CALL (computer assisted language learning)

Author: Graham Davies


An introduction to Computer Assisted Language Learning, including a brief history and mention of more recent trends (CD-ROMS, DVDs, the Web) and professional associations dedicated to CALL.

Table of contents

A definition of CALL

Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) is often perceived, somewhat narrowly, as an approach to language teaching and learning in which the computer is used as an aid to the presentation, reinforcement and assessment of material to be learned, usually including a substantial interactive element. Levy (1997:1) defines CALL more succinctly and more broadly as "the search for and study of applications of the computer in language teaching and learning". Levy's definition is in line with the view held by the majority of modern CALL practitioners. For a comprehensive overview of CALL see ICT4LT Module 1.4, Introduction to Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL):

A brief history of CALL

CALL's origins can be traced back to the 1960s. Up until the late 1970s CALL projects were confined mainly to universities, where computer programs were developed on large mainframe computers. The PLATO project, initiated at the University of Illinois in 1960, is an important landmark in the early development of CALL (Marty 1981). In the late 1970s, the arrival of the personal computer (PC) brought computing within the range of a wider audience, resulting in a boom in the development of CALL programs and a flurry of publications. Early CALL favoured an approach that drew heavily on practices associated with programmed instruction. This was reflected in the term Computer Assisted Language Instruction (CALI), which originated in the USA and was in common use until the early 1980s, when CALL became the dominant term. There was initially a lack of imagination and skill on the part of programmers, a situation that was rectified to a considerable extent by the publication of an influential seminal work by Higgins & Johns (1984), which contained numerous examples of alternative approaches to CALL. Throughout the 1980s CALL widened its scope, embracing the communicative approach and a range of new technologies. CALL has now established itself as an important area of research in higher education: see the joint EUROCALL/CALICO/IALLT Research Policy Statement: /research/research_policy.htm. See also the History of CALL website:

Traditional CALL

Traditional CALL programs presented a stimulus to which the learner had to provide a response. In early CALL programs the stimulus was in the form of text presented on screen, and the only way in which the learner could respond was by entering an answer at the keyboard. Some programs were very imaginative in the way text was presented, making use of colour to highlight grammatical features (e.g. gender in French and case endings in German) and movement to illustrate points of syntax (e.g. position of adjectives in French and subordinate clause word order in German). Discrete error analysis and feedback were a common feature of traditional CALL, and the more sophisticated programs would attempt to analyse the learner's response, pinpoint errors, and branch to help and remedial activities. A typical example of this approach is the CLEF package for learners of French, which was developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s by a consortium of Canadian universities. A Windows version of CLEF has recently been released: Error analysis in CALL is, however, a matter of controversy. Practitioners who come into CALL via the disciplines of computational linguistics, e.g. Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Human Language Technologies (HLT), tend to be more optimistic about the potential of error analysis by computer than those who come into CALL via language teaching: see ICT4LT Module 3.5, Human Language Technologies: The approach adopted by the authors of CLEF was to anticipate common errors and build in appropriate feedback. An alternative approach is the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) techniques to parse the learner's response - so-called "intelligent CALL" (ICALL) - but there is a gulf between those who favour the use of AI to develop CALL programs (Matthews 1994) and, at the other extreme, those who perceive this approach as a threat to humanity (Last 1989:153).

Explorative CALL

More recent approaches to CALL have favoured a learner-centred, explorative approach rather than a teacher-centred, drill-based approach to CALL. The explorative approach is characterised by the use of concordance programs in the languages classroom - an approach described as Data-Driven Learning (DLL) by Tim Johns (Johns & King 1991). There are a number of concordance programs on the market, e.g. MonoConc, Concordance, Wordsmith and SCP - all of which are described in ICT4LT Module 2.4, Using concordance programs in the modern foreign languages classroom: See also Tribble & Jones (1990). The explorative approach is widely used today, including the use of Web concordancers and other Web-based CALL activities.

