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A case study on English language learners’ task-based interaction and avatar identities in Second Life: A mixed-methods design

Even though research has shown that the unique features (e.g., immersion, avatar presence, simulation) afforded by Second Life (SL) have the potential to boost learners’ motivation, engagement and virtual identities (Cooke-Plagwitz, 2008), the link between EFL learners’ second language acquisition (SLA) in task-based interaction and virtual learning in SL still needs to be connected in the current SLA literature (Peterson, 2006). Also, a full-blown virtual language course designed under the task-based language teaching (TBLT) framework has not yet been documented in SL literature. To address these theoretical and pedagogical concerns, this case study raised two major research questions:
1. To what extent do EFL learners employ communication strategies to negotiate meaning during task-based interaction via voice chat in SL?
2. What are students' perceptions about using avatars to practice English and participate in a task-based virtual class in SL?

Situated in cognitive interactionist theory and driven by task-based language teaching (TBLT), this study employed a concurrent mix-methods design to better answer research questions quantitatively and qualitatively. Nine adult EFL learners worldwide were recruited in SL to participate in this 10-session virtual class. Students used avatars to interact with peers in simulated real-life tasks via voice chat. Quantitative data were collected through students’ oral production in communicative tasks to examine their language patterns during negotiated interaction. Qualitative data were gleaned from students’ journal entries, survey responses, and a focus group interview—triangulated with the researcher’s observation blog.

Quantitative results showed that confirmation checks, clarification requests and comprehension checks were the most frequently used strategies. Other types of strategy use were also found. Following Varonis and Gass's (1985) framework of negotiation of meaning, two types of negotiation routine were also identified: single- and multi-layered trigger-resolution sequences. Additionally, the interrelationship among task types, negotiation and strategy use was also established—jigsaw task prompted the most instances of negotiation and strategy use whereas opinion-exchange task triggered the least.

Using grounded theory approach (Corbin & Strauss, 1990), three core themes emerged from qualitative data: 1) perceptions about factors that impact virtual learning experience in SL, 2) attitudes toward learning English via avatars in SL, and 3) beliefs about the effects of task-based instruction on learning outcomes in SL. Results revealed that learners perceived SL as a viable platform for learning, owing to its conspicuous features, immersive simulation, augmented reality, and tele/copresence. Their masked identities through avatars also allowed them to “take risks” in speaking English without feeling shyness or embarrassment as in a real-life conversation discourse.

This study implicated that 1) two-way directed tasks with convergent and single-outcome conditions will stimulate more cognitive and linguistic processes of negotiation involving interactional modifications—which leads to more complex and lengthy negotiation routine; 2) 3-D multimodal resources afforded by SL provide additional visual support for EFL learners’ input acquisition and output modifications; 3) tasks capitalizing on SL features, learners’ cultural and world knowledge as well as real-life tasks will make a difference in learners’ virtual learning experiences; and 4) avatar identities boost their sense of self-image and confidence.


Julian Chen    
Language Learning Research Center (LLRC)
Stony Brook University
United States

Julian Chen received his Ph.D. in the Second Language Education and Culture program at the University of Maryland, USA. His research areas include computer-mediated communication, task-based instruction, blended learning and 3-D multi-user virtual environments (e.g., Second Life). He is currently working as the Technical Director of the Language Learning Research Center (LLRC) at Stony Brook University, USA.


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