Learning a second language (L2) presents a significant challenge to many people in adulthood. Platforms for effective L2 instruction have been developed in both academia and the industry. While real-life (RL) immersion is often lauded as a particularly effective L2 learning platform, little is known about the features of immersive contexts that contribute to the L2 learning process. Immersive virtual reality (iVR) offers a flexible platform to simulate an RL immersive learning situation, while allowing the researcher to have tight experimental control for stimulus delivery and learner interaction with the environment. Using a mixed counterbalanced design, the current study examines individual differences in L2 performance during learning of 60 Mandarin Chinese words across two learning sessions, with each participant learning 30 words in iVR and 30 words via word–word (WW) paired association. Behavioral performance was collected immediately after L2 learning via an alternative forced-choice recognition task. Our results indicate a main effect of L2 learning context, such that accuracy on trials learned via iVR was significantly higher as compared to trials learned in the WW condition. These effects are reflected especially in the differential effects of learning contexts, in that less successful learners show a significant benefit of iVR instruction as compared to WW, whereas successful learners do not show a significant benefit of either learning condition. Our findings have broad implications for L2 education, particularly for those who struggle in learning an L2.
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