I began teaching high school in the mid-1950s in Pittsburgh (PA), taught in Cleveland (OH), and Washington (D.C.) through the early 1970s. Then I was a superintendent of schools in the Arlington (VA) district until the early 1980s. In every high school I either taught in or observed in those years, there was a language lab to learn Spanish, French, German and, more recently English as a Second Language (ESL). Occasionally I would drop by the room and see students wearing earphones and listening to tape-recorders with a teacher at a large console monitoring students’ pronunciation and fluency. It was one of the sterling examples of schools embracing new technologies to their fullest. Nowadays, while many high schools have these labs (there are nearly 24,000 public high schools in the U.S.), most do not. How come?
When did language labs begin?
While occasional language labs were established to learn a foreign language as early as the 1910s in both universities and secondary public schools, not until the National Defense Education Act (1958) became law at the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union were federal funds plowed into secondary schools to jump-start American students studying foreign languages.
These funds underwrote expansion of language labs through the 1970s when federal funds dried up and district leaders had to decide whether to use regularly budgeted funds to support language labs, especially as the technology (e.g., reel-to-reel tape recorders, microphones, head sets) kept getting obsolete as newer technologies entered the market.
What is a language lab?
Wikipedia offers a formal definition of a language lab:
A language laboratory is a dedicated space for foreign language learning where students access audio or audio-visual materials. They allow a teacher to listen to and manage student audio, which is delivered to individual students through headsets or in isolated ‘sound booths.
Initially, secondary school language labs were in separate rooms with a teacher console networked to individual students (see top photo) at separate stations; students had microphones and listened to a tape-recorded lesson following the prompts to speak and respond to prerecorded questions. The overall goal for teachers and student were to become reasonably fluent in French, Spanish, and German languages. Teachers at their consoles had switches to control what students listened to and recorded. Teachers evaluated progress of students’ fluency in the language.
More recently, with the advent of computers the menu of languages available on digital software has expanded to Mandarin Chinese, Russian, and other languages. Keep in mind, however, that only 20 percent of school aged enrollment take a foreign language (2017). Also consider that 11 states have a foreign language requirement for graduation (16 states have none with the remaining states permitting students to choose among a cluster of subjects–including foreign language–to get a diploma). If anything, the vast majority of American high school students do not take a foreign language.
Computer-assisted language labs are now popular since much language software is taken off the Internet. As the second photo above showing teacher with headset and microphone illustrates, remote control of the language lesson individually tailored to each student continues the tradition established in the first language labs established over a half-century ago.
What is a session in the language lab like for the teacher? Student?
At a high school language lab at Brookfield High School in Connecticut, a reporter described what she saw in 2017:
A class of 19 juniors and seniors sit in front of computers, listening through headsets to their AP Spanish teacher as she asks them questions about the documentary they had just watched on Cuba.
The teacher, Sarah Bengtson, divides the students into pairs to discuss a photo displayed on their screens. There is a chorus of “Holas” as the students greet their partners.
But they don’t have to get out of their seats to do so. Instead, they speak Instead, students can hear their partner’s voice through the headsets and even record their conversations using the software in the lab.
The high school opened this $100,000 world language lab this fall for students learning a foreign language and non-native speakers learning English. Each of the 30 computers has software called Soloist that allows students to converse with one or more peers, respond to their teacher, record their voices and more.
Teachers and students said the lab helps kids improve their accents and language development, while getting them used to speaking spontaneously.
“I feel a lot more comfortable speaking when it’s one-on-one with someone across the room,” said senior Alex Heckmann, who is taking Advanced Placement Spanish. “Despite not having the face-to-face connection, you still feel like you’re talking right to them.”
Students visit the lab about once a week.
Why has there been a decline in language labs?
The ever-increasing costs of maintaining labs in face of changing technological tools was clearly one factor. Another factor were the unimpressive results from the few studies done comparing student fluency in schools with labs and schools without them. This lack of evidence on effectiveness of labs increasing language fluency, according to some observers, played in role in dismantling such labs. Finally, numbers of students taking a foreign language in high school continued to shrink as well as persistent difficulties in hiring and keeping experienced language teachers.
In ending this post, I offer one researcher’s reflection on the disappearance of language labs from high schools:
If the language laboratory as it was known during its“heyday”is now gone, it has not died. Its descendant, a computer lab equipped with foreign language software, is alive and well. The computer now fulfills all the desiderata of language educators and gives life to language for many learners.
Old technologies fade away in public schools only to be replaced by newer ones.