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LINGUIST List 25.330

Mon Jan 20 2014

Review: Applied Linguistics: Blake (2013)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <rajivlinguistlist.org>

Date: 17-Nov-2013
From: Merica McNeil <mericaemail.arizona.edu>
Subject: Brave New Digital Classroom
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/24/24-2352.html

AUTHOR: Robert J. Blake
TITLE: Brave New Digital Classroom
SUBTITLE: Technology and Foreign Language Learning
PUBLISHER: Georgetown University Press
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: Merica McNeil, University of Arizona


In this second edition of “Brave New Digital Classroom: Technology and Foreign Language Learning,” Robert Blake provides a cohesive, updated overview of how technology can be effectively used in second and foreign language (L2) teaching and learning. This book serves as a useful handbook for a wide audience including all language teachers, both those new to and experienced with using technology in language teaching, CALL practictioners who want to keep up to date, graduate students who need professional development on using technology effectively in language teaching, as well as chairs and administrators who need to revamp their foreign language curriculum and evaluate colleagues who work in CALL. This edition includes updates on technology and research throughout the book, as well as two new chapters on social networking and games for language learning.

Each chapter addresses key aspects of technology that teachers need to learn about in order to harness its affordances to address students’ needs. Discussion questions and activities included at the end of each chapter offer a convenient tool to engage readers in discussion, making the book ideal to use in a class or reading group. A concise glossary provides contextualized definitions of selected terms used throughout the book. The reference list is comprised of up-to-date, authoritative sources, which offer directions for further reading.

In this book, Blake emphasizes how technology can be effectively implemented in foreign language curriculum to provide enhanced contact with the target language and thus promote language learning, as opposed to focusing on the superiority of specific technological tools. He stresses that language learning is not just about grammar; developing intercultural competence also plays an important role in moving learners “along the bilingual continuum” (p. xvii). The author explains the necessity for language professionals to not just know how to use technological tools, but to also recognize how the tools can be used effectively and to comprehend how they can be used to help transform environments for learning.

The first chapter, “Second Language Acquisition, Language Teaching, and Technology,” begins by addressing the question of why technology can play an important role in second language acquisition (SLA). Blake explains that all linguists and SLA researchers, despite their vastly different models of SLA, agree that both the quality and quantity of L2 input influence language learning. The author spells out the obvious solution, which is to increase exposure to the target language; while many people advocate for total immersion in the target language and culture through studying abroad, few people are able or willing to do so. Blake thus points out that technology, if used strategically, can provide useful exposure to the target language, especially for those who do not study abroad. This book focuses on how technology can be effectively implemented in foreign language curriculum to increase and enhance learners’ exposure to the target language and promote language learning; it is not, however, a how-to technical guide, as those already exist.

Blake cautions that the use of technological tools should be guided by a theoretical model of SLA as well as recommendations from those who practice the particular model. The author explains the basic approach to SLA that guides his rationale in this book, which is that interaction is the best way to learn and teach an L2. He provides an overview of the interactionist theory of SLA, including how this theoretical approach is applied to computer-assisted language learning (CALL). Blake notes that technology can promote language learning by providing increased exposure to effectively designed materials. He emphasizes the importance of theory combined with practice and stresses that language teachers need to develop critical competence, as opposed to only being users or consumers of technology.

In Chapter 2, entitled “Web Pages in Service of L2 learning,” Blake introduces Internet basics as well as some tools and extensions that can enrich its use for language teachers. He then explains several pedagogical approaches to using web pages, including task-based language teaching and content-based instruction. He emphasizes that just using technology or authentic materials does not magically help students learn a language; teachers need to plan appropriate pedagogical activities that revolve around selected materials. He notes some key affordances of the Internet, e.g., providing access to a vast array of multimedia and authentic materials in the target language as well as allowing users to be more autonomous.

Blake highlights the crucial role of teachers in developing Web-based language curriculum and explains how to effectively integrate these materials for maximum benefit. He points out that students need practice in realistic interactions, as opposed to just grammar exercises. Blake advocates for using authentic multimedia materials and realistic tasks and recommends using top-down constructivist approaches such as task-based language teaching and content-based instruction. He provides references and a list of procedures that can be useful to develop web-enhanced materials (see p. 45).

Chapter 3, entitled “CALL and Its Evaluation: Programs and Apps,” begins with a brief history of CALL and its various phases, which started with text and later moved on to multimedia and interactive aspects as technology has developed and SLA and L2 pedagogy have evolved. He explains iCALL (intelligent CALL), chatterbot programs, and the need for feedback before introducing the third phase of CALL, i.e., integrative CALL, which involves people interacting with each other through a computer, which is called computer-mediated communication (CMC). Despite the popularity of social computing, Blake points out that tutorial CALL can play an important role in L2 learning, especially when students need to practice items that can be corrected by a computer.

