Educational Technology & Society 3(3) 2000
ISSN 1436-4522

VIRLAN: Collaborative Foreign Language Learning on the Internet for Primary Age Children: Problems and a Solution

James Milton
Centre for Applied Language Studies
University of Wales Swansea
Swansea, SA2 8PP, UK
Tel:+44 1792 295391
Fax: +44 1792 295641

Anastasia Garbi
Exodus SA
Filolaou 40, 116 33
Athens, Greece
Tel:+30 1 7564505
Fax: +30 1 7564506


The potential for using Internet and virtual reality to enhance language learning is currently attracting considerable academic interest. Most studies address collaborative learning amongst adult, and already communicative, learners. However, the vast majority of foreign language learners are very young and very low level and the technology is often seen as a barrier to learning. This paper reports the particular characteristics which need to be addressed if young, low-level learners are to use modern technologies. These include the need to incorporate topics of interest to very young learners and reflect the content of the language teaching they receive. Also important is the need to use approaches which will not overtax young learners’ cognitive abilities and skills. Further, there is the major problem of how to foster genuine communication where the language levels of users are very low. And finally, there is the need to retain some coherent approach and methodology within the learning process. This paper describes a virtual reality, online response called VIRLAN which works with primary school age beginners in foreign languages. A virtual world is open to young learners who can take part in a number of language games and other activities designed to reflect their interests and foster the language they have learned at school.

Keywords: Distance learning, Virtual reality, Language learning


Foreign language teaching has a long history of trying to take advantage of new technology. Language laboratories, the phonograph and even the printing press were all rapidly turned to helping learners in the long task of language mastery. It is commonly accepted that computer technology and particularly the Internet are the latest technological advances that offer huge potential to learning particularly collaborative learning (for example, see the discussion in Hartley and Collins-Brown, 1999). Indeed, there are those who believe it is already making a significant change to the world of education (Dwyer et al, 1995).

The impact of this technology on the language learning population is only partial, however. The programs and applications which have been developed are not universally applicable to all learners. Typically, the learner is expected to be at intermediate language level or better, and either adult or near adult. The model and experiences described in Lamy and Goodfellow (1998), for example, are typical. You will struggle to find examples of good practice which are applicable to very young learners and near or absolute language beginners. This is a great pity since the vast majority of language learners are both very young and beginners. If the new technology is to have a major impact on language learning, this is the group the new technology must address.

There are a variety of reasons why the needs of young learners have yet to be addressed and these are described below.  The European-funded project VIRLAN, is a first attempt to address and circumvent the problems involved, and demonstrate a collaborative language learning environment suitable for young and elementary-level language learners.


Obstacles to the creation of materials for young learners

One major reason why the use of high technology has concentrated on adults and able foreign language speakers, is that resources, equipment and expertise reside mostly in places like universities where foreign language learners are adult. It takes time for expertise and technology to filter down through the educational establishment.

There are, however, other characteristics of young learners which makes applying the use of new technology, such as the Internet, particularly difficult.

Firstly, there are the knowledge and skill levels of young learners. Modern technology makes assumptions about users which young learners may not match. It is assumed learners can use a computer keyboard and mouse, for example, and these are key to almost everything which is done on a computer. Primary school children must be taught, and take time to learn, the necessary skills. At a more sophisticated level, use of the Internet requires an understanding of where your interlocutor is, and adaptation to a form of turn-taking which is entirely new (Ortega cited in Warschauer, 1998). Primary age learners have to be explicitly coached before they can take advantage of the collaborative opportunities which the technology is offering.

Secondly, there are the interests and needs of young learners. For adult and near adult learners it is possible to draw on materials such as articles and web-sites, which already exist in digital form, as the basis of language teaching materials. These can be lengthy and extensive in their scope, making the time invested in materials creation worthwhile.

For young learners quite different materials are required. They must reflect the world picture of young learners and this means they must incorporate topics such as wild animals, dinosaurs and everyday tasks like eating and dressing. Good materials in these restricted areas are much harder to find and creating something that young learners will find interesting is that much more difficult.  The activities, when created, will have to be much shorter in duration, to reflect young learners shorter attention spans, and may have to be more game-like to retain the learner’s motivation. The formal educational system can be quite puritan, and activities with the necessary combination of topic and game are likely to be mistrusted. No wonder that serious educationalists turn to something that looks more serious!

