Virtual social network communities: an investigation of language learners' development of sociopragmatic awareness and multiliteracy skills

Citation metadata

Date: Sept. 2011
From: CALICO Journal(Vol. 29, Issue 1)
Publisher: Equinox Publishing, Ltd.
Document Type: Report
Length: 8,226 words
Lexile Measure: 1470L

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Abstract: 

Although often neglected in language textbooks and classrooms, sociopragmatic and multiliteracy skills are crucial elements in language learning that language educators should not disregard. This article investigates whether a social networking community (SNC) website such as Facebook can be exploited in the context of an intermediate foreign language class to promote competent, literate L2 learners. Intermediate language learners had to search groups in Facebook that were linked to the course themes and conduct a linguistic analysis focusing on greetings, leave-takings, and vocabulary selection in order to identify the language typically used in this electronic environment. Findings suggest that over the course of a semester, learners honed in on and identified socio-pragmatic elements in this medium and that observation-based awareness-raising tasks are indeed beneficial for the development of socio-pragmatic competence.

KEYWORDS

Facebook, Language Learning and Technology, Technology Integration, Sociopragmatic Awareness, Multiliteracy

Full Text: 

INTRODUCTION

In our society, everyday language use is now tied to technology, and consequently learning language with the help of technology has become a fact of life (Chapelle, 2001). The internet has opened multiple windows for all genres of self-expression and social interaction that support meaningful educational experiences and encourage language acquisition (Kinginger, 1998, 2000; Belz & Kinginger, 2002, 2003; O'Bryan & Hegelheimer, 2007; Lord, 2008; Thorne & Reinhart, 2008; McBride, 2009 among others). Gonglewski and DuBravac (2006) claimed that various electronic media offer learners the opportunity to observe and interact not only in the L2, but also with the culture, because they provide a powerful and authentic representation of how languages are embedded in a cultural and social context. As Thorne and Payne (2005) predicted, education is adopting new technologies and educators are slowly stepping into the students' world who are, as Prensky (2001, 2006) emphasized, digital natives, especially in the use of social networking tools sites such as those found in Facebook. In the last few years several online social networking communities (SNCs) have emerged and so have new language practices, uses, rules, and conventions, all of which could either become an overwhelming or enriching experience for both L2 learners and language instructors. Yet, if we consider communicative competence as a fundamental component of L2 learning, it is thus our role as language teachers to facilitate learners' access to various language practices in order to ultimately develop sociopragmatic abilities and multiliteracy skills in the L2.

SNCs IN HIGHER EDUCATION

The recent outburst of students and educators becoming active members of the SNC Facebook (Buffardi & Campbell, 2008; Stutzman, 2006; Tufekci, 2008), has drawn attention to the potential of this web resource as a way to provide both constructive linguistic outcomes and easy, immediate, and individualized interactions with peers, instructors, and native speakers (NSs). Little is known about how these "web-based services that allow individuals to construct a (semi) public profile" (Boyd & Ellison, 2007) can be beneficial in language classrooms and ultimately affect the language development and the performance of the learners. One study has suggested that its integration in higher education courses appears to have a positive impact on university classes in terms of motivation, affective learning, and classroom climate (Mazer, Murphy & Simonds, 2007). Kok (2008) further argued that it is important to provide learners with opportunities to develop a sense of group and to maintain a community as a unit that can work collaboratively. He also claimed that participation in virtual communities may enhance spirit, trust, interaction and the learning experience as a whole. Wenger (1998) explained that it is with the help of groups, which he calls communities of practice, that individuals develop and share the capacity to create and use knowledge in any environment. Observing and participating in digital exchanges is envisaged as a social engagement (Kramsch & Thorne, 2002). Through interaction, students learn to understand and thus better access these communities, become familiarized with new voices and new genres, and finally enter into these language practices (Warschauer, 2004). This process is required to fully experience language as a social practice and develop a communicative/interactive competence (Roberts, Byram, Barro, Jordan, & Street, 2001). In addition, authentic interactions with nSs of the L2 allow language learners to gradually extend their stylistic range in both written and oral expression and ultimately develop sociopragmatic competence (Dewaele, 2004). In fact, it was recently suggested (Blattner & Fiori, 2009; McBride, 2009; Stevenson & Liu, 2010) that instructors should take advantage of using social networking sites like Facebook and the opportunities they offer for interaction and collaboration with other speakers of the L2 and to capitalize on the fact such sites are already an integral part of many students' e-routine.

