Language Learning and Social Communication Using Chat Rooms

Muhammet Demirbilek & Berna Mutlu. Adolescent Online Social Communication and Behavior: Relationship Formation on the Internet. Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference, 2010.

Introduction

Uses of the Internet and the web for second language acquisition and second language instruction have been gaining ground since the early 1990s. A plethora of technologies such as different forms of chat, distant learning opportunities, and various software packages have since been adopted for the purpose of language learning (Hamatr, 2008).

Today, the Internet is an important part of adolescents’ leisure lives and therefore increasingly a vital part of their culture. Pacheco (2005) states that the Internet offers diverse sources of information for students to explore. Synchronous computer-mediated communication is one of these effective resources that take place in real-time networking communication. In other words, messages are received and sent instantly, as if individuals were having a telephone conversation. This interaction occurs on-line, and can be either written down in text form or can occur through audio and video. Such communication is also called chatting, and can happen in a one-to-one basis or many-to many, as in the Internet-based chat rooms. (Warschauer, Shetzer, & Meloni, 2002). Given the wide application of chat rooms in online communication, there is an imminent need to understand their social and educational roles as well as the implications for language development and higher order thinking skills. The current chapter therefore focuses on the use of chat rooms in language education by examining various technological functionalities of chat rooms associated with ESL/EFL language learning.

Types of Chat Rooms For ESL/EFL Language Development

The most popular form of ICT among adolescents is chat rooms. Chat is “two-way form of computer-mediated communication (CMC), a dialogue in real time as we keyboard or speak our words, an online conversation between two or more people” (Almeida d’Eça, 2002). Following are the most widely used chat room formats that teachers of English language learners can use for designing collaborative online activities that are based on chat room technologies.

Voice Chats

Payne and Ross (2005) conducted an experiment using voice chat with the participants consisted of 24 volunteers, 2 males and 22 females ranging in age from 18-26. Based on the findings of the study, the researchers concluded that the chat may provide a unique form of support to certain types of learners in L2 oral proficiency. Jepson (2005) states that voice chats are superior for the purpose of meaning negotiation than text chats, giving an edge for the use of voice chats in certain situations. From a constructivist point of view, the study suggests that voice chats are just as effective for language development as text-based chat environments since voice chats provide opportunities where learners are more likely to negotiate for meaning with increased language production (Jepson, 2005). Voice chats in this study initiated higher instances of negotiation of meaning in comparison to those in text chat. The negotiations involved pronunciation repair moves where the goal of the speakers was to attend to pronunciation breakdowns.

White Board

Another form of synchronous communication is the web whiteboard, which allows users to communicate and share ideas in graphical forms over the web in real time. Hampel and Hauck (2004) describe the use of such a tool which forms a part of a system called Lyceum that was used at the United Kingdom (UK) Open University and carried out online with a cohort of 15 volunteers. The authors called the system an ‘audio-graphic’ conferencing tool as it allows users to conduct voice chats while working on the web whiteboard. They also reported that the use of the system helps learning in the sense that, “Student feedback suggests that participating in intense interactions with fellow learners as well as collaborative tasks is the most exciting aspect of learning and practicing a language in a virtual learning environment (VLE) like Lyceum.”(p.76)

Multi-User Dungeon

Warner (2004) presents an interesting although rare form of synchronous communication, the multi-user dungeon (MUD), with all the participants between the ages of 18 and 25 having a language course. The MUD is an open chat room with multiple users interacting at the same time. It has a beginning as a way to conduct fantasy role playing games. Naturally, it involves interactions between characters (users) in a textual or graphical world. In a way, MUDs are precursor to current Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) like Ragnarok and World of Warcraft. Warner (2004) reports that the use of MUD has shown that the communication is mainly ‘playful’ (non-academic), not only “simply with the language” but also “within the language”; in fact, this is significant because such non-academic and informal form of communication has been neglected by past research in second language acquisition.