Thirdly, there is the foreign language level of the learners. Young foreign language learners are almost universally beginners and beginners may take several years to master even a few hundred words in their foreign language (Milton and Meara, 1998). This is not enough for normal communication. And yet, collaborative use of the Internet usually requires communication at quite a sophisticated level. An application for use by young beginners must somehow contrive a situation where young learners can use what language they have in a realistic, meaningful and communicative way. Equally, the application must contrive that learners are not frequently exposed to language they cannot understand. Language learning is all about confidence, and where young learners repeatedly fail to communicate or understand they can lose heart and stop learning. It is impossible to overemphasise to non-language-specialists just how difficult it is to control language in this way. Additional difficulty is created by the fact that the vocabulary and language structures that beginners learn, may vary considerably according to the text book used.  The content of beginners’ textbooks can be highly idiosyncratic (Milton and Vassiliu, 2000). It is difficult, therefore, to design something that is linguistically general enough to be accessible to all young learners.

A final difficulty to be addressed by serious educationalists is the need to create materials which have a cogent basis in method, and are supported by empirical evidence of their effectiveness. Internet-led course materials would seem to fall within a broadly communicative approach to language teaching and learning. The idea that collaborative activities via the Internet enhance leaning and particularly fluency is, as Warschaur (1998) points out, non-controversial but also largely non-proven. This approach, however, appears at odds with the need, described above, to control the language environment for use by beginners; an approach reminiscent of structuralism and situational language teaching (Richards and Rodgers, 1986). The kindest thing which can be said about technology led teaching materials at this level, is that they are likely to be eclectic in approach. More unkindly, it could be said that these are techniques in search of a method.


VIRLAN - 3D, Internet-based materials for primary aged children

VIRLAN provides on-line, real-time, collaborative communication in a virtual reality environment using state-of-the -art technologies in an effort to simulate the real world. It was designed to allow children to use their foreign language skills from a very early age. Specifically it was designed, both technically as well as linguistically, to address the needs and learning habits of children aged 6 to 12 who are at the very beginning of the language learning process. Motivation to use the system is encouraged by an appealing environment, the incorporation of educational game-like activities, and most importantly by letting learners collaborate actively in the learning process.

The VIRLAN network is composed of a central node (the country called Centralia) and four pilot sites in Greece, Germany, Finland and UK. Collaborative educational activities are supported by an on-line picture and sound dictionary, and a text generator application for young children. There are tools for children to create posters where they can demonstrate their linguistic skills and these can be printed off or displayed electronically. The central node also includes functional devices to help teachers and adults link learners at remote locations. These include an event scheduler, a message creator and a message board.


Figure 1. VIRLAN’s central node: CENTRALIA       Figure 2. Access to the country sites


Centralia provides access to virtual countries where children can go to practise their foreign languages. Children learning English go to UK, those learning Greek go to Greece and so on. Within each country site are edutainment activities based on on-line chatting and application sharing. The activities are designed to be used collaboratively so learners from remote sites can meet each other and talk and solve simple problems from their computer terminals. The activities have been designed with linguistic content and educational scenarios appropriate for primary school classrooms.

As the basis of the activities six notional/functional areas were selected, based upon the content of beginners language course books, the language level and activities they contain, and the interests of young learners.

  1. Greetings and self ID,
  2. Naming animals and expressing plurality,
  3. Expressing likes and dislikes for food and drink,
  4. Describing appearance, colours and clothes,
  5. Describing places and expressing locations,
  6. Giving directions and ordinal numbers.

These areas are given physical locations in each country site so learners who want to talk about animals, for example, go to the Zoo location.

Within each location are 2D and 3D activities intended to promote the language of the notional/functional areas. It is possible, of course, to say anything you like within the confines of a chat-room but it was intended that learners with limited language could, in these areas, find something to say which would be more or less correct and communicable. A typical activity is a whiteboard activity called VIRLAN’s Painter. The Painter room contains a whiteboard, shared between remotely-connected users, with a chat box below, and the tools to write or draw on the whiteboard. Users take it in turns to draw something, or part of something, and the other user has to guess what it is. Learners within the first year of language learning can handle a game of this kind and ask questions such as, “What is it?”, “Is it a cat?”, and provide answers such as, “Yes, it is a cat”. This was designed to allow very low level users, and consequently the youngest learners in the target age group, about age 7, to participate. A further activity of this kind is the Picture Board which provides pictures of animals which learners can point to and ask questions about. It is possible to save, print and display examples of this work.


Figure 3. Paint Board activity                                        Figure 4. Picture Board activity


More sophisticated and linguistically challenging activities were also designed. For example, teachers, during a preliminary needs analysis, asked expressly for a game to practise spelling especially in English and a 3D letter square was created, with attached chat box. Contained within the letter square is an appropriate name, for example, the names of animals in the Zoo area. One learner must ‘sit’ above the square and direct while the other learner goes into the square and moves his/her avatar through the letters to spell out the name of the animal in the correct order. This is more challenging both linguistically and conceptually and is intended for learners at the upper end of the primary range. 3D towns, a zoo and shopping centres are also provided for this group where learners can move around talk and find the locations of designed buildings. In the 3D town a bot (a programmed robot) directs the game by asking the players to locate the house of X or the cinema, in order to find out the colour of the door.

