasks; consequently, the learning process is the test inasmuch as effective communication takes place or it does not. Learners (as well as native speakers) will always say something wrong or misunderstand what has been said to them, but clarifications are made and the conversation continues. It is this negotiation of meaning which allows communication, and language learning, to take place. Is the learner successful in resolving a communication gap in the target language by going out into the world and finding someone who can help him resolve the problem? If he is able to use the language to interact within the culture in order to solve a real problem, then communication can be considered to have been successful, and the learner passes the test.
This may seem very simplistic, but when compared to testing a learners ability to fill in the blanks or chose the correct answer from four choices, it cannot be denied that having an authentic conversation with native Spanish speakers is a far better test of a learners ability in the target language.
MOO client-servers also provide a fall-back mechanism in that conversations can be logged and reviewed at another time. This enables learners to read through a conversation they have had and see where communication broke down and what strategies helped repair the lines of communication or think about other language strategies that could, or should, have been used instead. This gives learners their own test to analyze and correct.
MundoHispano offers a student-centered learning environment which encourages learners to take control of their own learning. Since learners are anonymous and work through their character, it reduces stress that can be caused by not wanting to make a mistake in front of ones peers. It can be very motivating for a learner to know he can speak and make mistakes and no one will know it is him. This anonymity helps build the confidence of students, especially shy students who generally do not speak up in class (Turner 1995). Studies indicate this newfound sense of self-confidence empowers learners and leads to more student participation and student control of discussions, etc. (Warschauer, Turbee, and Roberts 1996).
Moreover, as MundoHispano is a virtual community in which learners participate as members of the community, the majority of learning is done without the teacher. Learners can connect to MundoHispano whenever they want and do whatever they want. They can talk to other users, explore places that interest them, build a house in a place of their liking, build objects and place them in public areas for everyone in the community to enjoy, decide who gets to manipulate the objects, etc. These trips to the culture may be on a learners own time or may be related in some way to a class activity. Whichever it is, it is up to the student to decide what he is going to do there.
Learners are encouraged to set their personal messages, e.g., a description of themselves, the message another character receives when the learner pages him, and a variety of others. This writers character has the following description (in English):
Setting these messages is a lot of fun and gives learners complete control over their characters. More importantly, these messages, and the many others like them, can be changed at any time which means the learner controls who and what they are depending on how they feel on any given day. The more often learners change these messages, the more authentic language they will use and the more in-control they will feel about the learning experience.
Of course, having an environment where learner control is high is not to suggest that teachers should do nothing. Teacher participation is essential to the learning experience, however, teachers should participate as a facilator who provides clear learning goals (perhaps set in conjunction with each student), well-structured tasks, and suggestions for accomplishing those tasks. Then they should step back and allow students to do the learning (Fanderclai 1995, Turbee 1996 and 1998, and Turner 1996).
MundoHispano can provide an authentic language environment rich in opportunities for students and teachers alike if teachers are willing to relinquish some of the control they have come to expect in the traditional classroom.
Collaborative learning can be described as groups working together to share alternative viewpoints and to develop each alternative point of view. This theory of collaborative learning and multiple perspectives is based on the fact that there are few right or wrong answers in life and that students must be exposed to the different perspectives of their peers and experts and learn to apply the perspective, or mix of perspectives, that best meets the needs of the situation. Most importantly, students must learn how to develop and evaluate the evidence that supports each perspective. The goal is not to reach an agreement as to what the correct solution is, but to understand and help develop each perspective (Duffy and Cunningham 1996 and Bednar et. al. 1992, Brown et. al. 1989).
MundoHispano, by nature, is a collaborative learning environment. At the least it involves two people having a conversation. Nonetheless, it is this social interaction that places the learner in a situation where they must negotiate meaning with other speakers. As Turbee states, "If we get down to the idea that knowledge is socially constructed, all you need is the social environment and the agreement to communicate in the target language, and youve got knowledge construction going on" (1998a). Even if the other user is teaching the learner how to cook a favorite Spanish dish, using the emote command to kiss the learners cheeks, or talking about the social structure of his country, both are working together to learn about the other person and his culture. Although each may feel the other culture is strange, the important idea is to develop a shared understanding of each culture and language. It is through this social interaction that learning is created (Turbee 1998a).
