The Language Laboratory

The language lab was conceived in the 1950’s and gained popularity in the 1960’s mainly because most students didn’t have personal tape recorders, and anyway the pre-recorded tapes were not readily available to students for take-home use. The Audio-Lingual method was in vogue, and the lab was a place where students could go to put on headphones, listen, repeat, memorize, and drill, drill, drill. Sometimes an instructor would sit at a console in front of a group of students wearing headphones and peering through the plastic windows at the front of their carrels. (If you google the Wikipedia article Language Lab you can see a picture of such.) You never knew when he or she was listening in on you and what they would say or do if you messed up. My first experience with a language lab was as a freshman at UCLA in 1967-68. I was taking Russian for majors because I wanted to be “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” Each week the assignment was to memorize a new dialog of ten to twenty lines from the book Modern Russian. The dialogs were “real language” and right from the start contained different verb tenses and noun and adjective cases. Russian grammar is extremely complicated for an English speaker, so it was impossible to make generalizations from the dialogs so you could formulate your own original sentences. There were also repetition drills, pattern drills, singular to plural drills, pronunciation drills, and more drills. (I must admit I didn’t really mind the drills.) The Russians had beaten us in the space race by putting the first satellite—“Sputnik”—into orbit, and we were frantic to learn Russian so we could compete better in the Cold War. The Russian language lab seemed to be modeled on a communist dictatorship and we were like prisoners in a gulag being brainwashed. Seriously, what I wound up doing was going to the lab once for each chapter so I could see how to pronounce the words of the dialog sentences for that chapter (Russian has a lot of vowel reduction). Then I would go home and study and memorize the dialog so I could get an A on the test. I never used a language lab for any language after that. L.A. Mission College didn’t have a campus for the first sixteen years of its existence; our classes were scattered all over the northeast San Fernando Valley. So we never built a language lab. Instead we got permission from the publishers to copy their cassettes for student home use. During a conversation at UCLA in the mid-80’s Tracy Terrell, principal author of Dos Mundos, told me that listening to recorded material was useful only to practice aural comprehension. Some people use the lab for testing. One advantage of that is that students are in carrels and can’t copy other students’ answers. What kinds of items are on such tests? T/F, multiple choice, matching, fill-ins, writing sentences from dictation, answering written questions with original full sentences, or? It has been said that a lab is a meeting place for language students. For what purposes? In a lab they work alone in carrels with headphones on. With the advent of PCs and the net, are language laboratories a relic of the past? Many students say they go to lab only because they are forced to. They prefer to use their personal computers on their own time. Also, it is hard to justify staffing the language lab when very few students ever go there. Somebody please tell us how to make the language lab fun so students will want to go there.

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