This article reports on the results of a pedagogical intervention that promoted situated learning, thus sociocultural in nature, through guided awareness discourse analysis tasks on the social practices in SNCs, specifically Facebook groups. Its purpose is to present one way in which an SNC was constructively integrated into the classroom with the hope of widening the options available to learners and instructors. Our goal is to suggest a means to promote sociopragmatic development through technology applications in a way that encourages interpretation and collaboration--a major goal of language itself as reiterated (see Lomicka & Lord, 2009)--and by bearing in mind that it is not technology itself that promotes learning, but rather the teaching methods employed (see Chapelle, 1998; Payne, 2004; Warschauer, 1999; among others). A secondary goal is to address multiliteracy skills development.

The next two sections consider the importance of developing socio-pragmatic knowledge while learning an L2 and how the integration of Facebook in the classroom provides language educators with an easily accessible tool allowing learners to enhance their abilities to interact in a specific electronic environment.

SOCIOPRAGMATIC DEVELOPMENT

Today's language classrooms center around the development of learners' communicative competence in their L2, and current methodologies, including the communicative approach, seek to prepare students to interact with speakers of the language in other societies (Liu, 2007). Communicative competence cannot be achieved by exclusively focusing on learners' grammatical and lexical knowledge (Alcon Soler & Martinez Flor, 2008) because, as DuFon (2008, p. 26) reminded us: "language acquisition is both social and mental." However, in reality most educators struggle to address essential course material in depth and breadth (vocabulary, grammar, culture) while also exercising L2 skills (listening, speaking, reading, writing) in their limited and valuable classroom time. The consequence is that the social perceptions underlying speakers' interpretation and performance of communicative acts--sociopragmatic elements necessary to produce competent speakers of the L2--fall by the wayside. It is commonly assumed that language learners will acquire sociopragmatic skills on their own (at a later stage of development) or when they go on a study abroad program. Much is assumed given that most will have received limited pragmatic instruction and that the learners themselves primarily focus on building the linguistic knowledge needed for grammatically correct written/oral expression. Moreover, Bardovi-Harlig and Dornyei (1998) pointed out, even advanced L2 learners cannot avoid misunderstandings or conveying L2 messages that may be considered too forceful, direct, or impolite because they have not acquired appropriate pragmatic competence. Along those lines, Byram (1988) highlighted the importance of the cultural context in language learning since it is social practice that carries the meanings and values of a particular community.

Sociopragmatic awareness is necessary for language programs that have set goals of teaching real language used by real people in the real world (Liu, 2007). However, the classroom setting is often artificial and decontextualized, which implies a lack of social consequences to nonstandard L2 productions (Kasper & Rose, 2002) and a narrow and restricted range of speech acts (Kasper, 2001; Kasper & Rose, 1999). In addition, sociopragmatic information is lacking in the typical textbooks used in basic language instruction (Bardovi-Harlig, 2001; Hassal, 2008; Uso-Juan, 2007; Vellenga, 2004; among others). Ignoring sociopragmatic aspects of language development presents an impoverished version of the L2 and will continue to generate L2 learners who are not only unable to gauge their responses in sociopragmatic terms, but who are also unable to produce vernacular speech after having received traditional classroom instruction (Dewaele, 2004). Consequently, there is an urgent need to include some cultural teaching at the lower division and not wait to convey such essential elements to language learners at a later stage of acquisition (Eslami-Rasekh, 2005; Maxim, 2000; Pearson, 2006).

