Emerging Technologies for Autonomous Language Learning

Mark Warschauer, University of California, Irvine
Meei-Ling Liaw, National Taichung University, Taiwan

Warschauer, M., & Liaw, M. (2011). Emerging technologies for autonomous language learning. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 2(3), 107-118.

Paginated PDF version


Drawing on a lengthier review completed for the US National Institute for Literacy, this paper examines emerging technologies that are applicable to self-access and autonomous learning in the areas of listening and speaking, collaborative writing, reading and language structure, and online interaction. Digital media reviewed include podcasts, blogs, wikis, online writing sites, text-scaffolding software, concordancers, multiuser virtual environments, multiplayer games, and chatbots. For each of these technologies, we summarize recent research and discuss possible uses for autonomous language learning.

Keywords: technology, computer-assisted language learning, CALL, online

We recently completed an in-depth analysis for the US National Institute for Literacy on the role of emerging technologies in adult language education (Warschauer & Liaw, 2010). In this paper, considering the diverse needs and various proficiency levels of adult learners, we summarize and update key points from that analysis that are most applicable to self-access and autonomous language learning. We consider four areas: (1) speaking and listening, (2) collaborative writing, (3) reading and language structure, and (4) online interaction. In each of these areas, we discuss technologies that have emerged or changed substantially in the last ten years, rather than earlier digital technologies such as word processing, e-mail, or Web browsing.

Listening and Speaking

The development and diffusion of software for producing, uploading, downloading and playing digital audio files (i.e., podcasts) make the flexible use of a wide range of audio material easier than ever for language learners. Hegelheimer and O’Bryan (2009) conducted a review of podcast resources and technologies for second-language education, highlighting one resource, ESLpod.com, which includes more than 500 free downloadable audio files organized by topic and developed especially for English-language learners. Other premade podcasts are available to promote academic listening skills, facilitate preparation for listening tests, provide grammar tips or cover business English topics. As O’Bryan and Hegelheimer (2007) point out, beyond providing listening material for in-class use, podcasts can be a repository of classroom discussions or lectures for use outside of class to extend and amplify autonomous learning.

An example of podcast use in adult education is provided by Ramírez and Thomsen (2008), who document a program titled “Teaching English and Careers in Hospitality, The Hotel TEACH Project.” Developed by the Center for Immigrant Education and Training at LaGuardia Community College in New York City, the program used a Blackboard site and podcasts to help adult immigrants develop the language skills expected of workers in the hospital industry. All students in the program were provided MP3 players to “extend the class” beyond normal instructional hours, “address varying skill levels,” and “individualize lessons” for students who worked in different hotel areas (p. 58). Podcast lessons included pronunciation or listening exercises geared to the particular needs of students, such as lessons on wines and spirits designed for a student who worked as a banquet server. A formal evaluation indicated that students in the program made substantial gains in both English and computer skills, resulting in many cases in increased career opportunities.

Audio podcasts also offer learners the opportunity to record their own speech in multiple genres (reports, simulated broadcasts, oral presentations, etc.) to share with classmates or others (Lu, 2009) or to review themselves later to reflect on their language-learning progress (Warschauer, 2006). Some educators report that students pay especially close attention to detailed aspects of their speech when recording such podcasts.

Moving beyond podcasting, EnglishCentral (http://EnglishCentral.com) uses speech recognition to assist second language learners in improving their pronunciation and spoken language. The free online site was launched in 2009 with funding from Google. Learners choose from popular videos on the site, listen to words or sentences from them at controlled speeds, read and repeat what they have heard, and receive feedback on their pronunciation and syntax.

Since podcasts give language learners access to content at the time and place of their choice, they can be used not only for authentic listening in the classroom but also for self-study outside the classroom. Self-access learning centers in tertiary education are increasingly using them to provide learners with authentic listening materials (Peterson, 2010). For example, the self-access center at Kanda University of International Studies provides podcasts for its students to listen to authentic materials, answer comprehension questions, and practice pronunciations (Kershaw et al., 2010). Dudney and Hockly (2007) also point out that lectures can be recorded as podcasts so that students who miss a class can download and later listen to them on their computers or mobile devices.

