What Actually Goes On in an English Conversation Lounge?

We recently published Dynamics of a Social Language Learning Community by Jo Mynard, Michael Burke, Daniel Hooper, Bethan Kushida, Phoebe Lyon, Ross Sampson and Phillip Taw. In this post, Jo explains how the English conversation lounge at Kanda University of International Studies, which provides the setting for the book, functions.

The setting for this book is an English conversation lounge within a larger self-access learning centre (SALC) in a university in Japan which specialises in foreign languages and cultures. Although the setting is quite specific, the themes in this book are likely to resonate with anyone who has tried to support language learners in using the target language beyond the classroom. 

We moved into a new learning space in April 2017 and our main priority in that first year was to make sure that the SALC as a whole was creating an environment where students could feel comfortable and empowered; a place where students could feel supported in taking ownership of their own language learning. The English Lounge is a place where students can drop in and practice speaking English either to teachers on duty, or to other students. In general, there are very few opportunities to actually use other languages in daily life in Japan, and as an institution specialising in languages, we have always tried to provide opportunities for students to actually use the languages they are learning. An English conversation lounge has been available to students in one form or another at the university for around twenty years, but apart from a couple of isolated studies, no systematic research had previously been conducted. 

In terms of goals or guidelines for the lounge, these are very loose. On the SALC website for students, we state “You can have a free conversation in English with teachers and other students here. You can also come with your friends and chat in English.” This sounds very simple, but after years of observing this in action, myself and other members of the research team could actually see some of the interesting dynamics happening within the space. Some questions began to emerge based on these observations:

  • Why do some students use the lounge everyday, whereas others avoid the place completely?
  • What draws some students to the space? Why do they keep coming back?
  • What role does the lounge play in students’ language learning experiences?

We could see that some students thrived in the space and used it as an opportunity to develop confidence in using English. We wondered how we could make the space more appealing to other students who might like to use it. We were fairly sure that participation in the lounge had something to do with language learner identity. We were also able to see a real community of practice in action. We suspected that other psychological processes were important as well, but we weren’t sure which ones without doing more research.

We had been heavily influenced by previous work in another university setting in Japan by Garold Murray, Naomi Fujishima and colleagues who suggested that many elements shape and transform spaces into places for learning. We were keen to investigate the psychological elements in our own context, so proceeded to study the micro-space within the larger learning ecology of the SALC.

After more reading, our initial observations were eventually formulated into research questions and a detailed research plan. After gaining ethics permission from the university, we began our project with a series of eye-opening observations of the space. This was followed by in-depth interviews with students conducted over two years. Our participants were students from all four years of the university; some were regular users, but some had never used the lounge at all. In this book, we tell their stories and attempt to make sense of them. By making sense of these stories, we offer some insights into the role of such spaces in language education programmes. We also offer some practical advice to others who wish to embark on similar research, or make their own spaces more accessible to all learners who want to use them.

Photos courtesy of Kanda University of International Studies

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Second Language Literacy Practices and Language Learning Outside the Classroom by Miho Inaba.

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