Looking at collaboration and multiple perspectives from a different angle, we could imagine an L2 reading/writing class where learners have just read Don Quijote in Spanish. The class could be divided into groups and be given the task of recreating what they interpreted as the important aspects of the story, for example, at MundoHispano. Having different interests, language skill levels, and life experiences, each learner would bring a different understanding and perspective of the story to the project. In order to recreate the story, they would have to work together to come to a common understanding of each persons interpretation. This working together would help learners come to a more in-depth understanding of Don Quijote. When all groups were finished, learners could visit the rooms of the other groups in order to see how they have interpreted the story. In this way, they are exposed to more interpretations of the story and more language building.
As its users come from many different Spanish-speaking countries where different forms of grammar, vocabulary, idiomatic expressions, etc., exist, MundoHispano offers an environment of multiple perspectives on language. As language learners roam around the world, they will be exposed to Spanish being used in a variety of different ways. As they talk with native speakers they will find that what is polite in one country, may be unacceptable in another, e.g., in Spain, it is very common, especially among younger people, to use the informal "tu" (you) when meeting people for the first time. In some South American countries where the formal "usted" (you) is used when speaking to ones dog, this would be considered extremely rude and offensive. Fortunately, the community that exists among the users at MundoHispano creates a safe environment where learners of Spanish can ask a lot of questions and get a lot of different answers. Nevertheless, it is up to them to sort out and make sense of what they have learned.
Spiro et. al. discuss cognitive flexibility theory as a revisiting of the same material, at different times, in rearranged contexts, for different reasons, and from different conceptual perspectives as being important in the attainment of advanced knowledge acquisition which is described as "mastery of complexity in understanding and preparation for transfer" (1992). They argue that multiple passes through the content must be made since many insights, perspectives, connections, etc., will be missed the first time the content is explored.
We know language is acquired through use and reuse. The more a learner uses and is exposed to authentic language the sooner he will be able to use the language and use it effectively. Multiple exploration trips to the MOO should lead to stronger language skills for the L2 learner. Perhaps the learner notices an object they had not noticed the first time. Or on subsequent trips they begin to notice the variety of descriptive adjectives being used. Some time later they may begin to notice more advanced grammar structures that had been missed on earlier trips while trying to get a feel for the place as a whole. There are many aspects of language learning that will be noticed and learned by revisiting ones favorite places at MundoHispano.
It shouldnt be forgotten that many conversations are repetitions of previous conversations, e.g., what do you do and why are you here at the MOO? The more learners talk and discuss topics, the more proficient they will become at speaking about not only those repetitive topics but others that arent so common. So although a learner may never leave La Puerta del Sol, they will have many opportunities to visit the language available.
There are drawbacks and problems that come with MOOing, e.g., netsex and gender-swapping; however, discussion will focus on the drawbacks that are more likely to directly affect the second language learner at MundoHispano.
The first few times on a MOO can be overwhelming. The user must understand certain commands in order to function at minimum levels on the MOO, e.g., talk to, page, or join another user, find out who is connected, and leave the MOO. The commands themselves are not difficult, but, with a text-based environment and conversations scrolling off the screen, it can bewilder and overwhelm even a native speaker. The first time this writer connected to MundoHispano, as a non-native speaker, she felt completely overwhelmed even though she had experience MOOing in English. There were approximately 25 people connected and other users began paging her with greetings and requests to talk to her. Everything was happening so fast that she had the overwhelming urge to disconnect from the MOO. These feelings did disappear, though, by the third time she connected.
Although the conversational pace is slow compared to a face-to-face conversation, though this gives learners a little time to think through what they want to say, it is fast in terms of typing. The writer has decent typing skills in English and hs no problems on English-speaking MOOs, but she finds it agonizing to type in Spanish. It is difficult for her to concentrate in Spanish while her fingers continually make mistakes on the keyboard. At the same time, she frequently has difficulty understanding the other user because their typing is laden with mistakes. While L2 learners need to see authentic language, including mistakes in grammar and form, bad typing skills of other users can hinder the learning process and frustrate the learner. It has this writer, and she is fluent in Spanish.