Multimedia CALL

Early personal computers were incapable of presenting authentic recordings of the human voice and easily recognizable images, but this limitation was overcome by combining a personal computer and a 12-inch videodisc player, which made it possible to combine sound, photographic-quality still images and video recordings in imaginative presentations - in essence the earliest manifestation of multimedia CALL. The result was the development of interactive videodiscs for language learners such as Montevidisco (Schneider & Bennion 1984), Expodisc (Davies 1991), and A la rencontre de Philippe (Fuerstenberg 1993), all of which were designed as simulations in which the learner played a key role.

The techniques learned in the 1980s by the developers of interactive videodiscs were adapted for the multimedia personal computers (MPCs), which incorporated CD-ROM drives and were in widespread use by the early 1990s. The MPC is now the standard form of personal computer. CD-ROMs were used in the 1980s initially to store large quantities of text and later to store sound, still images and video. By the mid-1990s a wide range of multimedia CD-ROMs for language learners was available, including imaginative simulations such as the Who is Oscar Lake? series: The quality of video recordings offered by CD-ROM technology, however, was slow to catch up with that offered by the earlier interactive videodiscs. The Digital Video Disc (DVD) offers much higher quality video recordings, e.g. the Eurotalk Advanced Level DVD-ROM series: A feature of many multimedia CALL programs is the role-play activity, in which the learner can record his/her own voice and play it back as part of a continuous dialogue with a native speaker. Other multimedia programs make use of Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) software to diagnose learners' errors, e.g. Tell Me More Pro by Auralog: Most CALL programs under development today fall into the category of multimedia CALL. See ICT4LT Module 2.2, Introduction to multimedia CALL:

Web-based CALL

In 1992 the World Wide Web was launched, reaching the general public in 1993. The Web offers enormous potential in language learning and teaching, but it has some way to go before it catches up with the interactivity and speed of access offered by CD-ROMs or DVDs, especially when accessing sound and video files. For this reason, Felix (2001:190) advises adopting hybrid approaches to CALL, integrating CD-ROMs and the Web and running audio conferencing and video conferencing in conjunction with Web activities. The Web Enhanced Language Learning (WELL) project, which has been funded under the FDTL programme of the HEFCE, aims to promote wider awareness and more effective use of the Web for teaching modern languages across higher education in the UK. The WELL website provides access to high-quality Web resources in a number of different languages, selected and described by subject experts, plus information and examples on how to use them for teaching and learning:

See also the following ICT4LT modules:

1.5 Introduction to the Internet

2.3 Exploiting World Wide Web resources online and offline

3.2 Creating a World Wide Web site

CALL authoring programs

CALL authoring programs offer a do-it-yourself approach to CALL. They were originally developed to enable programmers to simplify the entry of data provided by language teachers. Modern CALL authoring programs are designed to be used by language teachers who have no knowledge of computer programming. Typical examples are authoring packages that automatically generate a set of pre-set activities for the learner, e.g. Camsoft's Fun with Texts (Camsoft) and The Authoring Suite (Wida Software). Generic packages such as Macromedia's Director ( are more sophisticated and enable the user to create a full-blown course, but they are probably too complex for most language teachers and are best suited to the template approach to authoring, as described in ICT4LT Module 3.2, CALL software design and implementation: Web authoring packages are also available, e.g. Hot Potatoes software: See ICT4LT Module 2.5, Introduction to CALL authoring programs. See also Bickerton (1999) and Bickerton, Stenton & Temmermann (2001).

Professional associations for CALL

An increasing number of professional associations devoted to CALL are emerging worldwide. The older associations are grouped together under WorldCALL, which is in the process of establishing itself as an umbrella association of associations. WorldCALL held its first conference at the University of Melbourne in 1998, and the second WorldCALL conference will take place in Banff, Canada, 2003: The current professional associations represented in WorldCALL are:

EUROCALL: The leading European professional association for CALL. The ReCALL journal is published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of EUROCALL:

CERCLES: The European Confederation of Language Centres in Higher Education. CERCLES embraces a similar constituency to IALLT in North America.