Collaborative Writing

Blogs are a potentially valuable tool for teaching writing in the students’ second language. Their capacity for allowing users to publish and share their writings quickly, easily, and with only a minimum of computer knowledge opens a number of possibilities for the learning of second language writing. Bloch (2007) describes the use of blogging to promote critical literacy and academic writing among college students. In the study, a class blog was created for students to read and respond to each other’s posts and later use them in their academic papers.

Bloch’s account focuses on the experiences of Abdullah, a Somali student who came to the United States as a teenager from East African refugee camps. Like many “generation 1.5” immigrants (i.e., people who move to a new country before or during their early teens), Abdullah felt most comfortable with vernacular English, but had difficulties with academic writing. At first, Abdullah drew upon his vernacular forms of literacy to write about his personal experience. Later, as he felt more comfortable in the social community of the class blog, he was able to present and argue both sides of a controversy over the use of a plagiarism detection Web site. After more blog writing on evaluations of online papers, Abdullah demonstrated “an ability to ‘weave’ the texts he had read with his own ideas, which could serve him well for meeting the course goals for academic writing” (p. 12).

The benefits of blogging were demonstrated among learners of English as a foreign language (EFL) by Fellner and Apple (2006), who assigned Japanese university students to write daily blogs in English during an intensive EFL course. Over a single week, students increased the amount of words they wrote nearly fourfold, and also dramatically increased their use of academic vocabulary.

Though these two examples come from class settings, the existence of free blogging software (see, e.g., http://blogger.com) provides a medium for students to create public blogs on their own to discuss their personal and career interests. A case study by Lam (2000) demonstrates the benefit of this kind of autonomous online publishing for developing an identity as a competent user of English. Though in Lam’s study, the learner made use of a Webpage rather than a blog for his English-language computer-mediated communication, the kind of site that was involved could be much more easily produced now with blog software. Finally, for advanced students of English, having a positive online presence through a self-published blog can also be helpful in the job market, by demonstrating to an employer a learner’s expertise in English, technology use, and the content area of the blog.

Wikis provide another medium for self-directed writing, though some wikis, such as Wikipedia, might be at a too-high level for some language learners. A simplified version, Simple English Wikipedia, has been created to ensure greater access to information for English-language learners and low-literacy adults and youth. Contributors to this new version are encouraged to use more basic vocabulary and grammatical structures, avoid idioms and jargon, and write shorter articles. Simple English Wikipedia can serve as a student research site for learners with beginning or intermediate literacy skills, or a place for learners with intermediate or advanced writing ability to contribute meaningful writing. Though writing for wikis is often done in a course context, Simple English Wikipedia can easily be accessed for autonomous reading and writing. A self-access center could assist this by providing workshops or guidance to students who want to learn how to contribute to a wiki.

Another valuable tool for autonomous writing and collaboration is FanFiction.net, a site for people to post fictional writing on topics related to books, cartoons, games, comics, movies and television shows. Black (2008) carried out a two-year study of English-language learners who voluntarily participated on FanFiction.net in their own time to identify how learners exploited the social, textual and technological elements of the networked community to scaffold and promote their reading and writing development. She found that the peer-review practices of the site tempered critique of form with enthusiasm for content and rhetoric, discouraged hostile feedback and attended to authors’ needs as communicated in their notes or in communication between writers and reviewers. All of this, according to Black, allowed English-language learners to develop a strong sense of audience, understand the social nature of writing, explore their identity as writers and master multiple modes of representation to achieve their rhetorical intent.

Collaborative writing tools are valuable for promoting writing fluency and strategies and for helping students develop a more confident identity as English writers. In general, the tools may be less useful for promoting writing accuracy or basic writing mechanics, but that will depend in part on how they are used. In contexts where a focus on mechanics and accuracy is the principal goal, teachers or advisors can set up special activities using these tools to accomplish that goal (e.g., using wikis to find and correct mechanical errors in previously written texts) or supplement the tools with other resources, including the language structure tools described later in this paper. Students can then engage in these activities autonomously.

Reading and Language Structure

IBM has developed a program called Reading Companion to exploit speech recognition technology for helping people learn to read. The company is making the program available free to public libraries, community colleges and agencies offering adult literacy services (IBM, 2008).