Promoting Academic Development for ESL Learners Through Chat Room Technologies

The use of information and communication technologies (ICT) in language learning has increasingly gained momentum during the last decade. Chat rooms known as one of the most used ICT tools among adolescents may hold great promise for second language learning. Computer technology has become an indispensable component in second and foreign language classrooms. Warschauer, Shetzer and Meloni (2002) have explained that computer technology helps ESL/EFL classrooms come ALIVE (Authenticity, Literacy, Interaction, Vitality, Empowerment):

  1. Authenticity with vast amounts of real life materials used by the learner;
  2. Literacy skills that students master in order to excel academically and linguistically such as reading, writing, communicating, researching and publishing for academic and occupational goals;
  3. Interaction with meaningful communication opportunities among native and non-native speakers worldwide;
  4. Vitality where ESL/EFL learners are boosted in their motivational needs to communicate with freedom, flexibility, and real time without engaging in memorization of grammar rules;
  5. Empowerment where learners become autonomous collaborative learners, and teachers, coaches that teach how to learn/how to construct new knowledge.

The new approach to computer-assisted language learning (CALL), Integrative CALL, can only reach its goal of providing authentic means of communication if learners are exposed to this technology responsibly through assigning tasks for critical thinking and purposeful communication. Learners will not achieve levels of communicative competence by just having them use a computer. As any language class, the use of networking processes for learning a second or foreign language should be well-planned taking into consideration many different variables: students’ interests, student’s individual styles and strategies of learning, students’ needs, lacks, and wants as well as the goals of the lesson, the content, and the resources. Likewise, both the roles of the students and teachers will change with students becoming autonomous learners who are “learning how to learn” and teachers assuming the role of coaches who are “teaching how to learn”.

Berge (2000) has highlighted the changing roles of teachers that emerge in online learning: teachers’ role changing from lecturer and instructor to consultant, guide, coach and resource provider; teachers that become expert questioners, rather than providers of answers; teachers that provide structure to student work, encouraging self-direction; a shift from teachers’ total control of the teaching environment to sharing with the student as fellow learner. In short, according to Berge, teacher-learner hierarchy is broken down. Students have opportunities of negotiating, persuading, clarifying meaning, requesting for information, exchanging ideas, discussing, asking questions, and so forth.

Berge (2000) also described the changing roles of learners: a switch from students acting as passive receptacles to those who are constructing their own knowledge; a type of students who put hands into complex problem solving activities rather than just memorizing facts; an increased role of collaborative/cooperative group members and teamwork in online classrooms; a shifting role towards autonomous, independent, self-motivated managers of their time; a role that makes emphasis on knowledge use rather than only the observation of the teacher’s expert performance. However, a well-designed course that involves tasks based on online communication can also help learners become good listeners and responders by incorporating in the assignments evaluation rubrics that classmates complete to promote peer evaluation, or providing handouts where students can take notes that will be included in tests or by requiring peers to synthesize the information heard (Egbert, 2005). Egbert has added that “these techniques, are related, in part, to the condition of autonomy, in that the more autonomous students become in their learning, the more they need to interact, consult, or negotiate with their team members and class” (p. 55), and all these opportunities for collaboration and interaction also promote language development as well as academic development. Egbert (2005) has explained that “creativity implies doing something original, adapting or changing “Working with others often facilitates creativity” (p. 74). Evidently, there are many advantages of the Internet from which language learning and teaching can benefit.

Sharing information can also help students become good listeners and responders with the help of assignments that involve evaluation rubrics for classmates to complete. In this way, students critically evaluate their peer’s work. Teachers can trigger students’ critical thinking skills by providing handouts where students can critique and plan their learning with their peers by synthesizing new knowledge collaboratively (Egbert, 2005). Egbert also asserts that “these techniques, are related, in part, to the condition of autonomy, in that the more choices (autonomy) the students have, the more they need to interact, consult, or negotiate with their team members and class”(p.55). In this way, students can learn language and practice their communication skills without the teacher’s presence, which can decrease dependability on direct instruction and direction.