Since sociopragmatics involves the ability of know how to use a language, especially forms of address, in a variety of situations, it should form an integral part of any L2 curriculum but may be difficult to implement. Liu (2007) cautioned that the developing sociopragmatic awareness can be a challenge for educators. Similarly, Pearson (2006) underscored the difficulty of integrating meaningful and constructive sociopragmatic instruction in the language classroom but noted students' desire to learn real-life language. Pearson concluded that L2 pragmatic instructional materials should come from authentic sources even though the content is sometimes difficult to control. Facebook groups provide such authentic sources.

MULTILITERACY

Being 'literate' traditionally meant to be able to read and write; however in modern society that definition has expanded. Our reliance on technological means of communication and especially Web 2.0 tools has dramatically impacted the way individuals interact and socialize with one another (Downes, 2006). Researchers noted more than a decade ago that computer use was changing the concept of literacy, particularly in terms of the conventions individuals must be familiar with in order to be considered 'literate' (e.g., see Kern, 1997). Warschauer (1999) pointed out that literacy is characterized by the social context of the adoption of emerging technologies. Notions of literacy now include electronic and digital literacies (Chun, 2007) and account for the diversity of people, contexts, and media that are part of contemporary society (Gonglewski & DuBravac, 2006). Gonglewski and DuBravac noted that in today's multicultural, multitasking, and multimedia-driven society, a new type of literacy has emerged that does not simply consist of mastering reading and writing abilities, but also using appropriate language in many social contexts and electronic media. "Multiliteracy is shaped by an ability to communicate in a multimedia environment with many additional complex factors and functionalities that such a diversely cross-cultural and highly social context brings to bear" Gonglewski & DuBravac, 2006, p. 45). Thus, today's students must be prepared not only to recognize and use multiple discourses and media but also to understand, analyze, and interpret their content (Kern, 2000).

Conventions of interaction in electronic media are unique. Hanna and de Nooy's (2003) study, which focused on language learners' participation in electronic forums, is a powerful illustration of this phenomenon. The researchers observed the interaction of language learners who adapted rapidly to the convention of communication (politeness, register netiquette, and the medium genre) and consequently managed to interact in a productive manner with other individuals despite their limited L2 abilities. Other learners who did not identify the conventions of the medium, failed immediately at establishing a productive exchange of messages on the discussion forum. Hanna and de Nooy's study demonstrated that asking learners to participate in new discourse communities without some sort of explicit and prior preparation with the medium, the activity, and the community is likely to be less than successful. Students must adapt their language in order to communicate appropriately in a particular medium, and an essential element of becoming multiliterate is learning how to make these types of adaptations.

Ultimately, as Gonglewski and DuBravac (2006) have stressed, language teachers are primarily educators who should embrace and encourage new modes of expressing and interpreting meaning in multiple contexts and media. For language learners becoming multiliterate in a new language is a complex but necessary task that cannot be ignored. In fact, developing L2 electronic literacy also provides learners with the appropriate knowledge to take advantage of emerging technologies to interact autonomously with NSs outside an academic context, and, as Gonglewski and DuBravac have pointed out, to ultimately prepare students for a successful career and life in a technology-saturated world. Teaching students to be multiliterate will enable them to participate more actively in global learning communities and use a foreign language in new ways (Kasper, 2000). Integrating Facebook into the L2 classroom should be useful to facilitate and cultivate students' development of multiliteracy skills by providing exposure to authentic discourse communities (e.g., access to a wide array of groups) and also by tackling different modes of communication (verbal vs. visual and oral vs. written language).

THE STUDY

Legitimate peripheral participation and prior participation were guiding factors in the design of the students' tasks with the Facebook groups. Respecting the lessons learned from Hanna and de Nooy's (2003) study that successful discourse community participation requires training and preparation, applying Lave and Wenger's (1991) notion of legitimate peripheral participation in which observation is a key factor in the understanding of the practices of a given community, paying attention to the first of Kasper's (1997) activity types for enhancing sociopragmatic development (tasks that raise students' awareness and require their participation), and bearing in mind learners are unable to pay much attention to pragmatics without consuming a large part of the processing capacity (Hassall, 2008) we designed the tasks for the intermediate-level Spanish students in this study to be purely observational. (1) The Facebook website offers rich opportunities for L2 learners to observe (and subsequently use) appropriate language in specific contexts. Such socially and culturally based learning contexts are linked to theories which view learning as participation in the social world (Solomon & Schrum, 2007), and we anticipated that the students would comment on language in relation to the electronic context (development of multiliteracy skills) and hoped that they would comment on the ways in which language was used in authentic contexts by group participants (the sociopragmatic elements). Ultimately, the study attempts to share a context in which language learning and technology can be most effectively interwoven making multiliteracy and sociopragmatic skills development an important focus of the L2 curriculum.