CALICO: The leading North American professional association for CALL. Publishes the CALICO Journal:

IALLT: International Association for Language Learning Technology, based in North America: IALLT publishes the IALLT Journal of Language Learning Technologies and embraces a similar constituency to CERCLES in Europe.

CCALL/ACELAO: Currently in the process of establishing itself as a formal professional association in Canada. No website is available at present.

LLA: The Language Laboratory Association of Japan, also known as LET, which now embraces a wider range of language learning technologies:.

ATELL: The Australian Association for Technology Enhanced Language Learning consortium: ATELL used to publish On-CALL, which has now merged with CALL-EJ (Japan).

Suppliers of CALL materials

There are two general suppliers of CALL software in the UK:


Wida Software:

There is a comprehensive database that list the range of software titles, producers and suppliers:

BECTA Educational Software Database:

In addition to the journals published by professional associations for CALL, the following are also available:


Bickerton, D. (1999). Authoring and the Academic Linguist: the Challenge of MMCALL. In K. Cameron (ed.) CALL: Media, Design and Applications, 59-79. Lisse: Swets & Zeitlinger.

Bickerton, D., Stenton, T. & Temmermann, M. (2001). Criteria for the Evaluation of Authoring Tools in Language Education. In A. Chambers & G. Davies (eds), ICT and Language Learning: a European Perspective, 53-66. Lisse: Swets & Zeitlinger.

Davies, G.D. (1991). Expodisc - an Interactive Videodisc Package for Learners of Spanish. In H. Savolainen & J. Telenius (eds), EUROCALL 91: Proceedings, 133-39. Helsinki: Helsinki School of Economics. Available at:

Felix, U. (2001). Beyond Babel: Language Learning Online. Melbourne: Language Australia. Reviewed at

Fuerstenberg, G. (1993). A la rencontre de Philippe: Videodisc, Software, Teacher's Manual and Student Activities Workbook. Yale University Press. See also

Higgins, J. & Johns, T. (1984). Computers in Language Learning. London: Collins.

Johns, T. & King, P. (eds) (1991). Classroom Concordancing. Special Issue of ELR Journal 4, University of Birmingham: Centre for English Language Studies.

Last, R.W. (1989). Artificial Intelligence Techniques in Language Learning. Chichester: Ellis Horwood.

Levy, M. (1997). CALL: Context and Conceptualisation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Marty, F. (1981). Reflections on the Use of Computers in Second Language Acquisition. System 9/2:85-98.

Matthews, C. (1994). Intelligent Computer Assisted Language Learning as Cognitive Science: The choice of Syntactic Frameworks for Language Tutoring. Journal of Artificial Intelligence in Education 5, 4:533-56.

Schneider, E.W. & Bennion, J.L. (1984). Veni, Vidi, Vici, via Videodisc: A Simulator for Instructional Courseware. In D.H Wyatt (ed.) Computer Assisted Language Instruction 41-6. Oxford: Pergamon.

Tribble, C. & Jones, G. (1990). Concordances in the Classroom. Harlow: Longman.

Related links

Apprentissage des langues et systmes d'information et de communication (ALSIC)

CALL-EJ Online
CALL-EJ (Japan) merged with On-CALL (Australia) and became CALL-EJ Online in May 1999.

CALL Journal
Lisse, Netherlands: Swets & Zeitlinger

Language Learning Technology journal

C&IT Centre CALL bibliography
This is a comprehensive bibliography of CALL publications, including other bibliographies on the Web.

The C&IT Centre is part of the LTSN Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies

Graham Davies's Favourite Websites.

ICT4LT Resource Centre bibliography
The ICT4LT Resource Centre includes a comprehensive bibliography and other Web links

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