Blake provides an overview of some apps for vocabulary development and authoring tools, the majority of which can be useful for language teachers without programming skills. He then addresses the issue of interactivity in tutorial CALL and discusses feedback, iCALL, and automatic speech recognition (ASR). In the next section, Blake recognizes that not all language teachers will create CALL materials; however, he encourages all teachers to be interested in evaluating such materials in order to choose what is best for their students’ needs. At the end of the chapter, he briefly discusses the current state of affairs in CALL and highlights policies from several related professional organizations.

The fourth chapter focuses on CMC. In the first section, Blake summarizes its background, mentions notable SLA researchers, and highlights that although interaction between either learners or learners and native speakers of the target language may not directly cause SLA, such interactions prepare students to learn (Gass, 1997) because it focuses their attention on unknown structures and provides needed scaffolding or support for learning (Bruner, 1996). The author explains that encouraging language learners to engage in interactions can promote language learning, whether it be in face-to-face classes or in CMC. Blake provides an overview of both synchronous computer-mediated communication (SCMC), which occurs in real time, as well as asynchronous (ACMC), which refers to deferred time. He emphasizes that teachers’ planning of effective pedagogic tasks is more important than the actual tool that is chosen. In discussing ACMC, Blake provides a brief overview of Web 1.0, first-generation tools, and Web 2.0, second-generation tools, pointing out key aspects of each that are helpful for language teachers.

The author includes a section on intracultural CMC, i.e., between learners, and provides a case study on bimodal SCMC between a beginning language learner of Spanish and an instructor that shows a student struggling and making progress with linguistic support from the instructor, who uses both textual and verbal channels. Blake stresses the necessity of SCMC as it enables students to interact with humans to test new linguistic hypotheses and get immediate feedback. Although he supports the interactionist SLA model, Blake admits that it does not adequately address culture and intercultural communicative competence (ICC). In the following section, he discusses intercultural CMC, i.e., between language learners and native speakers of the target language, including explanations of telecollaboration and the Cultura project, which promotes ICC and linguistic improvement. The main point of this chapter is to demonstrate that CMC can yield benefits that are similar to those which are generated in face-to-face communications.

Chapter 5 summarizes the first four chapters and explains how teachers need to fundamentally change from traditional, teacher-centered teaching to learner-centered methods to take advantage of the affordances of technology. Blake points out that in today’s world, language teachers need to consider not only the time that students spend in class, but also out-of-class activities and possible contact with target language speakers, in addition to individual studying. He reemphasizes the importance of how technology is used, and that successful implementation requires diligent planning, and explains why shifting to a student-centered classroom can be challenging to many teachers. The author asserts that continual professional development is needed to help teachers make this shift and learn to use technology effectively to take advantage of its benefits for language learning.

Blake identifies the three types of computer literacy that students need to develop, which include: (1) how to use the functions of tools; (2) how to be critical users; and (3) how to produce new digital products. He also explains key aspects of developing intercultural communicative competence and highlights Kramsch’s (1993) concept of a third place, which combines first and second languages and cultures. Blake adds that although students often forget conjugations years after studying a language, culture is something they remember. This point can be useful for people who never even travel abroad because many countries, including the United States, are becoming increasingly multilingual and multicultural. In concluding this chapter, the author emphasizes the importance of teacher training, not only on new technologies, but also on shifting educational approaches because all aspects of society in the U.S., including education, are increasingly being influenced by technology.

Chapter 6 focuses on distance language learning, which includes instruction that is fully or partially online, the latter of which is called, blended or hybrid learning. As these formats continue to grow in popularity, Blake explains some of the main potential advantages for online or blended learning as well as why some people are skeptical of its effectiveness in language teaching, especially in promoting oral abilities. To address these concerns, he provides an overview of studies that have evaluated the effects of online learning on students’ language learning, most of which have shown no significant differences from face-to-face classes. He states that although administrators and faculty members frequently demand proof of the effectiveness of online classes, this assumes the premise that all face-to-face classes are equal and effective, which is of course not the case.

Based on research, Blake asserts that online learning is not for all students because it requires more learner autonomy and conscientiousness (Arispe and Blake, 2012); therefore, he suggests that online or hybrid courses be an optional format, as opposed to a requirement. He stresses the necessity of careful planning based on sound SLA methodological principles when integrating technology, especially in planning hybrid or online courses. In concluding the chapter, Blake indicates the need for creating and implementing online materials that are pedagogically sound, including CMC tasks and tutorial CALL as well as training graduate students how to teach such classes even though the majority of faculty have not done so. This shows that we are in a critical time, when effective materials need to be developed and teachers need to be trained how to teach using these new formats successfully.

