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Believing virtual reality is a promising tool for learning languages, companies, colleges invest

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Immerse is a virtual reality language-learning tutoring platform that launched in February. It currently focuses on helping companies in Taiwan teach Mandarin-speaking employees English but has plans to expand.
(Photo courtesy of Immerse)

When Quinn Taber was growing up in Paris, his parents did humanitarian work with refugees abroad, so his family moved around a lot.

“I have all these memories of how I’d be in a new part of the Middle East where I didn’t know the language,” says Taber, founder and CEO of Irvine-based virtual reality language-learning company, Immerse. “But it was so fun, because as a little kid, I’d pick [it] up … I’d listen and be like, ‘I think he’s talking about the kitchen and that probably means he’s saying this.’ ”

But when his family moved to Orange County, he was struck by how hard it was for him to learn Spanish and French in school. As an adult, he returned to the Middle East and found it similarly difficult to learn Arabic in a classroom.

After two years of lessons and little progress, he enrolled in an Arabic-immersion program in Jordan where he hung out with a Bedouin woman six hours a day. And then he moved into a house in a Syrian refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon with six men who didn’t speak English.

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“And guess what happened? I learned Arabic,” he says. “Because I’d go to a hookah bar and practice. I’d go play soccer and practice.”

Mark Warschauer, the director of UC Irvine’s Digital Learning Lab who founded the journal Language Learning and Technology in 1997, says studies show that effective language learning involves a combination of structured instruction and immersive practice.

He credits his own Spanish-language skills to time working at a warehouse with mostly Spanish speakers and travels to Mexico and Guatemala.

“It’s the opportunity for immersive practice, which is the most challenging to deliver,” he says. “We already know one of the best ways to learn language is to study abroad, but technology can provide simulated opportunities at a lower cost and a greater reach to more people.”

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As an academic, Warschauer once advised a study looking at how users could improve their Spanish playing Spanish-language versions “World of Warcraft.” There has also been research on language-learning in 3D virtual worlds like Second Life.

“Virtual reality is the only type of technology that truly allows immersion,” says Dylan Walch, Immerse’s VR engineer. “In VR, if we put you in a conference room and ask you to give a presentation onstage, it simulates the emotions and anxiety you feel for public speaking. And because we can simulate that in a safe environment with a tutor that’s patient, that’s such a powerful thing.”

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“Virtual reality is the only type of technology that truly allows immersion,” says Dylan Walch, Immerse’s VR engineer. Immerse’s language learners can practice giving presentations in virtual reality, with the guidance of their tutors.
(Photo courtesy of Immerse)

Immerse, which has a staff of 12, is a participant of both UCI Applied Innovation’s Wayfinder Program, an incubator that supports startups, and USC’s Rossier EdVentures, which supports start-ups working with education technology. Immerse launched its virtual reality tutoring platform in February.

Because Mandarin-language speakers who want to learn English form the biggest language market by far, Immerse launched in Taiwan, targeting international companies that want their employees to be able to do business in English. Current clients include a management consulting firm, a semiconductor production company, and an accounting firm.

Users are sent VR headsets. Each English teacher, who can be based anywhere in the world, can instruct up to five students at a time, and once they (and their avatars) enter virtual reality for their lesson, the teacher takes them on an adventure.

“If you’re going on a business trip, I can take you to the airport and we can practice ordering a ticket, checking out the flight time,” says Walch. “And if you say something incorrectly, I can type in front of you and show you in real time.”

The teachers can role play as different characters, morphing into a hot dog vendor at the park so students can practice ordering food, turning into hotel staff so their students can practice checking in.

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Adding to the fun, everyone can teleport — “You have superpowers in VR,” says Walch — and lessons can take place anywhere from Times Square to the Eiffel Tower to Milford Sound.

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Immerse teachers can roleplay in virtual reality: for example, turning into a hot dog vendor so students can practice ordering and paying for a hot dog in English.
(Photo courtesy of Immerse)

Taber, 25, leading a staff of tech-savvy employees who are mostly in their 20s, is ready for the VR revolution that first gained momentum when Facebook acquired the Irvine company Oculus for $2 billion in 2014. Walmart announced last year that it is using virtual reality for training nationwide.

But as much as Taber is impatient to grow the the company — adding more languages, features and experiences — he knows he has to be patient.

The reality is that virtual reality is not quite mainstream yet.

Most people who own their own VR headsets are still gamers, says Taber, and none of his clients had used the technology before.

“We want to build crazy experiences, but we have to start by keeping it accessible to everyone and then grow it,” he says. “At this point, it’s more about bringing people in and hand-holding them until it gets better and better.”

So while he’s waiting for the world to catch up, he’s working on another goal: helping employ Syrian refugees in need of work — like his former roommates in Lebanon — by training them to become language teachers.

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It’d be a way to merge his two passions, says Taber, who, now that he lives in Costa Mesa, still volunteers with the non-profit Voice of the Refugees in Anaheim.

He wants to take his Immerse staff on a volunteer trip to the Middle East.

“I’m eternally indebted to them,” he says, of his friends there.

They not only taught him Arabic, but they inspired him to start a company.

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