Methodology

Research questions

The present study set out to answer whether the pedagogical design using the Facebook group application facilitated the development of (a) multiliteracy and (b) L2 sociopragmatic awareness.

Participants

The participants were 13 undergraduate students enrolled in an intermediate-level Spanish culture course during the Fall 2008 semester at a private college. They were selected to participate in this study based on this enrollment alone. The intermediate level was chosen because most students at this level should have had enough grammatical competence to comprehend a range of written texts such as the ones found in discussion forums. The project was a component of the course requirements and was worth 10% of the final grade. As Kasper and Rose (2002) pointed out, it is essential to incorporate pragmatically oriented tasks as a learning objective and as a regular and important course component. All the students were Spanish majors or minors and were between the ages of 19 and 24 (M = 19.6) at the time the data were collected.

Materials and procedures

Course preparation procedures: the professor. The professor used the group application in Facebook to establish a Student-Group with an Academic-Group designation specifically for members of the Spanish class "SPA240-Fall2008." Only the 13 students of the Spanish class could access the content of this virtual forum. Next, the professor prepared a brief training session which focused on appropriate minimal knowledge for using Facebook, instruction on how to complete the assigned tasks (searching Groups, accessing and reading discussion threads, etc.), and issues of student privacy (Stutzman, 2006).

Facebook tasks: the students. First, students had to create a Facebook account (10 out of 13 students were already members) and had to join the Academic Group "SPA240-Fall2008." Students were tasked with finding and posting three different Facebook Groups whose content was thematically related to each of the three units (i.e., one per unit) of the course text (see sample Facebook group page in Appendix A) and that was of personal interest to them (see examples in Table 1).

Each student posted one link per unit for each unit and also had to read through their peers' posts before closing out each unit. To facilitate this, students posted a brief description of the Group (in lingua) and provided a direct link within the SPA240-Fall2008 Group so that their classmates could easily access it. This step was meant to ensure that individuals investigated the purpose of the Group, the profile of the typical members, and the language of the Group for the links they posted to the SPA240-Fall2008Group. Some sample student postings in the Academic Group are below.


   Este un grupo llamado la M E. Ch. A. Personas que creen que un
   educacion mejor debe contribuir a la formacion de una persona que
   actualmente valores la vida y la libertad. El titulo era interesado
   a mi porque es sobre educacion de un cultura. Ingles y espanol.

   Grupo Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA) (National
   Group)2 'In this group called MEChA people believe that an
   education should contribute to personal values and freedom. The
   title was interesting to me because it is about the education of/in
   a culture. English and Spanish.'

   Este grupo es quedarse el cultura y arte y mas de todo el mundo a
   conocido. Este grupo es para jovenes en todo el mundo aprender de
   la politica, musica, arte, cultura, y literatura.

   Grupo: Replicante

   'This group deals with world recognized art and culture. It is
   dedicated to young people learning about politics, music, art,
   culture and literature.'

   Es un grupo para estudiantes estan intersados en hablar de temas
   sobre eventos corrientes y son orgullosos de sus patrias latinas.
   Un grupo es en espanol y ingles y tiene videos, picturas, y
   noticias recientes en la comunidad latina.

   Grupo: Latinos Unidos

   'This group is for students who are proud of their latino heritage
   to talk about current events. It is in Spanish and English and it
   has video, pictures, and recent news pertaining to the latino
   community.'

