Academic journal article Quarterly Review of Distance Education

Second Life as a Third Place for English Language Learners' Cross-Cultural Interaction

Academic journal article Quarterly Review of Distance Education

Second Life as a Third Place for English Language Learners' Cross-Cultural Interaction

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Effective language learning requires cultural awareness to understand social norms and expectations (Saricoban & Caliskan, 2011). This awareness focuses on beliefs, customs, world-views, shared perspectives, race, religion, and gender relationships to contextualize culture with language and promote student interest (Bahumaid, 2006; Moran, 2001; Seelye, 1988). When physical and geographical barriers separate learners from target language cultures, promoting cultural awareness is difficult. Some language learners have turned to virtual environments to overcome geographical limitations (Fageeh, 2011; Mekheimer & Aldosari, 2011). Virtual environments allow language learners to participate in field trips, communication exchanges, and training sessions as they interact with culturally relevant artifacts and people (Aldosemani & Shepherd, 2014; Diehl & Prins, 2008).

Although virtual environments provide valuable cross-cultural experiences, they can be difficult to replicate. The enormity of virtual worlds, time zone differences, and language barriers complicate access to members of the target culture (Aldosemani & Shepherd, 2014). Even when members are located, they may be uninterested in cultural discussions (McMinn, 2009; Warburton, 2009). This study explores how English language learners (ELLs) perceived cross-cultural interaction within planned, virtual exchange sessions. Specific research questions include:

* What are ELLs' perceptions of cross-cultural communication when completing planned cultural exchange activities in virtual environments?

* What are ELLs' perceptions of Second Life to host cross-cultural exchange experiences?

CULTURAL LEARNING AND VIRTUAL ENVIRONMENTS

Culture may be understood as "a shared set of practices associated with a shared set of products based upon a shared set of perspectives on the world, and set within specific social contexts" (Moran, 2001, p. 24). Language constitutes the oral and written expression of culture. As individuals gain cultural awareness, they identify appropriate speech and behavior patterns within culturally relevant situations like sport, dining, and leisure events (Saricoban & Caliskan, 2011; Seelye, 1988).

Direct interaction with members of the target culture fosters cultural awareness (Fageeh, 2011; Mekheimer & Aldosari, 2011). Because large geographical distances may impede direct, face-to-face interaction, learners often rely on distance education tools for access and communication purposes. Yet, traditional distance tools are limited for cultural immersion. Communication exchanges focus on written or audio formats that prevent interaction with relevant objects (Mekheimer & Aldosari, 2011). Visually rich content associated with cultural events must be translated and interpreted through language representations. While the necessity to describe artifacts may increase language use, it may also increase apprehension and miscommunication (Fageeh, 2011).

To overcome these limitations, learners are turning to three-dimensional virtual environments like Second Life (Fageeh, 2011; Gillen, 2009; O'Brien & Levy, 2008). In addition to text and voice communication, virtual environments provide rich, immersive, visual experiences. They foster communication, reduce symbol systems required to discuss cultural objects, and enhance language learning (Diehl & Prins, 2008; Mikropoulos & Natsis, 2011; Peterson, 2006).

Avatar Representation

Avatars may also promote communication in virtual environments. They provide proxemics between objects and audiences, foster non-verbal cues (e.g., gaze, posture, gestures), and allow for immersive exploration (Mikropoulos & Natsis, 2011; Omale, Hung, Luetkehans, & Cooke-Plagwitz, 2009).

Avatars often resemble their users, though users may modify features to embellish or minimize age, attractiveness, and fashion (Bailenson, Beall, Loomis, Blascovich, & Turk, 2004; Diehl & Prins, 2008). …

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