A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Electronic Discussion and Foreign Language Learning (1)

By Hanna, Barbara E.; de Nooy, Juliana | Language, Learning & Technology, January 2003 | Go to article overview

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Electronic Discussion and Foreign Language Learning (1)


Hanna, Barbara E., de Nooy, Juliana, Language, Learning & Technology


ABSTRACT

Amongst the opportunities for cross-cultural contact created by the burgeoning use of the Internet are those provided by electronic discussion lists. This study looks at what happens when language students venture out of the classroom (virtual or otherwise) to participate in on-line discussion groups with native speakers. Responses to messages and commentary by moderators and other participants on the (in)appropriateness of contributions allow us to determine what constitutes successful participation and to make suggestions regarding effective teaching strategies for this medium.

A case study examines the threads started by four anglophone students of French when they post messages to a forum on the Web site of the French newspaper Le Monde. Investigation of these examples points to the ways in which electronic discussion inflects and is inflected by cultural and generic expectations. We suggest that successful participation on Internet fora depends on awareness of such cultural and generic mores and an ability to work within and/or with them. Teachers therefore need to find ways in which students can be sensitized to such issues so that their participation in such electronic discussion is no longer seen as linguistic training, but as engagement with a cultural practice.

A TALE (with apologies to Beatrix Potter)

Once upon a time there were four letter-writers and their names were Fleurie, Laura, Eleanor, and David. They hopped onto the Net from Britain and the USA and clicked their way across Le Monde (or more precisely, its on-line discussion pages). Fleurie and Eleanor, who were good little students, looked for pen-pals in order to improve their French, whereas Laura and David were much more concerned by vigorous debates about racism and cultural imperialism. In fact, David didn't even manage to write in French. Yet it was Laura and David who were warmly welcomed to stay and contribute, while Fleurie and Eleanor left, apparently discouraged.

As teachers of French, concerned to encourage use of that language by our students, this looks at first glance to be the kind of tale we would not want them to be reading. Our recalcitrant hero is not reprimanded--hardly an edifying moral conclusion--and dutifulness goes unrewarded. Why does the story end this way and what can be learnt from it?

In this article, we situate our case study in the wider context of task design of on-line activities. We then analyze the strategies and practices of the four message writers in order to derive lessons about the use of electronic discussion in language learning, lessons that underscore the crucial role of genre in intercultural communication.

THE BORDERLESS WORLD?

Language learning provides fertile ground for the co-existence of two contradictory views of Internet use. On the one hand, there is the idea of the borderless world where the Internet flattens out cultural difference. On the other hand, we continue to assert the existence of virtual boundaries: While the physical borders may be irrelevant, the Internet is the superhighway into the heart of another culture, giving instant access to difference. When we send off our students via modem to practice their French in an electronic discussion forum, the contradiction gets played out as follows: We have deceptively easy access to our linguistic and cultural other, but this other is assumed to be doing the same thing as we are (discussion) only in French. The ways in which electronic discussion may be inflected by cultural and generic expectations risk being ignored.

We have reason to be suspicious of the assumption of the flattening out of cultural difference. Although Internet fora notionally transcend national and cultural boundaries, as soon as communication occurs, cultural practices are necessarily activated. Thus, while participants in a given discussion list view it as a forum for debate, their notions of what constitutes acceptable forms of debate may differ according to cultural affiliations. …

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