For the last three years, the spoken component of the year 1 French language course at Aston University has included a global simulation based on an original idea by Francis Debyser. In their first introductory lesson, students are introduced to l’Immeuble, a multi-occupancy house set in a French-speaking environment (to be decided upon by the group) and populated by an array of characters created by them. This has proven a highly successful and popular way of encouraging purposeful and entertaining interactions in the foreign language. L’Immeuble has been used to practise day-to-day vocabulary (description of characters and flats), language functions such as suggestions, debates, expressions of agreement or disagreement. It has also been used to reinforce, from a communicative perspective, the grammatical points covered in the written component of the course: for example, past tenses are practised through a biography of each character, questions through interviews for a new flatmate etc… However, as successful as it is, the programme would benefit from more realistic settings than current class settings allow.
The present project aims to integrate into the current successful global simulation the advances of Second Life (SL), a user-friendly multi-user virtual environment (M.U.V.E), and to document the initiative for potential duplication.
SL was created in 2003 by Linden Labs. The basic account is free and allows users to create their second life persona, called an avatar that can be easily customised. Avatars can move, and interact by instant messaging or voice chat. They can also build and customise their environments.
The proposed enhancement offers many pedagogic advantages. Indeed, the new simulation design will allow tutors to provide for a wider range of learning styles and will benefit especially visual and kinaesthetic learners who are not always well catered for in academic settings. It will also offer activists the satisfaction of building their own learning environment. Furthermore, the realistic settings and visual props will allow contextualization of language learning. An additional benefit lies in the fact dealing with a new learning tool will develop flexibility and provide transferable skills, offering at the same time an opportunity for practice of the foreign language for a meaningful purpose (i.e. getting to grips with a new learning environment). Finally, SL could allow contacts with native speakers of French either through teacher-organized links with a French institution, or through students free roaming, as, once familiar with the immeuble environment, students will be able to explore other resources for language learning in second life such as visiting a French- speaking sites such the Seine Saint Denis site, or SL French locations, embarking on quests, or getting in touch with avatars available for language practice (French Speaking volunteers).