According to IBM, users log on to the Reading Companion web site and are presented with material to read. An on-screen mentor, or companion, “reads” a phrase to the user and then provides an opportunity for the user to read the material, using a headset microphone. Depending on the accuracy of what was read, the companion provides positive reinforcement (e.g., “You sound great!”), gives the user an opportunity to try again, or offers the correct reading of the words on the screen. As the user’s skill improves, the technology reads less material so that the learner reads more. (IBM, 2008, fourth paragraph).

An evaluation study, based on surveys, interviews and site visits, found that Reading Companion was especially effective for helping ESL learners develop their language skills at a school or community organization (Brunner & Menon, 2007, pp. 7–8) The study found that students liked the self-paced nature of the program and the opportunity to master different levels of vocabulary in contexts relevant to their needs.

Another program called Live Ink has been developed to help online readers better understand natural language presented digitally. The program presents digital texts in a cascading format similar to poetry that is intended to better match the way the brain and eyes process meaning. Early research with Live Ink indicates it is highly promising for improving learners’ reading comprehension, retention, and proficiency (Walker, Schloss, Fletcher, Vogel, & Walker 2005) and a free version of Live Ink’s ClipRead software is available for download from the company’s Website.

In contrast to software designed for improving reading comprehension and proficiency, computer-based concordancing is one type of language analysis and structure tool that offers direct linguistic support to language learners. It provides an alphabetical index of all words in a text or corpus of texts, showing every contextual occurrence of a word. After a word or a phrase is entered into a concordancer, a selection of the sentences from the corpus containing the word or phrase appears. Concordancing is therefore ideal for checking collocation, the way words co-occur in a predictable pattern. Teachers also can use concordancing to help learners notice and record the most useful terms in a text.

Though concordancing has been used in language learning for some 20 years (see, for example, Tribble & Jones, 1990), two recent developments greatly enhance its accessibility and scope. The first is that concordancing tools and large-scale corpora are now accessible for free on the World Wide Web. Previous use of concordancers involved installing special software on individual computers and developing or purchasing specialized corpora. Today, any teacher can introduce concordancing to students simply by pointing to free online sites such as Corpus Concordance English (http://www.lextutor.ca/concordancers/concord_e.html). These sites allow students to investigate immediately how particular words or phrases are used in context and with what collocations they tend to occur. Second, whereas early large-scale corpora were based exclusively on written texts, there are now corpora of spoken texts, such as the free online Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English (http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/micase/), which includes 1.8 million spoken words searchable by gender, age and position or role of the speaker, as well as by category of speech event.

Online Interaction

Multiuser virtual environments allow interaction among people in digitally simulated contexts. One of the most popular and best-known sites, Second Life, brings together tens of thousands of users daily who design avatars, build communities and interact with the environment. The stimuli-rich Second Life environment offers a variety of opportunities for second-language learners to produce language. In Second Life, English learners can work with other learners and native English speakers, role-play situations such as ordering at a restaurant, and participate in scavenger hunts and guided tours (Silva, 2008). These Second Life experiences then can be shared in a language classroom via presentations and essays.

A rapidly expanding cottage industry is emerging within and around Second Life to promote second-language learning (Cooke-Plagwitz, 2008; Stevens 2008), and other virtual environments (e.g., Active Worlds) are being used for language teaching and learning as well (Peterson, 2005; Thorne, Black, & Sykes, 2009). These environments potentially combine the advantages of several other types of online applications. First, as in Web-based searches, users can seek and use information on a variety of topics. Second, as in multimodal production, users can create and post content. Third, as in computer-mediated communication, users can interact with others. One excellent way of bringing all of these together is through virtual world quests, in which students are instructed to adopt new identities and interact with others as part of an online investigation. These can be developed by staff in self-access centers and then shared with interested learners. Examples can be seen in Monash Chinese Island (http://www.virtualhanyu.com), developed for autonomous study of Mandarin, where students are directed to search for mooncakes, find an ancient poet, and tend to the grave of two famous lovers.