It is possible to carry out all these activities in audio and not through the chat box although this has not yet been trailed.


Addressing the needs of young learners

It will be appreciated that VIRLAN has, in its design, attempted to address the needs of young learners and allow them to use modern technology communicatively and collaboratively to develop their foreign language skills.

Activities were chosen which would fall within the knowledge and skill levels of the users. Thus, an activity such as the white board Painter was chosen because children understand the game from the use of simple paper and pens and knew immediately what was expected of them. Any shortcomings they had in the control of the mouse in drawing, added to the game; it was part of the fun. Because language exchanges were short, their deficiencies in typing were not too burdensome. Provided there were only 2, or at most 3, players the delays were not a cause of trouble.


Figure 5. 3D LetterSquare activity
Figure 6. 3D Greece
 Figure 7. 3D Zoo


Activities were also chosen to reflect the interests and activities of young learners. The themes and ideas were selected on the practical basis that they were contained in textbooks so that learners would have the foreign language to handle the activity. But they also reflect the world of primary age children who are at home talking about animals and dinosaurs. This necessitated the creation of pictures and dictionary databases especially for VIRLAN but without these, the users were likely to find the materials adult, flat, dull, uninteresting and ultimately unusable.

The most difficult area of work to address was to contrive situations where learners could use their very limited linguistic resources successfully and the notional/functional areas have been described above. Again, these were selected on the basis of a careful analysis of the content of beginner foreign language textbooks.

The final consideration of consistency in method and approach was laid on one side for the sake of practicality. At root, however, the games described involve a communicative approach where the benefits of real-life communication, in terms of motivation and enhanced fluency, outweigh the possible problems which might be caused by the occurrence of error in uncontrolled speech and writing. The practical consideration here is that this is what the learners’ teachers clearly wanted.


VIRLAN in action

It is one thing to design an educational activity, even a complex one like VIRLAN, to overcome anticipated difficulties, but does the activity work in practice? Can young learners use it and do they like using it so they want to go on using it? Is the language they use what was expected? Most importantly, can young learners actually enhance their knowledge of a foreign language using VIRLAN?

The funding period for the planning needs analyses, design, writing, programming, testing, and trailing of VIRLAN was less than 18 months. Users, both teachers and pupils, completed questionnaires and other forms of feedback to allow their reactions to be gauged and an initial assessment of usability to be formed. A methodology for assessing language gains was also attempted although it was not expected that useful data would be gained from this. Language typically take many years to learn. Alderson (forthcoming), for example, characterises language as ‘… a trait, which is relatively stable, at least over relatively short periods of time.’ The time available for the use of VIRLAN by many pupils amounted to only 3 or 4 hours and it is to be doubted whether any existing testing instrument is sensitive enough to reliably detect general language gains over so short a period. Nonetheless, attempts were made to pre and post-test learners on knowledge of specific structures and vocabulary in order to test for language uptake. Pupil exchanges using VIRLAN were automatically saved and were examined for increasing length of phrase as a test of the low level development of fluency. Low level language testing is always extremely difficult but there is evidence that this method of analysis may be both sensitive and reliable (Kazoullis, 2000).

The information drawn from these analyses would be uninformative, however, without providing some idea about how users communicated in the VIRLAN environment. The following exchange between native and non-native English speaking children aged between 7 and 10 using the white board Painter, is fairly typical. The learners had not played the game before.


Keratsini:     Keratsini is drawing.

Curly:           whoes go?

Curly:           oh

Lenia:           I know, it’s a butterfly!!

Keratsini:     Yes, she is … we like we are communicating

                      … (Curly draws)

Curly:           I am drawing a bee. Thanks for helping.

Ollie:             Well done

Curly:           thanks

      … (Lenia draws)

Lenia:           Oh!

Curly:           worm?

Curly:           snake?

Beetle:          a snake?

Lenia:           Yes, a worm


There were more players than we wanted here, more than the 4 seen in this extract, so it is slightly unorganised but it is quite clear that the activity is working and pretty much as intended. Keratsini is a non-native learner of English but is able to participate on equal terms with two lively 7 year-old native-speakers in Curly and Ollie. Lenia is also a non-native speaker but is a teacher who joined the game to help keep order! Keratsini’s language may not be perfect but it is quite enough to communicate. The activity appears to work very much as intended.

