How I learned German in virtual reality

By Haxhi Pantina

When I first arrived in Austria I was extremely happy because I was finally ready to pursue an international degree. There was however a little obstacle I had to surpass before I could attend my university course. I had to complete a language preparatory course in German to be allowed to proceed in the regular one. I didn’t think of it as any big issue and to some extent I was excited about it too.

However, I quickly got disappointed. Just a few weeks after the course kicked off the first lockdown began. From then on we had to attend the course entirely online. At first, I didn’t consider it a problem. In fact, I was happy that I didn’t have to commute each day to the course center and wake a little too early to get on time. Again I was quickly disappointed. Online learning turned awful for me. It would take a few minutes in the lecture my brain would be away. I could focus and I was constantly getting distracted. I would do the strangest things during the lecture like playing with the buttons of the tool we were using. The quality of sound was disturbing to me. I tried to disconnect my headphones but little changed. I became a true procrastinator although I didn’t know myself for one. To top off all I began missing many of my online lectures.

Other participants had pretty much the same issues with the online learning. Our teacher noticed and tried to motivate us by often asking us to give ourselves a little more time to get used to it. I didn’t have that time. Moreover I didn’t want to give my time for it. I wanted to get to university as fast as possible.

For me, online learning would never replace the traditional face-to-face learning. When I understood this I knew I have to find another way to complete the course on time. Fortunately as I was casually Googling I came across an interesting approach to solving this problem and I was quick to benefit from it. Junge Römer, a top VR company in Austria, had developed a VR software to simulate traditional classroom learning and business meetings. I was not quite convinced at the beginning but I was desperate to do something about my problem. Fortunately, it worked — at least for me.

Thanks to VR I managed to complete the language course at the right time and now I can finally experience the real international studying experience. Now that I made it through I want to pass this little knowledge to others and eventually help them for the better. I know most of the students in the world are living this problem in these difficult times. Since the situation is certainly not going to change for some more time we will still have to deal with same issues. However I strongly believe VR and learning will remain a relevant discussion even after we get back to normality.
Here are some pros and cons of using VR to learn a foreign language

Note that VR technology is finding application in education overall, but I can only talk about my personal experience and that it is limited to learning a foreign language

(Image courtesy Junge Römer.)

Pros

Simulate face-to-face conversations: Practicing your speaking skills is certainly the hardest part of learning a language. During this COVID-19 pandemic, most students miss this opportunity. Of course they still communicate via a tool like Zoom or Collaborate but that is certainly not effective enough. In my honest opinion, nothing can replace the role of face-to-face communication when learning. One needs to feel the physical presence of other people to really be involved in the discussion. VR can provide this.

Customizability: You can virtually place yourself in every possible situation to practice your speaking skills. Let’s say, for example, you’re learning about grocery shopping. You can simulate a situation at a grocery store. In my case I knew I had to give a lot of seminars at university so I practiced — over practiced, probably — giving a talk in front of a few “virtual” persons. You can personalize the learning process.

Learn by doing: You learn better by doing. In addition to simulating different situations where you have to communicate in VR simulations you can virtually perform certain actions. For example, in a simulated conversation you might be asked to do something and in this way you can easily memorize the words related to those particular actions.

Embrace the future: VR headsets have yet some tiny optical issues to solve but the premises for a bright future are obvious. It would therefore be great to get the advantage of this technology.

Cons

Potential nausea and headache: VR headsets are not a perfect tool, despite so many advantages. One common problem is that you cannot wear that for a long time. Sometimes you may have a little nausea and headaches. It’s therefore important to use it cleverly.

Cost: There is a wide range of prices for VR headsets. You can find a pair of VR goggles with a few hundred dollars up to more than a thousand. Of course the more expensive the better the device is going to be, but this can make the technology not accessible to everyone.

Final Note

VR technology has unlimited potential and we’re already experiencing part of it. Using VR can make the process of learning a foreign language unexpcted but at the same time very exciting and effective. In the current pandemic situation, its application in education has become more obvious. Parents are using VR headsets to help children stay focused and teachers are recommending them to bring the students certain concepts closer through virtual simulations. However there is more to come in the future.

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