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Learning a New Language 140 characters at a time

Learning a New Language 140 characters at a time

The growing influence of globalization has brought with it the need to communicate with others around the world. Technological advances have broken down the barriers posed by borders and distance, allowing people around the world to connect. In such an environment, it is even more important than ever to break down the linguistic barriers that can prevent different societies from connecting.

For years, scholars have known that learning a new language has entailed studying the intricacies of different cultures. In fact, recent scholarship about second language acquisition suggests that the most effective way for learning a different language is to drop focus on grammar and vocabulary and instead impress the importance of communication. Rather than simply learn how to conjugate verbs, students are given specific tasks and the linguistic and cultural knowledge they need to accomplish those tasks. This type of learning is both more effective and more practical. Instead of simply memorizing charts of text, students acquire the ability to negotiate across language and borders (see a bad example of language teaching here that also implies some of the cultural implications).

Anyone who has studied a foreign language in a classroom setting, however, has undoubtedly come across the type of lackluster ways that traditional textbooks often attempt to teach about a culture. Within the temporal confines of an academic semester, it can be a daunting task to adequately and justly cover the vast array of cultures associated with any one language. Attempting to do so with both breadth and depth is nearly impossible. Teachers are forced between ignoring certain cultures or giving only superficial reviews. The result is often tantamount to stating that the culture of the United States is enequivocally linked to apple pie, baseball, and cowboy hats. Imagine having to teach about Anglo-American culture as it were a unified concept without distinction between life in inner-city New York, suburban Salt Lake City, or rural Missouri towns.

Faced with such a challenge, teachers can look to a third option. Rather than pretend that the entirety of a given culture can be taught in one semester (or even the entirety of an undergraduate education, for that matter), educators can utilize new social innovations as tools for students to learn about the specifics of a given culture as it suits their particular needs and interests.

One activity created by a colleauge of mine uses Twitter in a beginning Portuguese class. The exercise (shown here) requires students to find and follow someone tweeting in Portuguese. They then report on the tweets they have read. This activity, while relatively simple to implement, has a far-reaching impact. The mere act of searching out and following someone tweeting in another language is a feat in itself. It requires students, who at this point still have limited vocabulary, to look for the things that interest them. Analyzing the tweets likewise requires that students not only negotiate new grammar and vocabulary but also the social, political, and cultural context of the audiences of the tweeter.

While there are also Twitter feeds specifically aimed at language learners that can be useful for learning a language (word-of-the-day or grammar lesson tweets, for example), these do not fully engage students in the depth of cultural knowledge that Twitter has to offer. Whether it be sports or movie stars, political or socially active figures, these people often use Twitter as a platform to speak to an audience embedded within the culture students are trying to understand. Its seems all too likely that more can be learned about a different culture by following a real person on Twitter than talking about an imaginary figure created by a textbook author.



  A textbook's "Latin Americans."     

Real Latin Americans and one gringo (hint: it's not the dog).


For one personal example, I follow @cmopazo, a professor at La Universidad Católica de Chile. His tweets have kept me up to date on student political activities in Chile while they are fighting the government over tuition costs. It is interesting to see an informed, intelligent, and embedded voice speak about and react to what is happening. Much more than mainstream media outlets, his posts have kept me aware of how vital the movement still is.

As teachers seek to promote learning about different cultures, they no longer need to be stuck with McGraw Hill’s latest version. Twitter is just one way that students can break free of the bonds of textbooks and move toward a deeper understanding of a given culture. A focus on these types of teaching methods can transform classroom learning from being an end in itself to the means of students’ ability to continue learning.



Great post- I think you made an excellent point that the effort and interest on part of the student in finding someone to follow and learning the language and what they're talking about is an excellent way to emerse one's self in language from a way that isnt "here are tweets for beginning X language!" 

What I do wonder is this-given that there are specific cultural/language choices made in terms of Twitter use (i.e. hashtags, shortened words, far more conversational/colloquial word choices) are students able to get an accurate frame for understanding that language?

My guess would be that Twitter provides what textbooks don't, the real conversational approach to a language and understanding of the culutre that you only get by engaging in a discussion with someone who is fluent. At the same time, the nuances of Twitter might limit that, as well. I would be curious if a "pen pal" like project could be implemented through Facebook, which might provide an even more accurate lens to view use of a foriegn languagem and the culture of that society. 

Really interesting stuff, thanks for the post!


Thanks for the response. You are definitely right, the point of this activity is to force students to figure out how to communicate on the thier own. Twitter is a great platform, precisely because students are forced to move outside their normal range of communication. Learnin a language isn't only about wrote memorization, but about gaining the communication skills necessary to negotiate meaning.

And I agree that Twitter is only one of a variety of ways that students can learn about another culture. I am currently working on another post about how the French language program at our university has been using wiki technology to learn and teach about culture.