English Language Center uses virtual reality to support international students

During a recent one-on-one consultation with the English Language Center (ELC), an international student wanted to practice making small talk. “We don’t use small talk in my culture,” she said. “We are usually shy in our conversation. I don’t know how to practice small talk with my friends, my classmates, my professor or in the restaurant.”

She also worried that when people asked “How are you?”, that her responses were boring. Her consultant, Peabody graduate student Sharon Mendieta Ramirez, knew how to help, advising the student about appropriate language to use in different cultural contexts. Then they practiced.

Mendieta Ramirez’s client is not alone. ELC staff have long recognized that international students can struggle with the complexities of small talk in America. The students themselves know they need to make small talk during networking events, during job interviews, at conferences and even in bars with classmates.

“I just sit silently,” an Owen graduate student told his consultant. He worried that he was missing opportunities for building professional connections.

To help meet this need, Susan Barone, a linguist and director of the ELC, devised a pilot project her team titled “Let’s Keep Talking: Immersive Small Talk to Support Networking Skills.” The goal of the program, which will involve virtual reality practice sessions for participants, is to offer guidance and experience in “professional small talk” for students and scholars who use English as an additional language. ELC applied for and was awarded a Vanderbilt University Sesquicentennial Grant to fund the project.

Vanderbilt first-year undergraduate and ELC intern Jessiely Woods tries VR for the first time while Assistant Provost for Academic Support and Community Engagement Jill Stratton pops into the training session. (Vanderbilt University)

ELC academic speaking courses, consultations and workshops all offer support for students who want to improve their small talk and networking skills. But busy schedules and packed syllabi might not give students enough chances for regular practice. “Let’s Keep Talking” can fill that gap.

To kick off the project, ELC staff gathered this fall around a crackling virtual reality campfire in the Zeppos conference room and roasted pillow-sized marshmallows after having just learned to teleport. They were finding their “VR legs” during a training session with an immersive learning company that is providing technical support and virtual environments for the project.

Although the ELC probably won’t make use of the space station that staff visited in VR, it could use the coffee shop, TED Talk space or conference hall to simulate events where program participants can make small talk.

Vanderbilt first-year undergraduate and ELC intern Jessiely Woods, who already is an adept intercultural communicator, will be instrumental in developing this resource. She is excited to incorporate her new VR skills and resources into her work.

“I think this availability of various (VR) locations will be a huge benefit to this project,” she said. “We can not only create different settings to develop the students’ ability to small talk and network, but we can also add elements or create an environment that can make them feel more comfortable.”