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Avatar Psychology: The Benefit of Avatar Representation in Language Immersion

In virtual reality (VR) environments, you are represented by an avatar, a virtual character that represents you in the 3D world. These avatars promote learning in several ways. F

or one thing, they give you the feeling that you are truly inside the VR world rather than the real world. They also make you feel like you are actually in the same space with your peers and Guide. The sensation of realism creates an engaging immersive environment ideal for language learning.

Benefits of Avatars

Researchers have studied how using avatars affects learners’ anxiety, confidence, motivation, and engagement. One of the main findings has been that avatars help language learners feel less anxious.

The avatar creates a kind of “shield” that students can hide behind, providing a safe environment to communicate in without being physically on view.

This reduction in anxiety and boost in confidence is particularly beneficial when learners are engaging in speaking activities. Members are less worried and more willing to take risks since they are not worried about losing face.

In addition, through interacting with other avatars successfully, learners gain self-confidence and a sense of achievement, both of which foster more independent learning.

Researchers have also shown that using avatars improves language learning. One study comparing language learners in a traditional classroom with those using avatars in VR learning environments showed the avatar users significantly outperformed their counterparts in vocabulary learning, grammar accuracy, and reading comprehension.

Another study found that French language learners were more comprehensible when speaking via avatars than face-to-face.

There are two reasons behind these improvements: 

  1. The first is that using avatars lowers anxiety, and lower anxiety levels mean better and more successful language learning and performance.
  2. The other is that avatars encourage peer-to-peer interactions, increasing language practice and improving learning.

Students’ Perceptions

What do students actually think about avatars? Do they find it natural to interact with their peers using these virtual characters? Very much so!

In fact, learners find interacting via avatars more natural than video-conferencing (e.g., Zoom). This is because students feel immersed together in the virtual environment. Moreover, learners appreciate avatars that move their mouths while users are talking and maintain “eye contact” by looking at each other.

All of these elements make interacting feel normal, as reported directly by students interviewed in Thrasher’s study on language learning in VR.

Commenting on interactions with their VR classmates, the students said:

“I liked it because they customized their avatars to look like themselves. So, I felt like it was better to see that rather than just hearing their voices and staring into space. So, I thought it was a nice addition. Especially because their hands and mouths moved when they did so it felt more human if that makes sense.”
“Their avatars were all pretty similar to them and I never actually took notice of the fact that we were in avatars. Cause I was just like ‘Oh, we’re just talking to each other.’ Like they’re being represented by something even if it’s not actually them. It’s something to talk to and interact with.”
“You don’t have to care about what you look like generally, cause you’re just a character... So, like whenever we did the VR things, I generally felt more relaxed I guess and just like - I don’t know, I feel like [it was] easier to just talk and not worry too much about any other part of anything else.”

From Research To Product

Listen to this short video to learn from Misty, our Head of Education, about how we have implemented positive avatar psychology in the Immerse platform: 

TL;DR

Research has shown that:

  • using naturalistic avatars makes students feel like they are really immersed together with their classmates and teacher in the VR world.
  • using a VR avatar to learn a language has been shown to be more comfortable and more successful than learning it in person in a physical classroom or through videoconferencing.
  • highly customizable avatars lead to the best learning experience and results.

References

Chen, J. C. (2020). The interplay of avatar identities, self-efficacy, and language practices. Australian Review of Applied Linguistics, 44(1), 65-81. https://doi.org/10.1075/aral.19032.che

Chen, Z. H., & Lu, C. H. (2019). The effects of human factors on the use of avatars in game-based learning: Customization vs non-customization. The International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 35(4-5), 384-394. https://doi.org/10.1080/10447318.2018.1543090

Chien, S. Y., Hwang, G. J., & Jong, M. S. J. (2019). Effects of peer assessment within the context of spherical video-based virtual reality on EFL students’ English-Speaking performance and learning perceptions. Computers & Education, 146(1), 1-17. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2019.103751.

Chung, L. Y. (2011). Using avatars to enhance active learning: Integration of virtual reality tools into college English curriculum. Conference Proceedings from The 16th North-East Asia Symposium on Nano, Information Technology and Reliability. 29-33. IEEE. https://doi.org/10.1109/NASNIT.2011.6111116  

Gruber, A., & Kaplan-Rakowski, R. (2020). User experience of public speaking practice in virtual reality. In R. Zheng (Ed.), Cognitive and affective perspectives on immersive technology in education (pp. 235-249). IGI Global.

Gruber, A., & Kaplan-Rakowski, R. (2021). The impact of high-immersion virtual reality on foreign language anxiety when speaking in public. SSRN. Retrieved from https://ssrn.com/abstract=3882215.

Liaw, M.-L. (2019). EFL learners’ intercultural communication in an open social virtual environment. Educational Technology & Society, 22(2), 38-55. https://www.j-ets.net/collection/published-issues/22_2

Molina. E., Jerez, A. R., & Gomez, N. P. (2020). Avatar rendering and its effect on perceived realism in Virtual Reality. Conference Proceedings from IIIE International Conference on Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality. 222-225. https://doi.org/10.1109/AIVR50618.2020.00046

Ondarra, K. J., Gruber, A., & Canto, S. (2020). When international avatars meet – intercultural language learning in virtual reality exchange. In K. M. Frederiksen, S. Larsen, L. Bradley, & S. Thouesny (Eds.), CALL for Widening Participating: Short Papers from EUROCALL 2020. 138-142. Research-publishing net. https://doi.org/10.14705/rpnet.2020.48.1178

Thrasher, T. (2022a). The impact of virtual reality on L2 French learners’ language anxiety and oral comprehensibility: An exploratory study. CALICO Journal, Online Advanced Access. http://dx.doi.org/10.1558/cj.42198  

Thrasher, T. (2022b). Saying ‘Au Revoir’ to Anxiety in a Heartbeat: The Benefits of Virtual Reality for Language Learning. Doctoral Dissertation. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Wallace, P., & Maryott, J. (2009). The impact of avatar self-representation on collaboration in virtual worlds. Innovate: Journal of Online Education, 5(5), 1-8. http://nsuworks.nova.edu/innovate/vol5/iss5/3

Xie, Y., Ryder, L., & Chen, Y. (2019). Using interactive virtual reality tools in an advanced Chinese language class: A case study. TechTrends, 63(1) 251-259. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11528-019-00389-z.

York, J., Shibata, K., Tokutake, H., & Nakayama, H. (2021). Effect of SCMC on foreign language anxiety and learning experience: A comparison of voice, video, and VR-based oral interaction. ReCALL, 33(1), 49-70. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0958344020000154.