New media lower barriers

September 26, 1997

Language: TEFL techniques, the Internet, class and jokes have parts to play in learning and development

INCREASED use of the Internet and video-conferencing is changing English and may alter people's attitudes towards learning a foreign language.

Research at Cambridge University's language centre is focused on how human communication through electronic or virtual media is changing the way people communicate. It appears to help the language learning process By breaking down the social barriers that can hamper communication.

The three-year European-funded Leverage project involves studies on Cambridge undergraduates reading subjects other than languages. The students, many of whom are engineering undergraduates, "talk" to counterparts in other European universities who are also part of the study.

The researchers want to find out if these students, who are not primarily concerned with learning another language, become more receptive to other languages as a result of their international electronic interactions.

They are also investigating the way in which the students use language when communicating via computers.

Edith Esch, director of the language centre, said: "Communication in Europe and around the world is a massive problem. But there is no doubt that as technology costs fall there will be a lot more language teaching and training based on collaborative learning in the virtual world.

"What is interesting is that communicating in a virtual medium reduces the barriers that one erects against a foreign language when speaking face to face. There is less sense of things such as power structures within groups that can leave people lower down the ladder feeling inhibited.

"It is also interesting to see the new forms of discourse produced in electronic communication. It seems to point to the emergence of a different form of English for this medium."

Dr Esch said that examples would include Internet etiquette that does not require the "Dear Sir" and "yours faithfully" construction to show politeness.

She believes the difference is explained because electronic communication is effectively a hybrid lying somewhere between existing conversation and written communication.

Dr Esch hopes that the research will lead to the design of language learning and teaching systems. These could help people maximise their opportunity to learn languages using the new technologies. They would be able to pick up at least the rudiments of other languages while carrying out their day-to-day business electronically.

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