Informal feedback on the use of the game was highly encouraging. The children also enjoyed playing the game; in this extract Keratsini even says so. Informal feedback from supervising teachers showed that the children wanted to play these games again and to meet children from other places. This impression was confirmed in formal feedback collected from teachers and the pupils themselves. This is not the place for a detailed list of questions and mean scores on a scale of 0 to 5 as this has been reported elsewhere (Milton et al, 2000). However, enjoyability gained the highest score of all factors investigated with a mean rating of 4.37 out of 5. Teachers in UK, Greece and Finland uniformly scored it high, and only teachers in Germany gave it a lower score. It is unclear as yet whether there is a particular problem with the suitability of this kind of activity for German users or whether cultural factors mean than Germans mark lower on rating scales than other nationalities. Other usability factors which teachers scored well were the capacity for integration into the curriculum, the appropriateness of the activities, level selection, and confidence in gaining better results from longer use.

Linguistically, the games also appeared to perform much as was hoped during design. The users were naturally limited by the confines of the game and its subject matter, and this allowed the non-native speakers to participate. Formal evaluation attempted to test whether language acquisition occurred during the use of the environment although it was not expected that huge gains would be seen. The reasons for this have been indicated above: the time available for testing was too short for any change to be reliably assessed, and the focus of the environment was to encourage fluency and communicability rather than language input. Pre- and post-activity gap-fill exercises were administered and results from these showed an average vocabulary gain of approximately 20% within the thematic areas tested. To put this figure in context, if only one thematic area was used – as might be the case for those who only used the environment 3 or 4 times – this could mean a gain of only 4 or 5 words. In knowledge of structures, individual learners made considerable gains but overall it was difficult to detect systematic progress.

Length and complexity of phrases used by learners was also examined in an attempt to gauge progress, particularly in communicability. Once again it proved difficult in the time available to collect sufficient data for a complete analysis. Overall it was difficult to detect language gains but strictly comparable data was very limited. Where individual pupils were engaged in repeat uses of the same activity, which should provide comparable data, slight gains in length and complexity of utterance were observed. It is not clear, however, if this really reflects language progress or if it is an artefact of increased familiarity with the chat facility. More details of the results of these tests were reported in Milton et al (2000). Much more extensive testing is required, however, before any firm conclusion as to the linguistic benefits of an activity like VIRLAN can be gauged.

Other interesting linguistic information did emerge from the trials. The nature of the language used by children gave rise to comment both from the non-native learning and the native-speaking point of view. The teachers of foreign languages were fairly tolerant of formal errors such as referring to a butterfly as ‘she’ and structures like ‘we like we are’. They felt that the benefits in motivation and, even at this level, fluency were very positive aspects of the activity and that errors could be addressed later on if necessary. Formal correctness was not their aim in this activity. The teachers of the native-speaking children, however, were much keener on formal accuracy and perhaps this is not surprising since they spend a lot of time at this stage of learning, teaching children to use capital letters and full stops correctly. The children themselves, however, lapsed into a more naturalistic, almost spoken form of language. The question has to be asked as to whether the provision of a language model containing errors of this kind will have an effect on the non-native speakers. We are not aware of this phenomenon being formally observed before and it deserves closer investigation.

There were other benefits reported from using these activities. In particular, teachers the UK were also pleased that the materials fostered their children’s computer skills, their knowledge of geography, and their social skills and awareness of others. All of these are explicitly identified in primary schools’ learning aims in UK.

It must be stressed that young learners cannot, at least initially, be left alone with materials like VIRLAN.  The materials were designed with school or even classroom exploitation in mind. The learners did require some explanation, orientation and a little initial practice before being linked up with learners from other countries or other locations. Further, young learners clearly gained most from the activity where the content was appropriately prepared beforehand. Thus if learners were to use the white board to draw pictures of animals, they needed to have planned beforehand the pictures they would draw or the language they might use. Activities worked best with only two users, or two pairs of young children at a single terminal. The users, or pairs of users, could then take turns. When more users were engaged in the activity, turn-taking became a problem and the activity required a leader. We tried, for educational reasons, to link non-native speakers of the target language with native-speakers but the activities seemed to work well regardless of the combination of native and non-native speakers



There is no doubt that addressing the particular needs of young, foreign language learners using the Internet is extremely challenging. It takes time, considerable effort and no little ingenuity to devise materials which young learners can use and potentially benefit from. VIRLAN is a first attempt at directly addressing young learners’ problems and deriving a solution. We have been pleased that, on the limited evidence available, it has proved workable and even successful. Young learners, and near-beginners in a foreign language, can take part in collaborative activities using the Internet, and the difficulties in doing this need not be insurmountable. Much more work on evaluation is required, however, before any real estimate of the benefits and potential disadvantages can be gained.



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