In addition, authenticity through Web-Based Learning (WBL) is also accomplished through creativity and production. With the net students are able to create and produce. Such tasks lead to an increase in students’ use of higher order thinking skills. Furthermore, ESL students can be prompted to acquire and use language that is necessary for participating in creative tasks. Egbert (2005) has explained that “creativity implies doing something original, adapting or changing working with others often facilitates creativity” (p. 74). He links it with production by stating that “productivity tools maximize and extend students’ ability to create products and to problem-solve collectively; they also expand opportunities for expression which is an important principle for language learning” (p.74). He further explains that both productivity and creativity tools support second language learners when they are able to construct models, plan, publish, organize and generate materials, collect data and develop and present creative works. Ways of achieving creativity in a web-based course could be having students create a poster, birthday cards or invitations, advertisements, class or school newsletters, class announcements, cartoons, classroom diary of poems and stories, and more sophisticated assignments such as interactive webpages. Egbert has suggested many other types of tasks to enhance creativity and productivity such as mazes, catalogs, digital montages of student’s country or other countries with digital cameras or video cameras of life or any other authentic task. To make it authentic materials taken from real world as they are without any adaptations for language level, students are directed to web-links and web-searches to enrich the information they bring to class.

Finally, the Internet helps students interact with other cultures, and it helps instructors provide access to authentic communication for English as Second Language (ESL) students in order to promote effective second language development. Students can also develop autonomy by taking the responsibility of one’s own learning and a prerequisite for optimum development. Furthermore, independence and flexibility create low affective filter in a low anxiety environment necessary for learning with high motivation and confidence the Internet provides (Krashen, 1985). Furthermore, web-based language interaction provides exposure to authentic language for ESL/EFL (English as a Second Language/English as a Foreign Language) learners. For instance, when web-based activities are structured through cooperative learning strategies where each individual has a role to fulfill, students use language in order to accomplish a task, which also activates their problem solving skills. To help students reach higher levels of learning as well as achieving increased language use and interaction, teachers can assign tasks where they share the information through the web and collaboratively create an end-product.

Promoting Second/Foreign Language Development Through Chat Room Technologies

Lu, Chiou, Day, Ong, and Hsu (2006) treat chat as a means of synchronous, real-time interaction that can be used in an online language classroom to extend the learning process well beyond the traditional four walls, and thereby make the learning process more fascinating, exciting and enriching. The researchers list the following characteristics of online chat:

  • Promotes learner autonomy by enabling the learner to be in charge of his own learning;
  • Encourages collaborative learning and team work and helps develop group skills;
  • Promotes communication skills by allowing learners carry on a conversation, interviewing, and negotiating meaning;
  • Promotes social and socialization skills and proper etiquette such as greeting others, introducing oneself, leave talking, stating and reinforcing one’s own ideas, interacting politely and appropriately, showing respect and being responsible, making choices, helping, coaching, etc.;
  • Facilitates interaction and learning with and from people of different cultures who speak different native languages;
  • Exposes students to speaking a language as it is used by native speakers and allows them to interact in an authentic context with those speakers;
  • Promotes different types of interaction: student to student, student to teacher, student to expert, and student to online resource;
  • Offers an appropriate way of fostering inter-peer communication in a real and meaningful environment;
  • Balances and increases participation among students with less involvement by teachers;
  • Reduces anxiety among students by lowering their affective filter that may prevent language production in high anxiety settings (Krashen, 1985);
  • Provides useful transcripts for studying the language used or for further analysis of a conversation”

Chat not only uses a communication medium that generally appeals to students but also takes place in an innovative and exciting setting, namely, cyberspace or virtual reality. Consequently, it puts a strong emphasis on communication and authentic language just like face-to-face communication and generates intensive practice in language skills. As students are left on their own to a large extent, they have to continue the flow of conversation on their own. This gives them a greater sense of responsibility and a large degree of autonomy. Students have to support each other and involve themselves more intensely in the collective and collaborative construction of knowledge. Finally, the exchanges are about the ‘real’ world, with ‘real’ people, in ‘real’ time, and online chat can facilitate opportunities and motivation for authentic interactive conversations in a virtual environment.

