Language Lab Levels & Other Vernacular


Language laboratories over time have often been referred to as having a "level," meant to be a descriptor regarding the broad teaching/learning capabilities of a lab's primary equipment systems. These level designations were prominently used by equipment vendors in the 1980s and 1990s, suggesting a possible manufacturer-centric origin for the terms. In any event, the descriptors were adopted by language laboratory facilities and became part of the professional vernacular.

  • Level I—this is the most simple of levels, denoting the rudimentary ability to play an audio track, without the ability for the student to affect useful control.
  • Level II—this level includes the function of the student being able to replay audio material at will (rewind, repeat).
  • Level III—this level adds the important function of the student being able to record their voice, allowing comparison to a teacher track.
  • Level IV—this level recognizes the digital realm and various technologies being integrated into lab systems, including the ability to utilize myriad types of media (traditional and digital video and audio material), modern computer formats for documents (.pdf, .rtf, .doc), graphics and the like, as well as to incorporate more complex instructor tools, such as authoring systems. While not all Level V labs are purely digital, they do have broad, advanced capabilities in various combinations.
  • Level V—this level integrates advanced digital capabilities, and virtual connections such as cloud-based complimentary systems, educational content managers, and mobile technology capability. While all Level V systems are digital (with only analog accessories, such as video players or cameras), not all digital facilities are Level V. The ability to virtualize, use Internet-based schema, and provide the instructor with a full-spectrum toolkit are the hallmarks of a Level V lab.


Vintage face plate for dial-a-language lab system

The aptly given nickname "dial-a-language" denotes old lab systems (late 1960s into the late 1970s) which used analog channel switches to route audio signals to (and occasionally, from) student stations to master recorder decks. Such schema typically included the playing of audio material (sometimes on arbitrary schedules) to which students could listen by selecting the corresponding channel.

These systems were most appropriate in group settings, when a class might collectively listen to an audio track (of a workbook lesson, for instance) and follow along together. Despite its leanings in this direction, there were attempts to play various lessons during a variety of times, for individual student study outside of class. The plan included students checking into the facility and joining the recording (often well in progress), in hopes of following along in some productive manner. In this vein of use, these systems had obvious issues and a number of limitations, and though they were somewhat difficult for students to utilize independently, they were nonetheless an ardent stride forward in the pursuit of providing technology to students.

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