Afterward, the class chose which sites they would analyze for specific information, and a due date was set for students to submit their analyses to the professor. The analysis task required students to identify, examine, reflect upon, and analyze the language posted in the Facebook Groups chosen for a specific unit in terms of greetings/leave-taking and vocabulary use and to support their claims and observations with specific examples regarding any element (Group-participants' posted messages, the Groups' dedication/description, the content of the wall posts, and any other content posted in the forum). Tasks were assessed for completion and accuracy (accuracy of the claims the students reported based upon the samples they cited). Finally, with the understanding instructional intervention may be a necessary step to facilitate the acquisition of L2 pragmatic ability (Bardovi-Harlig, 2001), class time was dedicated to verbal reporting and reflection on the students' findings. The professor logged the salient student observations during the in-class discussions.

Results: Linguistic Analysis and Verbal Reports

In order to address the research questions regarding the L2-Spanish learners' socio-pragmatic awareness and multiliteracy skills development, purely qualitative observation data (written and oral) were collected and analyzed. This data collection procedure is a standard method of studying the mental processes underlying competence in completion of a task and is frequently used in L2 research (Gass & Mackey, 2000). Furthermore, as Hassall (2008) noted, verbal reports are valuable tools for highlighting the observations of L2 learners to help illuminate the process of acquiring knowledge of sociopragmatic norms and to reveal signs of multiliteracy development.

Each section below begins with an overall view of what the students chose to report on for their three Facebook Groups analysis tasks. The overview is followed by the students' report on the specific aspect of the discourse observed. The numbers following each example indicate how many students out of the 13 in the course reported on the same item or made the same observation. Then the data illustrating what the students typically chose to highlight in those assignments are presented (samples taken directly from students' work). The students' verbal reports reflect the information and insights they shared during in-class discussions. Data in quotation marks were taken from the students' three written assignments and the follow-up discussions (verbal reports) in class.

Greetings and leave-taking

Greetings. All students reported on (a) the type of basic greetings typically observed in this electronic context; (b) when greetings were present, whether they served to direct the conversation to either the whole group or to specific participants; and (c) whether greetings allowed for initiation or continuation of the particulars of a given thread. Some students reported on more detailed greetings (but not always the same ones) and those that were more intricate than a simple "hello." The most prolific types of greetings were quite basic, and a number of greetings were inclusive, which was not surprising considering the context in which the linguistic analysis took place. Students also reported finding a few cases where the discussion started with noninclusive greetings that targeted a specific group member.

Basic greetings

Hola a todos 'hello everyone' (13/13)

Hola para todos mis amigos 'hello to all my friends' (13/13)

Hola estimados 'hello dear ones' (13/13)

Greetings with inclusion purposes

Hola, como estan 'hello, how are you' (13/13)

Ey companeros 'hey friends' (13/13)

amigos y companeros 'friends & compatriots' (13/13)

queridos 'loved ones' (13/13)

companero/a 'colleague/friend' (13/13)

Te invito a conocer mi trabajo 'I invite you to get to know my work' (1/13)

Noninclusive greetings

Hola, Rogelio 'hello, Rogelio'(3/13)

E. Guzman: Un gran Saludo 'E. Guzman: A big hi' (3/13)

Hola, V.H ... 'Hello, V. H....' (3/13)

A.V. te agradezco tu interes 'A. V. I appreciate your interest' (2/13)

Sr. Andres 'Mr. Andres' (2/13)

Detailed greetings

HOLA desde Canada (HELLO from Canada) (1/13)

Muchas felicitaciones a todos los maestros de Puerto Rico 'Greetings to all the Puerto Rican teachers' (1/13)

Los felicito por darse a respetar y repudiar el sindicato ... 'I congratulate you for respecting and repudiating the union (1/13)

Mi gente querida amante de las bellas artes y de la pintura en especial ... 'My beloved fans of art, and especially paintings ...' (1/13)

Para los admiradores de Frida que viven en la capital del pais 'For Frida fans who live in the capital' (1/13)

Students' verbal reports included comments that revolved around two themes: (a) the type of greetings that are the most appropriate depending on the genre (formal/informal) of group forums and (b) the role or impact that greetings play as a conversation opener.

Types of greetings

"They don't usually just say "hola" like we do at college; they say more when they say hello."

"I usually just say "hola" to people but in the forums they "hey" to their friends or the group."

