The language laboratory is an audio or audio-visual installation used as an aid in modern language teaching. They can be found, amongst other places, in schools, universities, and academies. Perhaps the first lab was at the University of Grenoble in 1908. In the 1950s up until the 1990s, they were tape-based systems using reel to reel or (latterly) cassette. Current installations are generally multimedia PCs. The original language labs are now very outdated. They allowed a teacher to listen to and manage student audio via a hard-wired analogue tape deck based systems with 'sound booths' in fixed locations.
Appearance and configuration
The 'traditional' system generally comprises a master console (teacher position) which is electrically connected to a number of rows of student booths (US: carrels), typically containing a student tape recorder and headset with a boom arm microphone.
The teacher console is usually fitted with master playback source equipment (tape recorder), some means of monitoring of each booth in the class via the teacher headset and an intercom facility offering 2-way communication between teacher and student.
All but the most simple or first generation laboratories allow the teacher to remotely control the tape transport controls of the student booths (record, stop, rewind etc.) from the master desk. This allows for easy distribution of the master programme material, which is often copied at high speed onto the student positions for later use by the students at their own pace.
Better tape laboratories housed the tape machine behind a protective plate (leaving only a control panel accessible to the students) or locked the cassette door. This kept the expensive and sensitive decks free from student misuse and dust etc.
Once the master program had been transferred onto the student recorders, the teacher would then hand over control of the decks to the students. By pressing the record key in the booth, the student would simultaneously hear the playback of the program whilst being able to record his or her voice in the pauses, using the microphone. This is known as an audio active-comparative system. From a technological point of view, this overdubbing was made possible by use of a two-channel tape recorder
Language laboratories in the 1970s and 1980s received a bad reputation due to breakdowns. Common problems stem from the limitations and relative complexity of the reel to reel tape system in use at that time. Design played a part too; the simplest language laboratories had no electronic systems in place for the teacher to remotely control the tape decks, relying on the students to operate the decks correctly. Many had no way to stop the tape running off the reel in fast rewind or forward wind, which meant time wasting and greater chances of failure through misuse.
The tape recorders in use after the early 1970s in the language laboratory were more complex than those in the home, being capable of multitracking and electronic remote control. As a result, they often had several motors and relays, complex transistorised circuitry and needed a variety of voltages to run. They had lots of rubber parts such as idlers and drive belts which would perish and wear out. Bulbs in the control panels were also in continual need of replacement. Since the student booth tapes were not normally changed from one class to the next but were recorded over each time, these would eventually wear, and shed their oxide on the tape heads leading to poor sound and tangling.
The installations were usually maintained under contract by service engineers, but these often served a county or similar wide area, and would only call at 3-monthly intervals. This meant that if several booths malfunctioned, then for much of that time the laboratory was out of action.
Change of media
The demise of the traditional language laboratory came in the 1980s, with the falling out of favour of the audio-lingual method commonly in place in 1960s teaching methodology, and the expensive repairs needed to the open reel tape machines due to student misuse, neglect, or wear and tear. Many schools transformed their old language labs into computer suites. However, the advent of affordable multimedia capable PCs in the late 1990s led to a resurgence and transformation of the language laboratory with software and hard drives in place of reels of analogue tape.
In the 1990s new digital, hybrid PC based systems allowed extended functionality, in terms of better "management' of student / teacher audio with some levels of internet and video formats.
Media is 'managed' on these hybrid systems by language lab providers creating a supplementary network over and above the existing PC network for audio connections and communications in fixed locations. These hybrid systems are not without problems, mainly associated with hardware issues as the manufacturers of these hybrid systems have to replace parts and separate cabling. This both adds to the complexity of the product and has a cost implication via manufacturer annual ‘service’ fees.
Today all the major manufacturers say they have a ‘digital’ or a ‘just software’ solution. However in many cases they still rely on proprietary networks or expensive sound cards to successfully deliver their media. There are very few truly software only solutions that just rely on installing designated language lab software onto a network and then directing just the original network to manage the media between teacher and student, student and student or student back to teacher. In the past the quality of school, or university networks may have meant that the speed that the media could be delivered on ‘software only’ labs would have meant a ‘lag’ in the audio feed. These days all professionally run networks are able to work with these ‘software only’ language lab solutions and deliver media synchronously.
Software only systems can be easily installed onto an existing PC based network, making them both multi locational in their access and much more feature rich in how and what media they manage.
The content that is now used in the new language labs is much richer and self authored or free: now not just audio, but video, flash based games, internet etc. and the speed and variety of the delivery of media from teacher to student, student to teacher, is much quicker and therefore much more engaging for both teacher and student.
Further developments in language labs are now apparent as access moves from a fixed network and related Microsoft operating systems to online and browsers. Students can now access and work from these new 'cloud' labs from their own devices at any time and anywhere. Students can interrogate and record audio and video files and be marked and assessed by their teachers remotely.
What does a digital language lab look like?
The principle of a language lab essentially has not changed. It's still a teacher-controlled system connected to a number of student booths, containing a student's control mechanism and a headset with a microphone. Digital language labs have the same principle. A software-only language lab changes the concept of where and what a language lab is. Software can be installed and accessed on any networked PC anywhere on a school, college, or university campus. Software- only systems can be located in one room, from room-to-room or campus-to-campus.
The levels of functionality of current language labs vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. All labs will have a level of teacher control to manage student licenses / desktops. The more sophisticated ‘software only’ labs have a higher level of teacher management and control over the student desktop. One of the key differences with the ‘high end’ ‘software only’ products is their ability to work ‘live’ with the students as they record and work with media. So instead of waiting to correct student recordings after they have been recorded and collected back it is now possible for a teacher to work synchronously and ‘live’ with students on their own, in pairs and in groups, thus enhancing the immediacy of the teaching and learning experience.
The next generation digital language labs allow teachers to monitor, control, deliver, group, display, review and collect, audio, video and web based multimedia content. The student player is linked to the teacher console and can play audio, video and web based formats. Students can rewind, stop, start, go back to last silence, record, fast forward, repeat phrase and bookmark.
- Léon, P.R. (1962). Laboratoire de langues et correction phonétique. Paris: Didier.
- Roby, W.B. (2004). "Technology in the service of foreign language teaching: The case of the language laboratory. In D. Jonassen (ed.), Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology, 523-541, 2nd ed.". Retrieved 2010-01-30.