Chapter 15 - Computer-assisted language learning  pp. 107-113

Computer-assisted language learning

By Elizabeth Hanson-Smith

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In the 1990s the personal computer emerged as a significant tool for language teaching and learning. The widespread use of software, local area networks (LANs) and the internet has created enormous opportunities for learners to enhance their communicative abilities, both by individualising practice and by tapping into a global community of other learners.


Much of the early history of computers in language learning, in the 1980s and 1990s, was concerned with keeping abreast of technological change. Mainframe computers were at first seen as the taskmaster: a number of content courses, particularly in English grammar and computer science were provided by the PLATO system (Bitzer 1960) at many universities. Students ‘mastered’ each individual topic – which consisted of presentation and ‘practice’ in the form of tests – in solitary confinement in a language laboratory. However, the continual miniaturisation of electronics has given us increasingly smaller, faster and more powerful desktop computers. At the start of the twenty-first century ‘multimedia’ has become virtually synonymous with ‘computer’. With these changes, issues in computer-assisted language learning (CALL) have also evolved from an early emphasis on how to use the new technology to research on technology's effects on learning. Higgins and Johns (1984) framed the major debate of the 1980s and early 1990s over whether the computer was ‘master’ of or ‘slave’ to the learning process: Was the computer to be a replacement for teachers, or merely an obedient servant to students?