"Greetings are more complicated than what we learned in Spanish I."

"You gotta say more than "hi" in the forums if you greet someone."

Initiation/Continuation

"You don't have to say hi in the informal ones (groups) if you're in the middle of the conversation."

"People usually greet the whole group so everyone's in the conversation."

"You either say hi to a specific person you wanna talk to or direct your comments to a part of the conversation by @name: and then your message."

"saying hello can direct the conversation to a specific person."

"greetings are important because they keep the conversational flow."

Leave-taking: Students emphasized that goodbyes were uncommon because it marked the end of a conversation or a conversational thread. All students cited a number of common goodbyes, while most commented on two salutations in particular (un abrazo 'a hug' and besos/besitos 'kiss/es'). Students observed different types of leave-takings. Again, they first identified the most typical ways to verbally leave a discussion thread, but also commented on a few less frequent forms of leave-taking.

Typical Goodbyes

Adios, Saludos, Saludos a todos 'Goodbye, bye, bye to everyone' (13/13).

"most people do not give a formal goodbye." (13/13)

"saying goodbye ends your turn in the conversation (5/13) and could cut things short." (1/13)

"goodbyes aren't very common." (6/13)

"signing off could shut the conversation down." (1/13)

Notable Goodbyes

Besitos, Besos, Un abrazo, Abrazo 'Kisses, Kisses, A hug, Hug' (11/13)

"they signed off with 'abrazo' ... Like xoxo!" (1/13).

"They signed it 'hugs.'" (1/13).

"A way to say goodbye was 'hugs.'" (1/13).

"Abraxo--multilingual! They mixed abrazo and xoxo!! It's like hugs AND kisses ... Cool." (1/13).

"Sometimes they put 'hugs and kisses'--besos/abrazos." (1/13)

"Besitos, the closing, means goodbye." (1/13).

"They said goodbye with a kiss/besos." (1/13).

"In one post they put a hello and a good bye ... the goodbye was 'kisses.'" (1/13).

"They wrote/put 'kiss' for goodbye." (2/13).

"I found this post interesting because this member closes by saying 'un abrazo,' which means "a hug." (1/13)

Students' verbal reports contained a variety of statements around two themes: (a) the cultural differences between Anglophone and Hispanophone cultural use of certain leave-taking formulaic chunks and (b) the discrepancy between the role of initial greeting versus final leave taking.

Cultural differences

"They used besos and abrazos with the people in the forum but we usually only use that stuff with family members and close friends."

"It's strange to see people write hugs and kisses with strangers; I wasn't expecting that."

Greetings versus leave-takings

"It is safe to say that more people greet than say goodbye ... because it allows for conversation to take place. They don't say goodbye to keep the conversation open."

"Hellos are more important ... they keep you in the conversation and let people know who you're talking to."

"Goodbyes aren't very common."

"Signing off would shut the conversation down."

Overall, students appear to realize that there is a norm in greetings in the context of Facebook discussion forums which is a first step in the recognition of this electronic discourse as a genre (Hanna & de Nooy, 2003). All students reported that if a greeting opened a post, it was to invite full group participation or direct the conversation to a specific person and maintain conversational flow. In a similar vein, all students reported goodbyes to be less common since participation or conversation can be easily ended without them. Students clearly recognized the typical difference between the necessity of greetings and the optional use of leave-taking. Furthermore, they learned new forms of address and that greetings are more intricate in this electronic discourse form. Students also learned culturally appropriate use of certain goodbyes (i.e., abrazos) that did not previously coincide with their Anglophone expectations. The students' comments also illustrated multiliteracy development in that they associated particular greetings with the medium itself and the strategies of communicative actions with a specific electronic context.

Vocabulary and culture

All students reported learning new vocabulary because of their exploration of Facebook Groups and demonstrated their learning usually by building word lists (x in Spanish = y in English). While they reported that reading the posts was sometimes challenging, they also reported that contextual clues and dictionary use clarified meaning and facilitated comprehension. All students also reported learning vocabulary in ways related to the electronic medium itself (i.e., use of abbreviations or syllabograms). Many students reported on searching for dialectal variation and comprehension of cultural elements (guessing the origin of participants, looking for vosotros in context (3rd person, familiar, plural 'you' in Spain), investigating places, and so on. Finally, many students noted the participants' use of emotives in the forums, an aspect of communication that is comparable across languages in this type of electronic discourse.