Another area for networked communication is through multi-player games. A pilot study was carried out to investigate the potential of multi-layer online games for second-language learning. A group of adult ESL learners at a university was recruited to play a fantasy game called “Everquest II”—which is based on alternative universe races among elves, dwarves, ogres and other characters—for at least four hours per week (Waters, 2007). “Everquest” has extensive audio built in, as well as visual labels for all items in the game. The study found that carrying out tasks in the game and being exposed to both visual and auditory reinforcement in the process assisted players in developing vocabulary, but not necessarily grammar. Also, at least in this study, only students with an intermediate level of English or better could benefit from the immersive experience. Currently, research relating to the actual effects of using multiuser virtual environments to promote language learning may still be limited, their potential benefits for out-of-school noninstitutional communicative language practices and using language for identity development and management are exciting (see, e.g., Thorne, Black, & Sykes, 2009).

Social network sites are Web-based services that allow users to create digital identities for themselves, list other users with whom they have relationships or connections, and view and communicate with these and other users all within a bounded system (Boyd & Ellison, 2007). What began as a tool to help friends and affiliates connect and send messages to each other has now evolved into a complex, globally ubiquitous system that serves many purposes, from marketing (bands on MySpace) to professional networking (LinkedIn). Several social network sites have been set up specifically to connect language learners and mentors in English and other languages, including Livemocha, Lang-8, Mixi and Praxis Language. These sites usually combine access to self-study material and opportunities to practice and communicate with others through peer-to-peer or peer-to-mentor synchronous or asynchronous interaction.

Two studies have been done on the use of social network sites for language-learning immersion, both in foreign language contexts. Halvorsen (2009) carried out a small pilot project involving his university ESL students in Japan. During the course, the students were instructed step-by-step on how to sign up for and log into MySpace, customize pages and backgrounds, enter basic personal information in the profile section, and manage and maintain friend lists. The blogging feature of MySpace was introduced, and the students learned to record and upload audio files to their MySpace pages using Audacity software. Afterward, the students were required to create and maintain MySpace pages using all of the tools integrated therein, such as chats, blogs, audio and video uploads, and, of course, e-mail. Three important course components were the creation of and response to blogs on a variety of topics; recording and uploading of student-generated audio files; and cross-cohort interactions between students from two classes using chat, e-mail and responses to blogs—all of which were to be accomplished in English. Halvorsen found that the study encouraged student creativity and autonomy, as well as student collaboration both face-to-face in the classroom and on MySpace, especially among mixed-ability language learners, with peer support increasing and students taking on the role of mentor.

Harrison (2008), also based in Japan, had his students sign up for Livemocha (http://www.livemocha.com/pages/about) as a supplementary language-learning tool in a university course. In Livemocha, learners can study languages through audiovisual lessons and interactive tools, while also interacting with people who want to help tutor the language (for a review of Livemocha, see Liaw, 2011). Limited results were achieved in Harrison’s course within a three-month period, due partly to issues of trust with unknown distant mentors.

Finally, chatbots present an outline for online interaction with a software-powered avatar in situations where live human interaction is not available or not preferred. They are an ideal tool for autonomous learning in that they require no teacher or partner. Fryer & Carpenter (2006), for example, point out how learners can use chatbots to independently practice language structures and can also view or print the transcripts of chat sessions for further reflection and analysis (Fryer & Carpenter, 2006).


New technologies provide more tools than ever before for adult learners to hone their language skills through autonomous reading, listening, writing, and interaction. There is also a wide range of new hardware available to assist in these tasks, from low-cost netbook computers to highly interactive tablets such as the iPad to a wide variety of smartphones. Adult language learners are a population with diverse needs who have a combination of functional, vocational and/or academic purposes for study, and who enter programs at beginning, intermediate or advanced levels with varied proficiencies in different skill areas. The emerging technologies described above provide flexible means to developed language and literacy skills through authentic communication, collaboration, networking and scaffolding. They represent autonomous learning tools that can be placed in the hands of each individual learner, thus offering excellent ways to meet the needs of diverse students.

About the contributors

Mark Warschauer is Professor of Education and Informatics at the University of California, Irvine and editor of Language Learning & Technology journal. His most recent book is Learning in the Cloud: How (and Why) to Transform Schools with Digital Media (Teachers College Press, 2011).

Meei-Ling Liaw is Professor of English at National Taichung University in Taiwan. Her research focuses on the use of computer technology for EFL learning and intercultural communication. Her publications have appeared in System, Foreign Language Annals, Computer-Assisted Language Learning, ReCALL, and Language Learning & Technology.


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