The future of language learning: Augmented reality vs virtual reality

First off, I realize that this will not be a persistent dichotomy. AR and VR exist on the same spectrum: the reality-virtuality continuum. Eventually, we will be able to control our level of immersion. For now, however, applications are mostly developed for one or the other. There is still a chasm between see-through AR or HUD (heads-up display) and fully immersive VR. The debates over semantics (ahem, “mixed reality”) and continued development within the broader scope of exponential technologies are valid, and I love this debate! Here, I would like to stick to the challenges and opportunities presented by augmented reality and virtual reality for language learning.

Augmented Reality


Spatial-contextual awareness enables users to explore their surroundings and gives them phrases relevant to their time and place. For example, in the mockup pictured above, the user is prompted to say “good evening,” since it is nighttime, or “Do you live in Stockholm?” since the user is in Sweden.

The underutilized potential of situated media to discover caches of translatable and interactive experiences could give language learners a way to learn about cultural artifacts and history at the same time.

In addition to being a visual assistive technology, similar to using the camera in Google Translate on a smartphone, AR wearables could include hearable components that provide nearly real-time translation.

See The Triad of Location-Based Mixed Reality for more on the use of spatial-contextual awareness and situated media with augmented reality.


The most glaring challenge is that there are no devices on the market that could enable language learning through AR. We are not constrained so much by technical capability as we are by societal norms.

  • One could develop a HoloLens application, but this is not an everyday wearable
  • Google Glass is not dead, but its use has been shifted to enterprise, and wearing them in public has long been frowned upon

Screen-based AR has been around for about ten years, but holding your phone up is also not socially acceptable or convenient while in a conversation


While the challenge is a significant one, I am more optimistic than most that wearable AR will be available and popular soon. We don’t yet know how Snap Spectacles will evolve, and, of course, there’s always Apple.

Virtual Reality


Immersion in virtual reality can trick the brain into believing the experiences are real. The language learning startup Mondly emphasizes this feature of their new Gear VR app, pictured above.

VR headsets are available and affordable now, which means language learning can be incorporated into existing products, such as Google Expeditions.

Elements within the virtual world could more easily include artificial intelligence, adapting the user’s experience.


Avatars often still exist in the uncanny valley, which can be disconcerting to users.

Does immersion through virtual reality provide a significant cultural experience or is it the equivalent of the purported exploration of international cuisines at Epcot World Experience? If this is used as a selling point, we must acknowledge that this is still an open debate.


I suspect we will see a flurry of new VR apps from language learning startups soon, especially from Duolingo and in combination with their AI chat bots. I am curious if users will quickly abandon the isolating experiences or become dedicated users.


Long-term, AR can be a valuable tool for travelers interested in learning through real-world immersion in a culture, regardless of language barriers. VR can be used today for traditional language learning, if we can still call it that.

Where do you see the most potential? Have I missed any key challenges or opportunities?

Please, just don’t say, “Neither! Mixed reality.”

About the Author

Denis Hurley

Denis Hurley leads the global Future Technologies program within the Advanced Computing and Data Science Lab (“The Lab”). The Lab applies advanced computing and data science to create innovative software capabilities, processes, and frameworks that improve our digital products, advance our digital ways of working, and change how we approach digital education. The Future Technologies program is a pan-Pearson, cross-disciplinary, collaborative community of hundreds of colleagues, that has completed over 40 prototypes and roundtable discussions. Our work has impacted early development of many products and services, such as explorations into mobile-first strategies, immersive learning, and adaptive algorithms.

Denis studies emerging technologies and trends; promotes Pearson’s cutting edge products and strategies; and catalyzes teams, encouraging the exploration of innovative solutions and new opportunities. Denis is a frequent speaker at national and international events and workshops for educators and technologists.


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