Mynard (2002a and 2002b) not only indicates the advantages of chat rooms for language development, but also introduces some techniques such as interviewing a guest from another country, gathering information and comparing with a friend, interviewing a couple about a recent event, interviewing a couple about their future plans, and sample lesson plans. Having elaborated the possible applications, she lists the following benefits. Chat rooms allow learners to interact in an authentic context with native speakers (Skinner & Austin, 1999; Carey, 1999) without being restricted by location (Wilson & Whitelock, 1998), they allow communication to take place in real time, they promote active involvement (Bump, 1990; Sullivan & Pratt, 1996; Warshauer et al, 1996b; Carey, 1999). Online chatting can promote learner autonomy due mainly to the fact that the teacher role is minimized (Bump, 1990; Chun, 1994; Sullivan & Pratt, 1996; Warshauer et al, 1996). Transcripts can be generated which are useful for students to study their own language production as well as analyzing how the conversation flows (Carey, 1999), and they can also spot their own weaknesses, which would help them monitor their own language learning and improve their interactive competence (Chun, 1994). Students also have the opportunity to notice language used by native speakers (Schmidt & Frota, 1986; Schmidt, 1990, Brett, 1998), so that students are given the opportunity for skills development and practice (Sullivan & Pratt, 1996, Pica & Doughty, 1986, Brett, 1998; Chun, 1994).

Chat rooms can also increase autonomy in language learning by helping ESL learners acquire skills to monitor and guide their own language learning process. Learner autonomy refers to a learner’s capacity for critical self-evaluation and self-determination, an ability to take control over and responsibility for his/her learning (Schwienhorst, 2003). There are three major approaches concerning this issue. The first approach might be called the individual-cognitive perspective. This model has often been related to language and linguistic awareness. The second perspective on learner autonomy may be called social-interactive. A social-interactive component has long been an essential element in second language acquisition, and the importance of both comprehensible input (Krashen, 1985) and comprehensible output (Swain, 1985). Finally, learner autonomy can be viewed from an experimental-participatory perspective. All three approaches share a concern for reflection. Through reflective processes, the learner should become more aware of language, language learning and her own relationship to the learning process and identity in the target language. We can also see that social-interaction, first in providing comprehensible input; second in the production of comprehensible output, particularly in the form of “pushed output” (Swain, 1985), and third in the form of feedback and scaffolding plays a significant role in language learning. If we want learners to assume responsibility for their learning process, then they must be given control over it, supported by a rich learning environment, peers, and teachers. In this respect synchronous text-based communication (chat rooms) can be used effectively for language learning.

Another aspect of chat rooms is social interaction, which is essential to language learning, according to the arguments presented by studies based in the communicative approach to language teaching (Hall & Verplaetse, 2000; Long, 1983, 1996; Pica, 1994). Negotiation of meaning is a linguistic process that speakers use to better understand one another, that is, to increase the comprehensibility of language input. Furthermore, negotiation of meaning may result in modified interaction (Ellis, Tanaka, & Yamazaki, 1994; Pica, 1994; Smith, 2004), which ostensibly optimizes second language acquisition. Sotillo (2000) found that participants in synchronous text chat sessions used interactional modifications similar to those used in face-to-face sessions. A number of studies have noted that adolescents pay more attention to their lexical development than their grammatical development while negotiating for meaning in both networked and face-to-face environments (Blake, 2000).

Although grammar has outweighed the vocabulary in school curriculums, the latter has an important role in learning a language. The importance of vocabulary instruction has been disregarded because of the traditional understanding of vocabulary instruction where the students are passively exposed to the teacher’s explanation for meaning, definition, pronunciation and spelling. In addition, they acquire new lexemes (words) solely by means of their textbooks during classroom lessons. For instance, they come across new vocabulary items in the text and they just ask their teacher to explain and clarify the word. Most of them are hesitant at using the vocabulary items they learnt. They may recognize the words in context, but that does not mean that they are able to use the new words in a new context. As Taylor (1990) points out, receptive and productive skills are both within the domain of vocabulary learning. In order for students to remember and retain vocabulary items, students have to be directed meaningful, task based activities. The Communicative Language Teaching Method posits that “Language that is meaningful to the learner supports learning process” (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p. 72). Chat rooms can provide opportunities for using new vocabulary items for real communication purposes by creating a need for using new words during the flow of the conversation. In this way, vocabulary knowledge of students can be enhanced through communicative language learning tasks where the goal is using language for interaction and communication.

