Publication Date


Document Type


First Advisor

Harris, Lindsay N.

Degree Name

Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy)

Legacy Department

Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations (LEPF)


This study investigates learning a foreign language in informal virtual environments (the “virtual wild”) and learners’ emotions connected to the process. Evidence suggests that incidental foreign language contact in unstructured, virtual environments can enhance second language (L2) learning, and that the use of online informal learning of language activities with students learning English as an L2 results in higher fluency, lower error rates, and greater engagement compared to learning that occurs in a traditional classroom setting. The research on online informal learning of English (OILE) aligns with the newest research in linguistics asserting that language is learned through experience with it and an exposure to usage-events. Nevertheless, such incidental informal learning is generally untrusted, believed to cause more harm than good, and not commonly encouraged in the classroom.

In the U.S., where English is the dominant language, not a lot of emphasis is put on learning other tongues. Learners who, despite that, chose to engage in this endeavor are mostly unsuccessful and quickly give up. The enrollments are consistently decreasing, programs are eliminating, and only a fraction of students achieve expected results. The abysmal retention rates clearly indicate that even highly interested students are disappointed with how languages are being taught and eventually quit. Among the reasons behind these statistics are the “grammar+vocabulary lists” approach used in the majority of foreign language (FL) classes and FL anxiety that negatively influences learners’ achievement.

With the great success of OILE in Europe, this study endeavors to apply this concept to other languages, using German as an example. This adoptive concept is referred to as Online Informal Learning of Language or OILL. This study investigates whether OILL can foster a higher language gain than traditional FL instruction. In addition to that, OILL’s emotional aspects are examined in order to assess whether emotions influence the success of OILL and whether this information could yield, so far undiscovered, ways of significantly lowering or eliminating FL anxiety.

Sixty-one intermediate and higher German learners enrolled in the study, however, only 16 participants completed the full 10 hours and took all required tests and surveys. The participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions: Experimental Group (EG), engaging in online informal learning activities in German (e.g., watching German movies, shows, programs, or videos; listening to the music; reading the Web; etc.) and Control Group (CG), who engaged in traditional, textbook-based activities mirroring traditional classroom practices (e.g., fill in the blanks exercises; texts, short videos, and audio recordings altered towards educational purposes and followed by an array of exercises; etc.). All activities were delivered online via a platform with German activities.

First, the participants were prompted to take an Interest and Demographic Questionnaire (IDQ) investigating their current familiarity with the virtual wild. As next, the learners took a German pre-test and, after they completed 10 hours of activities, a German post-test to assess their language gain. At random times, when the learners engaged in the German activities, they were also prompted to take an Emotion Form (EF) survey that has been developed based on the Experience Sampling Method (ESM). This instrument was to assess their emotions in the moment.

The results of the study show an advantage of OILL, although limited through the small and unbalanced sample. First, out of 16 participants who completed the full study, only 4 were in the CG (25%) and three times more, 12 (75%), in the EG. Thus, the study suggests that three times more learners are likely to persevere when engaging in the virtual wild and only a few, already highly motivated and committed learners, chose to continue learning their favorite language when it is through a more traditional approach. This finding mirrors the statistics on students’ retention in the FL classes in the U.S. While no differences in the overall language gain between the EG and CG was found, descriptively, both groups achieved language gain. This implies that even if OILL does not produce higher language gain, it does engage three times more learners than traditional approaches.

The results on learners’ emotions across time indicated that all learners’ emotions, regardless of the condition, stayed consistent over time and did not significantly differ between the groups. The average emotion reported by all learners varied between slightly and moderately positive. Finally, no correlation between the language gain and emotions was found for the 16 participants. In addition to these data, the IDQ indicated that out of 57 participants who took the survey, almost 80% never or rarely engage in any types of OILL-like activities in German. This result suggests that the extremely rich, mostly free, and authentic input available online is barely used by language learners in the U.S.

This study was the first implementing OILE towards language other than English and due to a small and unbalanced sample can only be perceived as preliminary. Nevertheless, it suggests that despite the common belief, virtual wild is not harmful and does result in a language gain as well as it fosters positive emotions. Most importantly, however, this study suggests that traditional practices are able to reach only a fraction of highly interested students, while OILL appears to attract and keep triple the number. While more research on OILL is needed, this study presents strong implications for changing the way how languages are being taught in the American schools.


146 pages




Northern Illinois University

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