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The language laboratory is an audio or audio-visual installation used as an aid in modern language teaching. They can be found, amongst other places, in schools, universities and academies. Perhaps the first lab was at the University of Grenoble (Léon, 1962; [Roby, 2004]http://www.aect.org/edtech/19.pdf). In the 1950s up until the 1990s, they were tape based systems using reel to reel or (latterly) cassette. Current installations are generally multimedia PCs.
Appearance and configuration
The 'traditional' system generally comprises a master console (teacher position) which is electrically connected to a number of rows of student booths (US: carrels), typically containing a student tape recorder and headset with a boom arm microphone. The teacher console is usually fitted with master playback source equipment (tape recorder), some means of monitoring of each booth in the class via the teacher headset and an intercom facility offering 2-way communication between teacher and student.
All but the most simple or first generation laboratories allow the teacher to remotely control the tape transport controls of the student booths (record, stop, rewind etc) from the master desk. This allows for easy distribution of the master programme material, which is often copied at high speed onto the student positions for later use by the students at their own pace.
Better tape laboratories housed the tape machine behind a protective plate (leaving only a control panel accessible to the students) or locked the cassette door. This kept the expensive and sensitive decks free from student misuse and dust etc.
Once the master program had been transferred onto the student recorders, the teacher would then hand over control of the decks to the students. By pressing the record key in the booth, the student would simultaneously hear the playback of the program whilst being able to record his or her voice in the pauses, using the microphone. This is known as an audio active-comparative system. From a technological point of view, this overdubbing was made possible by use of a two-channel tape recorder.
Early installations in the UK were by the likes of Connevans, RW Friedel and Tandberg (now Sanako). ASC, Sony, Revox also produced teaching laboratories.
Language laboratories in the 1970s and 1980s received a bad reputation due to breakdowns. Common problems stem from the limitations and relative complexity of the reel to reel tape system in use at that time. Design played a part too; the simplest language laboratories had no electronic systems in place for the teacher to remotely control the tape decks, relying on the students to operate the decks correctly. Many had no way to stop the tape running off the reel in fast rewind or forward wind, which meant time wasting and greater chances of failure through misuse.
The tape recorders in use after the early 1970s in the language laboratory were more complex than those in the home, being capable of multitracking and electronic remote control. As a result, they often had several motors and relays, complex transistorised circuitry and needed a variety of voltages to run. They had lots of rubber parts such as idlers and drive belts which would perish and wear out. Bulbs in the control panels were also in continual need of replacement. Since the student booth tapes were not normally changed from one class to the next but were recorded over each time, these would eventually wear, and shed their oxide on the tape heads leading to poor sound and tangling.
The installations were usually maintained under contract by service engineers, but these often served a county or similar wide area, and would only call at 3-monthly intervals. This meant that if several booths malfunctioned, then for much of that time the laboratory was out of action.
Change of media
The demise of the traditional language laboratory came in the 1980s, with the falling out of favour of the audio-lingual method commonly in place in 1960s teaching methodology, and the expensive repairs needed to the open reel tape machines resulting from student misuse, neglect, wear and tear etc. Many schools transformed their old language labs into computer suites. However, the advent of affordable multimedia capable PCs in the late 1990s led to a resurgence and transformation of the language laboratory with software and hard drives in place of reels of analogue tape. However, it would appear that these are not immune from problems; emulating the connection style of the traditional tape lab by networking PCs caused problems, due to the way audio was handled in full audio active comparative usage.
- Léon, P.R. (1962). Laboratoire de langues et correction phonétique. Paris: Didier.
- Roby, W.B. (2004). Technology in the service of foreign language teaching: The case of the language laboratory. In *D. Jonassen (ed.), Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology, 523-541, 2nd ed.
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