Task based activities that teachers can assign learners in chat rooms allow learners to use the target language for a communicative purpose in order to achieve an outcome (Willis, 1996). In order to make students’ vocabulary learning more challenging and intrinsically motivating, task based activities are necessary. Because “it is the challenge of achieving the outcome that makes task based learning a motivating procedure” (Willis, 1996, p. 24). Thus, chat rooms facilitate the goal for enhancing students’ language learning.

Suggestions for Effective Instructional Use of Chat Rooms

Blogs, chatrooms, text messaging and other forms of information and communication technologies have become an inevitable part of adolescents’ daily life. Online communication technologies allow meaningful communication and social interaction, so they have great potential for second language development and academic development. When using synchronous computer mediated communication, teachers may need to take into account the structure of tasks, group sizes, moderating techniques, and other variables that increase the probability that the resultant discussions will entail educational value. Merely instructing students to discuss a topic is likely to result in short superficial conversations with little educational value. Good tasks supported by meaningful graphical environments and avatars can be highly effective. Similarly, groups of the right size that follow some simple discussion rules can produce good results.

Pacheco (2005) claims that, Internet based learning environments that are supported with collaborative online communication tasks can improve students’ metacognitive strategies by allowing opportunities for trial and error, reflection, and personal involvement. This type of instruction also gives learner higher order thinking skills for discovery by questioning, reflecting, and researching necessary for inquiry and problem-solving. Learners can acquire problem-solving experiences where they make accurate observations, or find and organize information as well as predict, synthesize, and use other higher order thinking skills to find solution. Accomplishing these levels of learning help learners remember and understand better, as we learn from this famous Chinese proverb: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand”. Thus, a chat augmented course can serve as the channel to promote language and content learning which activates critical-thinking skills by way of inquiry and problem-solving activities. By working on collaborative assignments, students negotiate over issues regarding distinguishing fact from opinion, assessing a reliable web-source, distinguishing relevant from irrelevant information. Egbert includes guidelines for designing activities that can increase the quality of collaborative activities based on chat-oriented communication and help students reach levels of knowledge (Egbert, 2005):

  • Learners should be able to formulate a question (inquiry question) that has meaning, define the problem and investigate what needs to be investigated to answer it.
  • They should also investigate by researching; that is, students should be able to organize the information gathered.
  • Students should be engaged in the creation of new ideas or plans of action by applying strategies such as summarizing and interpreting.
  • Participants should have sessions of discussion to get insights on the entire process and share and compare prior knowledge to new knowledge.
  • Students should reach levels of reflection on the entire inquiry process, and think over the decisions and conclusions taken and determine if the results of the inquiry/problem-solving were the ones expected or if further research has to be done.”

These guidelines are also necessary to promote successful academic learning that supports language learning. Authentic communication based on collective problem solving is paramount in designing instructions with chat room technologies. Vygotskyan Sociocultural Theory asserts that human cognition and knowledge constructed through social activity within the society (Vygotsky, 1978). Incorporating collaborative inquiry and problem solving activities that take place through synchronous online communication can help learners of all levels in their language development by allowing language learners to bridge the gap between content learning and language learning, and this is what makes the learning of a language academically more meaningful.

Conclusion

Online chat rooms are the Internet applications that are exciting and interesting for many teenagers, and they have a great potential for English language learning and social communication. In using this Internet application, adolescents have an opportunity to communicate with people from other countries in genuine contexts and to practice their English language skills at their own convenience, rather than communicating with peers or their teacher in simulated settings. These interactive synchronous environments can be a rewarding experience for adolescents who want to learn any language and interact with different cultures. Adolescents can meet other learners and peers online and can communicate with them through text or speech.

Students interact with their peers in meaningful communication to fulfill a task such as a project, group work, discuss a topic, solving a problem, etc. If these conversations are cleverly planned and directed, they are more likely to help students improve their language skills in the ways that may be unique to chats. Thus, without any need for external motivation exerted by the teacher and assignments, students communicate in the second language with the necessary motivation to use the language in social context. Such an environment provides students almost optimum conditions for language learning as they analyze and reconstruct when they make mistakes, which leads to purposeful and meaningful communication about real life topics and over real life problems.