Another drawback is that a text-only environment may not be as effective for learners with different learning styles. A visual learner may get bored by wandering around the MOO reading what is there and may want to see pictures that supplement the descriptions. Some people are not verbal learners and dont speak much in their own language. This is not to say they are shy, however, it may mean they are not inclined to verbalize the learning experience. These learners may not feel comfortable having to talk with people on the MOO. Learners who are not tactile learners may find keyboarding a problem to MOOing. There is no disputing that reading authentic, context-dependent text is of enormous benefit to the majority of L2 learners; nevertheless, it may not be the best medium for every learner.
The MOO help system is not intuitive and is very difficult to understand, though this is not unique to MundoHispano. Learners who want to spend time doing new things at MundoHispano may find it difficult to get the help they need from the system and as learners become more experienced at MOOing, they should try to find the information before asking for help from a more experienced user. Unfortunately, the help system as it exists today can make this a daunting task.
Learners who are technophobic will most likely be very reluctant to use anything technology related. These learners will need a lot of help and support from the teacher and other learners in the class.
In many countries, Internet users not only pay higher ISP charges than in the States but also high telephone connection fees. This can be a serious drawback to using MOOs as many people may feel it is too expensive to outweigh the advantages. Private language academies may feel it is too expensive to provide Internet access to all their students and may restrict access to email or less. Of course, if this is the case, many people are missing a more important point; it is by far cheaper to connect to the Internet than it is to go overseas for 2 months to learn the foreign language.
Learners need to be careful when asking for help with their Spanish, e.g., describing their house correctly. There are users who, instead of helping the learner work through the language, will offer to translate what the learner wants to say into Spanish. This may be done in an honest, yet naive, attempt at helping, or because the user wants to practice his English. Learners need to be aware of this and learn how to lead the other person to an exchange of ideas instead of a translation.
MundoHispano provides a constructivist learning environment for Spanish as a Second Language learners that cannot be created in the traditional second language classroom. It puts learners directly into the native culture where they are accepted as a member of the culture and where they must use the tools (the language) of the culture in order to interact within the community. What this means is that learning occurs as students create personally meaningful objects and interact with those objects and other users in the virtual world. Whereas an in-class conversation can be forced and unnatural, having a real audience made up of Spanish speakers motivates learners to want to communicate well and be understood. Furthermore, there is no other inexpensive way for learners to produce language for authentic purposes and to have real-time conversational access to native speakers (Turbee 1998c).
Communicating with Spanish speakers from all over the world is a powerful motivator to student learning. Knowing that one is holding a real-time conversation with one person who is in Columbia and a second person who is in Mexico is a powerful experience, not forgetting fun. This writer can attest from experience that one can easily find himself in the middle of a lively conversation and suddenly realizes an hour has flown by. Where did the time go one asks? As teachers we are hard pressed to find authentic tasks such as MOO where our learners forget they have been studying for the last hour.
There is one concern that must be expressed, however. MOO technology is a powerful medium which offers the potential of creating learning environments that cannot be created in the traditional classroom; nevertheless, it is too frequently used to "inject simple novelty into old pedagogical techniques" (Fanderclai 1995). Many MOOs are virtual representations of schools and university campuses which were designed by teachers and/or administrators instead of by the learners. Consequently, the types of activities that take place on the MOO are recreations of in-class activities but in the new environment, e.g., an on-line class discussion or L2 learners interviewing other users to practice question formation. That is not to suggest that these are not important learning activities; however, the questions we need to ask are:
MOOs hold enormous potential for creating new learning environments for our students. However, before MOOs and other technologies can be utilized to their fullest potential, changes in current pedagogy and teacher/administration attitudes towards technology and pedagogy must be forthcoming. Should teachers begin to recognize the power of MOO to create a constructivist learning environment that is lacking in the traditional classroom, we will find more and more learners happily engaged in authentic conversations and learning activities that lead them to a more robust understanding of, and ability to use, the second language.
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