The final two chapters are new to this second edition. Chapter 7 focuses on how social networking can be used for language learning. After discussing the overwhelming popularity of social networking sites (SNS) such as Facebook, Blake describes SNSs that have been specifically designed for language learning, e.g., LiveMocha. He points out that the chat function and autonomous learning, which asks learners to take responsibility for their own learning (Arispe, 2012), are key features of success in using SNSs like Live Mocha. Blake also explains tandem learning, which can be done face-to-face or virtually, and its potential benefits. In the last section, he provides practical ideas on how Facebook can be used in a language learning class. In closing, he recommends that teachers learn to use SNSs to motivate students and promote language learning, since they are likely to continue to be popular.

The last chapter, on games for language learning, explains their potential benefits, e.g., they can stimulate language learning through playing individually as well as in teams, the latter of which promotes communicative and/or student-centered learning because many multiplayer games involve text or voice chat to communicate with teammates. Although there is only a limited amount of research on L2 learners playing games at present, some relevant studies are mentioned. Blake highlights selected learning principles for designing games specified by Gee (2007), which are also inherent in effective learning environments. The author indicates that a key feature of successful games is that they are intrinsically motivating and thus draw users to spend more time playing them. SLA literature clearly shows that increasing time on task promotes language learning; however, Blake admits that integrating gaming into L2 teaching “is not a straightforward proposition” (p. 174) and that creating games to promote language learning requires collaboration and resources. In the final paragraph, he mentions a key question raised by Arnseth (2006), who asked whether students are learning to play or playing to learn, which is a difficult but important question underlying effective game design.


This book provides a valuable survey of today’s technology that can be used to promote language learning while also posing questions on areas that need further exploration. Whether readers are new to using technology in the language classroom or familiar with current trends, a wide range of language professionals are sure to find this to be valuable guide. Despite the rapid pace of advances in technology, this text offers a solid overview of important topics, including relevant theories in SLA, CALL, and CMC, all of which provide a solid foundation for understanding how technology can be used for language learning and teaching and for empowering readers to be critical users and creators of technology.

Throughout the book, Blake refers to SLA theories and academic references when relevant. However, it is clear that he supports the interactionist approach to SLA, as he only sparsely mentions sociocultural approaches. Therefore, if this book is used in a graduate CALL class, it should be supplemented with additional readings on socially-informed approaches. The last two chapters on social networking and gaming, which are new to this edition, are a valuable addition, but a bit brief at only about ten pages each, whereas other chapters average 25 pages in length, and thus cover more ground.

The mantra of this book is that technology is not a panacea; instead, the key is in planning how to use appropriate technological tools effectively to meet pedagogically sound objectives. Blake convincingly accomplishes what he set out to do, i.e., he explains how technology can be effectively integrated into L2 teaching and learning. Although he admits that some of the technological tools that he examines in this book might be outdated by the time the book is published, the fact that he provides overarching ideas, affordances, and uses suggests that the underlying principles in this book should continue to be a useful foundation for quite some time.


Arispe, K. 2012. Why vocabulary still matters: L2 lexical development and learner autonomy as mediated through an ICALL tool, Langbot. Davis, CA: University of California dissertation.

Arispe, K., & R. J. Blake. 2012. Individual factors and successful learning in a hybrid course. System Journal 40(3). 449-465.

Arnseth, H. C. 2006. Learning to play or playing to learn: A critical account of the models of communication informing educational research on computer gameplay. Game Studies 6(1). http://gamestudies.org/0601/articles/arnseth.

Bruner, J. 1996. The culture of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kramsch, C. 1993. Context and culture in language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gass, S. M. 1997. Input, interaction, and the second language learner. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Gee, J. P. 2007. What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Orig. pub. 2003.


Merica McNeil is a Ph.D. student in Second Language Acquisition and Teaching at The University of Arizona where she works for the Center for Educational Resources in Culture, Language, and Literacy (CERCLL) and teaches French. She completed an M.A. in Second Language Studies and a teaching certificate in ESL, both at the University of Hawai`i. She recently worked in France at the IUFM-Université Paris IV–Sorbonne where she co-taught a hybrid content-based English class and developed online materials. Her current academic pursuits focus on blended and online (language) teaching and learning, teacher education, computer-assisted language learning, materials development, assessment, and evaluation.

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