The origins of the language lab lie shortly after the invention of the phonograph by Thomas Edison in 1877. The phonograph allowed for the first time for learners of a foreign language to hear native speakers on demand without traveling to a foreign country. We know from records at the time that a phonetics lab dedicated mainly to improving pronunciation in foreign languages was already present in the University of Grenoble in 1908. An early student there brought back the concept to the United States, where it was developed further, especially given the impetus given to the study of foreign languages by the world wars.

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Study coming from the US naval academy contributed to a methodology which later became known as the ‘Audio-lingual’ method. This principally focused on three kinds of drills which were based on Pavlovian behavioral psychology and designed to improve students grammar habits in the target through conditioning. This methodology was later discredited through various studies, most famously by the celebrated linguist Noam Chomsky.

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Further technological developments gradually increased the range of activities available in the lab. The two-track tape recorder in particular enabled “listen and repeat” activities, whereby the student could listen to one track while recording to another. Improved setups allowed the teacher to control and synchronize the playback and recording in student booths and to copy media to student terminals on demand.

By 1946, fully fledged language labs, such as that installed at the University of Louisiana, based on tape reels and equipped with audio isolated booths to allow students to study independently began to appear, especially in the US. The invention of the compact cassette further lent impetus to this trend, and by 1970 over 5000 labs were installed across the US alone.

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In the 70s however, the language lab fell out of favor after the discreditation of the audio-lingual method and reaction against the isolation of students in sound booths cut off from external interaction.

It wasn’t until the 1980s with the introduction of the personal computer into education that the language lab returned to popularity. These ‘digital language labs’ supported new methodologies, were more convenient to use and allowed practice of reading and writing skills in addition to listening and speaking. As time moved on into the 90s, more functions became standard, such as teacher interventions and support for video and images. Software-only language labs removed the need to install dedicated hardware, further bringing down the cost of these labs.

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Moving into the next millennium, the internet again began to redefine the role of the language lab. ‘Virtual language labs’ could be accessed from anywhere with an internet connection, and supported distance and classroom learning in addition to that in the IT room, and made inter-school collaboration possible.

We are now seeing the first hints of what the future might bring. Ubiquitous availability of technology will drive development of language labs which will let students learn socially, in collaboration and competition with their peers, and to learn on the move when and where it suits them. The traditional idea of the language lab as a fixed room full of head-phone wearing students may fade away, but the need for more effective language learning will surely remain.

Golden Age of Language Laboratory Design in Education System


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