Member Spotlight: Ekaterina Semeniuk, vLanguage Learning Team Co-Leader

This is a first in a series of articles, interview and first person, featuring the leaders of our Educators in VR Team Projects. Ekaterina Semeniuk is a language teacher and the new co-team leader of the vLanguage Learning Team along with Michael McDonald of Gold Lotus language teaching and consultancy. The next vLanguage Learning meetup is Monday, September 14, 2020, on “Cognitive Skills, Language Development and The Brain: Employing the Neuroscience of Learning to Create More Effective VR/AR/XR Experiences” with special guest speaker Cassondra Eng.

Ekaterina Semeniuk, known as Gingery in Discord and AltspaceVR, shares her story and passion for language learning and teaching with us.

Ekaterina SemeniukIf you told thirteen-year-old me that I would become a teacher, and not just a teacher, but an English teacher, I would choke on my soda. And if you tried to guess why you’d guess it right.

My English as a foreign language journey was just like any other lifelong journeys, it was full of rich experiences. There were times when I felt blessed and there were times when I felt cursed. I started learning English “officially” at the age of seven at school, but unofficially, thanks to my elder brother, my mom and video games, it had started way before the alphabet song reached my ears. By the first day of school my wealth of knowledge had some useless bits of information like ‘a scarf’, ‘a doll’ and some important daily vocabulary like ‘new game’, ‘save’ and ‘exit’.

At the age of fourteen, I started to learn French as my second foreign language. Other foreign languages I’d been learning at university and afterwards.

Let’s fast-forward. Here we are in Moscow, Russia. My name is still Ekaterina. London is still the capital of Great Britain. But I’m not thirteen any more, and I don’t hate English any more. Moreover, we’re almost good friends now.

At the moment, I teach English as a foreign language. I have a background in foreign philology – the history and development of languages – and I used to learn eight foreign languages in total. I also have a master’s degree in TESOL in Australia. And my professional experience includes working as an ELICOS teacher in Sydney and as an English teacher and tutor at a private elementary school in the Moscow Region, to students between five and ten years old, some of which have dyslexia.

I’m also the new co-team Leader of the Educators in VR vLanguage track. I want to share with you my modest experience in teaching and learning languages with Virtual Reality.

Back in 2017 at the Australian university, I had a subject called ‘Technology in language learning’. In one of the assignments, you presented the concept of your perfect language-learning technology. Being a video game lover and a modern technology fan I presented a concept of an online VR game for language learning. That’s where it all began.

I can’t believe that every year we are getting closer and closer to all these futuristic language learning technologies I only dreamed about.

I bought my first VR headset a year later. It was a simple Cardboard-like gadget, the one where you have to use your phone as a display.

I used this headset as a speaking practice tool at my English lessons a year ago. At the end of a lesson, kids were supposed to watch a short 360 video and describe everything they could see in sentences, phrases or just single words, no pressure, the practice had to be as relaxed and fun as possible. The video was chosen on the same topic as the newly-introduced vocabulary.

With VR experience I wanted to create a positive emotional response in children, so they would have a desire to share it with others in the target language. Here the language becomes a tool for sharing experiences and information, and the whole practice doesn’t look like a task or an exercise.

My second headset was Oculus Quest and I used it in online teaching during the pandemic, choosing Mozilla Hubs for my ten-year-old students. Unfortunately, I was the only person in a VR headset. Luckily my students could join me from computers and tablets. We also were able to spend the whole 40 mins lesson on the platform, because the recommended session time in a VR headset for children of their age is 5-20 mins. I introduced my students to the platform gradually, where we spent around 2-3 lessons on getting used to the technology and doing whatever students wanted, having a silly time.

I started with explaining basic things like connection and movements, the next lesson I gave them permission to bring objects into the world and the third lesson was spent on travelling to various worlds. The English learning process was built around the idea of presenting vocabulary and grammar ‘upon request’. I followed my students and helped them with the language they needed most at a particular moment, for example, to make a specific joke or to call objects they built a house from.

All in all, it was a positive experience. Students loved it, it was something new, fun for them. They were excited to be there. It became another fun way of communication and doing things together.

After almost a year of working full-time with small children, I found myself losing the language. I still was reading and listening to advanced materials but had a lack of good speaking practice. I decided to find random people on VR social platforms like VRChat or AltspaceVR for a relaxed kind of chatting practice.

It was a surprise to find people were even organising language classes there, like Michael McDonald from Gold Lotus. Michael’s classes had a theory part presenting new vocabulary and some specific grammar. With the second part, he immersed us in situations, where we could apply in practice all the previous material, building new connections and stronger association.

VR technology gives us this great opportunity to transfer ourselves almost whenever we want to and experience it. I also visited a couple of speaking clubs and exchange language events. I even tried to learn a little bit of Japanese from scratch and I thank all of my VR teachers for their kind support and patience. This refreshing feeling of becoming a complete language noob I always find really helpful in improving my teaching empathy.

I see three main reasons to continue implementing VR technologies in my future English lessons.

  1. It helps to bring my students and the target language out of the classroom.
  2. It helps to use the language as a meaningful tool in various activities.
  3. Most importantly for me, it helps to build a positive attitude to the language.

I find a positive attitude more important than learning a particular amount of words or grammar. I’m aware that learning a language is a lifelong process and if you get a lot of negative experiences there is a great chance that you drop it once and never get back. If you have a positive attitude, no matter what happens in your life – more or less active learning periods, even pauses – you never drop forever, you get back and improve. It’s much easier to fix your knowledge gap in the language than to fix your negative attitude.

I believe that XR technologies are those amazing tools that bring positive learning experiences in your life that lead to a positive attitude to the language. I’m looking forward to its further development and I’m sure it’s changing education for the better.

Ekaterina Semeniuk is a TESOL teacher with a strong background in foreign philology — the history and development of languages. At one time, she was learning 8 languages. She has a master’s degree in TESOL in Australia, and worked as an ELICOS teacher in Sydney and an English teacher and tutor at a private elementary school in the Moscow Region with students between five and ten years old, some of which have dyslexia. She is also the new co-team Leader of the Educators in VR vLanguage track. You may learn more about her on LinkedIn and Twitter.