In today's world the Internet is used extensively to build and maintain relationships. Social media such as Facebook play a central role in the lives of many people across the globe. Language use in electronic media varies with the medium, from very informal, abbreviated language in text messages to more grammatically correct and spellchecked writing in contributing to blogs or fanfiction sites. Linguists have pointed out that text messaging, considering its brevity and informality, is actually closer to spoken language in its essential characteristics (Choudhury et al, 2007).
Second-language learners can use online communication to develop language skills. Communicating with native speakers online provides opportunities for developing writing/reading skills and building vocabulary, but also for enhancing cultural knowledge. In such exchanges, there's an opportunity as well to view one's own culture from the perspective of those outside. This can be an eye-opening, and sometimes disturbing experience, but one that can lead us to reflect on our own cultural values and begin to question received wisdom. Studies of using collaborative projects for language learning reveal some of the issues that may arise due to cultural differences in language use and communicative conventions. A project involving French and US students, for example, saw conflicts arise due to the US students favoring of online exchanges to build relationships through small talk, and the French students' preference for serious discussion of the topics at hand. There were also differences in what mode or genre of writing the two groups used in communicating:
The French write in perfectly correct English, but without the social legitimation nor the trustworthiness of fellow native speakers of English. What happens is not a case of linguistic misunderstanding but a clash of cultural frames caused by the different resonances of the two languages for each group of speakers and their different understanding of appropriate genres. The French academic discourse expressed through the English language is perceived by the Americans not as having the ring of scientific truth, but as being unduly aggressive by displaying ‘nationalist reactions’. The American ingratiating personal discourse expressed through the French language is not perceived by the French as enhancing the trustworthiness of their authors, but as lacking scientific rigour (Kramsch & Thorne, 2002, pp. 94-5).
The French students used a form of discourse that aspires to be objective and scientific, while the US students struck a highly personal and sometimes emotional tone in their writing. Such conflicts in online exchanges are not uncommon and can arise through different perspectives on particular topics but also, as here, through clashes in rhetorical styles. Conflict can sometimes be uncomfortable for the participants, but how problems arise can also provide a valuable learning experience, provided the participants talk out the difficulties and approach the conversations with an open mind and tolerance for both differences of opinion and differences in communication styles.
This interaction highlights the process of language socialization that can take place in online environments. The experience of the French learners provides an example of "legitimate peripheral participation" (Scollon, at al., 2012), namely how newcomers participate in online communities is initially peripheral i.e. more in an observer role, but legitimate, i.e. acceptable. If they remain in the community, they become socialized into the ins and outs of the community norms and processes. On the other hand, it's possible that novices will resist socialization, in particular if that conflicts with existing norms or beliefs. One way to resist or negotiate one's identity in a community is through language. Language learners tend to do this with language play (Cook, 2000). The sidebar provides an example, in which the teacher was trying to have students provide examples of collocations using the Chinese equivalent of to long for, to look forward to, 期待 (qīdài).
Longing for Jennifer to moon-bathe with him
Context: a Mandarin class of 13-year-olds in Newcastle. T: female teacher in her forties. B: a boy.
T: 贿绚贿更题诚疗溜溜 贿绚题廖绚廖廖 贿溜廖题题更奉 贿溜题更奉娇
What can you say with qidai (longing for)? Longing for a united motherland; longing for family reunion; longing for peace and friendship.
B: xxx (name of another boy in the class) 题溜更溜贿题绚题题题
xxx is longing for Jennifer to moon-bathe with him.
Translation is something rarely used as a teaching tool, at least in instructed language learning in the United States, despite the insights it provides into deeper understanding of the target language and culture. Comparing results from Google Translate with other machine translators (or doing reverse look-ups based on the given translations) can provide surprising and informative results. Reading or translating samples from the great variety of user forums on the Web provides both interesting cultural insights as well as valuable linguistic learning. Sources might include YouTube comments, Amazon reviews, blog commentaries, or newspaper forums. A reader’s post to an article in the French daily Le Parisien provides an interesting example. It’s a comment about a news story concerning a four-year-old named Jihad (born on September 11th) who is sent to preschool wearing a shirt reading Je suis une bombe (literally meaning “I am a bomb” but colloquially in French, “I am fantastic”). The story itself is rich in cultural contexts: Muslims in France, French restrictions on traditional Muslim dress in public spheres, the French tradition of secularism (laïcité), freedom of speech as a universal value, the role of dress in cultural identity, among others. The letter offers even richer content:
Je m’appelle Jihad, j’ai fait des études et je n’ai aucun problème dans ma vie. Jihad n’est pas un prénom né le 11 septembre, vous êtes au courant? Il est donné depuis des millénaires. Le mot jihad à la base veut dire lutte contre ses péchés. (Le Parisien, Dec. 1, 2012)
[My name is Jihad, I’m a university graduate and have never had any problems [with my name]. Jihad is not a name created by September 11th, did you know that? It’s been used for millennia. The word jihad means to fight to overcome one’s inadequacies. ]
The use of such forums designed for native speakers can be challenging for language learners, but they can be, as here, rich in colloquial language and in cultural content.
One of the sources for miscommunication online is the fact that communication and emails, blog post, or other written messaging formats exclude the expressive elements that come from gestures, body language, or tone of voice. Despite preparatory work, telecollaboration projects can result in misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and even reinforcement of negative stereotypes. The problems may arise from insufficient language skills, lack of knowledge of the other culture, or individual insensitivity. It’s also the case that online speech lacks the paralanguage and nonverbal clues that can be vital to understanding speakers’ real intent. There are conventions in online writing to compensate— punctuation (!), emoticons (sad face), netspeak (lol) or typing in all caps (I'M SHOUTING)—but they pale in comparison to the variety and power of human nonverbal communication.
One of the realities of online communication today is that many people may be communicating in a second language, not their mother tongue. In theory, computer-mediated communication (CMC) offers a "level playing field," in which everyone is seen and treated equally. It offers, for example, the opportunity for shy individuals to have their voices heard in a way that is unlikely in face-to-face conversation. Turn-taking is predictable and therefore less stressful, at least in written exchanges. In practice, CMC is not as neutral as it may seem. Pasfield-Neofitou points out (2013) that online exchange is affected by a number of factors, including language ability, social relationships, and computer dexterity/typing ability. If the software program or computer interface is unfamiliar or difficult to learn, that may put the novice user at a distinct disadvantage compared to more experienced users, something which can have a significant impact on communicative effectiveness.
Non-native speakers may prefer CMC over face-to-face encounters in that it provides an environment which allows for reflection and a slower pace of exchange. In spoken discourse, issues of accent such as pronunciation and intonation sometimes are problematic. Informal and grammatically incorrect language is generally more acceptable in online communication. On the other hand, non-native speakers may face communication issues in CMC related to cultural and pragmatic issues. They may not use, for example, the appropriate forms of address or language register. A study by Stroińska & Cecchetto (2013) provides an example of university students in Canada who are non-native English speakers. They often used unacceptable language in email exchanges with professors, not abiding by the expectations of politeness in written communication, namely use of polite forms of address, standard English, and respectful forms of request. Often, the foreign students used no formal greeting in their emails and made requests that were too direct. The authors of the study point out that learning appropriate language behavior for written communication can be important later in professional settings.