Don’t Give Up On Your Audio Labs!

Foreign language teachers please hear me out! Whatever you do, don’t get rid of an old audio lab in favor of a multimedia lab! In many ways an audio lab is far superior to a multimedia lab when it comes to conducting a language class where students really progress very fast.

Students working at their own pace

Learning to speak a foreign language is a difficult and arduous task. It takes lots of repeating and much oral practice before you are able to express yourself correctly. Here are some of ways in which an audio lab can help. First, learning to understand a foreign tongue can be made much easier by giving students the opportunity to decipher sounds, word groups and sentences while working at their own pace with the option of rewinding until the words are completely understood. And by repeating sounds—by trying to imitate native speakers—students will automatically improve their pronunciation and eliminate foreign-sounding accents.

Privacy and reinforcement with a headset and a voice-amplifying microphone

Another advantage of a lab is privacy. Students have the opportunity to speak without having their peers hear their mistakes. No one in the class—neither the teacher nor their classmates—can make fun of them. Also researchers have shown it is far easier to concentrate on a sound when there is no picture to distract you. Your mind will create an image from your imagination to help you remember both the word and the sound needed to produce it. And with a voice-amplifying microphone in the headset the students hears his own voice too, which reinforces assimilation.

A “library atmosphere”

When it comes to conducting a class where you want the students to be working quietly on their own, an audio lab is a far more effective instrument. In a multimedia lab students can see what other students have on their screens. This often distracts them. Naturally, students will want to share their “pictures” and their reactions to these pictures, so there is often a lot of chatting—generally in the students’ native tongue. This can be annoying, both for students working seriously on an exercise and for the teacher, who may be working with one particular student. With an audio lab, on the contrary, students cannot share what they are listening to—unless they exchange headsets which is very seldom the case. Instead, they work independently, speaking quietly in what I call a “library atmosphere”, which is very conducive to productive learning.

What Advocates of multimedia labs will tell you

Advocates of multimedia labs will tell you that it is important to associate sounds with written words and by tapping on a screen students can get a "picture" of what they are repeating. It is true that often students need to be able to consult a text, if they are confused or to check their work. But this can be done through keys kept in binders or texts in the students’ workbooks. Others will tell you that "drop and drag" exercises are useful and fun. They are perhaps fun—for a short time—but it is more useful for a student to write in a workbook than to manipulate objects on a screen and then have nothing to take home. I feel each exercise should leave a written trace that the student can review at home. Moreover, I believe writing exercises should be relegated to homework assignments (unless it is a course in writing). If you are teaching studets to speak, they should be speaking in class (or lab) as much as possible.

Other advantages

Finally, audio labs are much simpler to run and far less expensive. One must not overlook the fact that making audio files to be used in labs is less complicated and far less time consuming than making video files. Furthermore, video files are soon outdated since the clothes people wear or the objects around them often denote a certain period and quickly appear old-fashioned. An audio file—especially one on general English—will remain valid much, much longer.

Never obsolete

Teachers may have analog language labs that they wish to change to be able to use digital formats. In that case I recommend keeping the lab furniture (separations are not needed as today’s high performance headsets isolate sufficiently the individual student) and just changing the tape-recorders for MP3 players. A multimedia lab will soon appear outdated to students used to seeing new electronic devices appear on the market every year. An audio lab may seem less spectacular but will never become obsolete—especially once the students have seen how fast they can progress.

A multitude of activities

Most importantly, an audio lab setup allows for a multitude of possibilities. Teachers can put on the lab program for the class and then conduct at the same time tutorials (one-to-one sessions), interviews (with two students working together) and oral tests (with one student at a time) without being bothered by students chatting, by loud noises from computers or by students hovering around one computer screen commenting on what is happening. In my book “QualityTime-ESL: The Digital Resource Book” I speak at length about tutorials, interviews and oral tests, giving numerous examples and showing pages of explanations to help both the teacher and the students get started on these activities.

Much increased student talking time

The final word for today concerns “student talking time”. It is a known fact that during traditional classes the teacher speaks about 60 to 70 percent of the time and the students “share” the remaining minutes. This amounts to very little individual student talking time, and students generally say just a few words and rarely—if ever—several sentences combined with the necessary link words. An audio lab can change all that. In their booths students will be speaking or will be involved in intensive listening at least 90% of the time. And with fifteen-minute tutorials or interviews students will be speaking individually non-stop, explaining their ideas or answering the teachers "authentic questions" with complete sentences in whole paragraphs, naturally using the correct transition words between sentences. In interviews they will be asking each other authentic questions—which rarely happens in a traditional language class. They will be disagreeing and expressing personal thoughts on subjects they have chosen on their own. All this can occur while all the other students are busy speaking into their microphones or doing listening comprehension through their headsets.

Individualizing your teaching with an audio lab

So intensive language practice in an audio lab combined with activities where the student is alone with the teacher will result in great progress for all the students enrolled in the program. That is why I suggest you try to get an audio lab for your department. Use all the arguments I gave above (plus other ideas from my book) and insist especially on the fact that you intend to "individualize" your teaching to suit the needs of each student. Using a language lab (an audio one) is a way to "customize" your teaching. And if you do have an audio lab, please think twice before you throw out such a valuable tool! In many cases it would be far more useful (and much less expensive) to imagine better ways of using the lab you already have to increase your students’ "individual speaking time" and this make them progress faster in their speaking skills.

Marianne Raynaud

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