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Rationale for chat in language learning

Vance is frustrated trying to prepare for an online conference, September 4, 2002

The problem with giving presentations from educational institutions is that most have firewalls of some kind, and in the UAE these are usually configured to block chatting. There is an impression here that chatting is bad, and that students waste time doing it, and will do nothing but that if allowed unhindered access to the Internet. I'm hoping that by giving presentations such as the one Sunday (at a college where chatting is blocked) to help dispell that notion and to create more positive impressions for use of chat with students.

Yaodong reflects on what Vance wrote, September 4, 2002

After reading what you wrote about 'chat online', I can't help complaining about my colleagues with the same notion about online chatting. So, not only do some Chinese teachers of English look down upon chatting online but some people around you (or elsewheer in the world) share the same wrong idea.

Here are comments from my friend in the USA:

Can we add more to the above? Any webheads would join in the discussion about online chat especially for ESL/EFL students?

Looking forward to more replies.

Yaodong ( a lazy webhead)

Vance responds, September 6, 2002

I think it would be an excellent project for our community of practice to contribute toward developing a rationale for using chat, or synchronous communication, or synchronous CMC in language learning (computer-mediated communication - and synchronous means 'at the same time' as opposed to 'asynchronous' meaning, 'not at the same time' - so email is 'asynchronous' and what we do each Sunday noon GMT is 'synchronous'). This rationale could help us make cases with our institutions to allow chat, and could even help us in our publications. I'll start a Webheads writing topic and put your comments here.

I've often made the following points:

Language is communication. The purpose of learning a language is (for most people) to use it to communicate. And why communicate? Most immediately, you have something you want to say or you meet someone you want to understand. The language you want and need to learn the most is that part of the language that helps you to meet your immediate needs.

Before CMC many people had no opportunity for learning languages except in isolation from native speakers or other speakers of the language. When I was learning French for example, there were no opportunities at all to communicate with anyone besides the teacher in that language. The language was learned through reading and listening to tapes, and doing exercises in workbooks. The readings were sometimes interesting, but the exercises and tapes were almost always contrived language designed to teach the form of the language, but not how to communicate in it. For example, when I finally went to France, I was surprised that people I most wanted to meet and communicate with used the familiar 'tu' forms of verbs rather than the 'vous' we had been using 90% of the time in French class. As a result of the inauthenticity of what I did in French classes, there was little motivation to practice the language while learning, and this practice was largely ineffective, as it didn't prepare us for real encounters with French speakers.

CMC in my opinion has turned this situation around completely. Now if I want to learn another language I can find speakers of that language online, meet them, get to know them, and really communicate with them. This is motivating because we are all human and have an intrinsic interest in one another and, as Yaodong mentions, in each other's cultures. Earl Stevick, who wrote many books on teaching languages, has pointed out that language is often learned best while the focus of the activity is on something else entirely. Since then, there have been movements toward 'communicative' and 'constructivist' learning, which says to language teachers that activities meant for language learning should be those involving not only real communication, but communication that is truly meaningful to the students, and that is generated by them 'bottom up' and not directed from 'top down' as were the exercises I had to do in my French books.

This is not to say that there is no place for exercises. It is good to put order in what we learn and to reflect on the process. But in language learning there is a need for real communication, and the limiting constraint for many students is in finding real partners for one-to-one communication, people who really know the language and who can act as true 'informants' in the 'natural approach' paradigm. Therefore, a synchronous online component can help to fill this need, either as a stand-alone device in one's personal strategy for continuing education, or as an open-ended component within a more regulated course of study.

I have often used the words 'motivating', 'authentic', and 'communicative' to describe the benefits of CMC in language learning. These are elements that can easily go missing from more traditional classroom-based courses of language study. It is clear from the lengths that institutes have to go to in order to prevent it that students want to 'chat' and find this means of communication with others compelling and highly motivating for its own sake, not only because they like to meet and get to know others, but because they like to increase their skills using computers and technology. Rather than block this energy, why not harness it and direct it toward positive outcomes that favor language learning?

To do otherwise is to throw the baby out with the bathwater (get rid of something valuable by rejecting what you don't want or need). Cutting off chat is like cutting off your water supply because some are using it in squirt guns. I often make the point here that telephones can be abused (ever heard a mobile/handy go off in a movie theater or presentation or concert?). People can use them if they like to arrange secret meetings or engage in dubious behaviors, yet no one ever considers cutting off all the telephones in a language institute (though they do ask that mobiles be put silent). The reason for that is that people are used to telephones and realize their great benefit. They haven't quite got there with 'chat' but they will one day .. soon.

That is another reason to start opening up chat lines: to allow teachers to experiment with it. There is a lot of professional development associated with the medium, so institutes are in effect tying their hands behind their backs when they prevent their teachers from experimenting with CMC, whether with each other or with their students. Trained professionals, people with experience to whom chat is second nature, are going to be needed in order to most effectively put the medium to pedagogical purpose when CMC does become widely accepted. This is of course where Webheads will have a head start on others involved in language learning. What better way to learn about CMC than to join a community of practice whose members want to learn by putting into practice for their own edification methods and techniques that they might then apply in their professional contexts?

There are teachers on this list (Arif in Turkey, Shun in Tokyo, and Rachael in Taiwan for example) who already have made CMC a part of their curriculum. I hope to hear more from those among us who already have practical experience in this area to help us develop our rationale for use of CMC in language learning.


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Last updated: September 6, 2002 in Hot Metal Pro 6.0