As in the previous section, students were first asked to comment on vocabulary use in general. Their responses could be grouped in four categories as illustrated below. The most common observations were based on their abilities to figure out meaning of unknown words. Some students reported having to use a dictionary; others were able to figure out the meaning based on the contexts in which they occurred.

Contextual cues and dictionary use

"When I first looked at this post I had a hard time understanding it because I was unfamiliar with a lot of words. I kept reading the context and then began to puzzle the piece together and started comprehending the information." (1/13).

"I had to read a lot of the posts to get the gist of what they were saying but the dictionary covered the rest." (1/13).

"I read the different meanings of the words so I could figure out which one they meant in the posts." (1/13).

"All you had to do was read a bunch of entries and grab an online dictionary and you could figure out what they were talking about." (1/13).

"I found many words that I didn't know. I thought maybe many they were slang because when I looked them up they weren't in the dictionary and had to guess meaning." (1/13).

"I was really excited that I could follow along and understand something." (1/13).

"I had to read through all the definitions so that I didn't get confused by the post." (1/13).

The second groups of comments involved various types of abbreviations. Students commented on apocopes (i.e., porfa for por favor), syllabograms (i.e., q for que), or other spelling variation such as estimad@s in which the "at" sign transforms this word into a gender inclusive form.

Abbreviations

"'q' 'k' 'ke' were used for 'que.'" (11/13)

"'Porfa' is short for 'por favor.'" (13/13)

"They wrote 'kerido' instead of 'querido.'" (3/13)

"'q' short for 'que' in 'no nos damos cuenta lo hermoso q es!!"' (10/13)

"She replaced 'qu' with a 'k' in 'ke me kiero ir.'" (1/13)

"'Estimad@s' is the masculine and feminine forms combined." (12/13)

Vocabulary selection in the Spanish language as in many other languages is frequently linked to countries or regions. This sociopragmatic aspect of any foreign language is often briefly discussed in certain textbooks, but rarely developed. Consequently, lexical variation became an interesting new phenomenon to observe for the students who participated in this study. They noted several words, expressions and forms of address that they were able to associate with a particular group of Hispanophones as illustrated below.

Culture

"It was cool to see 'que onda' and 'mijo' used--I've heard them before."

"I think 'mijo' ('mi hijo') is from Mexico and LA."

"'que onda' is like 'que pasa.'"

"It was nice to see 'vosotros' used in context."

"I thought it was neat to see how the group used 'vosotros.'"

"I really wanted to find 'vosotros' because we never used it in high school."

"It was neat to see how 'vosotros' was used in context and that I could understand what it meant."

"I figured out that some of the posts were from people in other Spanish speaking countries other than Mexico, like Colombia, Chile and from San Diego and LA."

"I tried to guess where the participants were from."

"I think I might be able to figure out where people come from."

Finally, the last kind of comments were made about emotives, expressions of feelings through the use of language constructions that explicitly describe emotional states or attitudes. Students focused on the use of capital letters for this purpose. This way of expressing emotions is not particular to the Spanish language, but it was interesting for the students to establish this fact since languages generally offer many other linguistic variations that can dramatically impact the outcome of an interaction.

Emotives

"It was interesting that so many people at different times used capital letters for a whole section. I guess they really wanted to be heard."

"People used caps a lot so they could get some attention."

"They're either really excited or really aggressive with all the caps locks."

"I think they used a lot of caps because the site is popular and it's a good way to get attention."

"So many people and different times used capital letters for a whole section. In this case the person is very excited: ME ENCANTO VISITAR LA CASA DE FRIDA KAHLO ... 'I LOVED VISITING FRIDA KAHLO'S HOUSE....'"

"I think mostly they're just excited or trying to be heard but caps lock can make the person seem angry or aggressive."

Students' verbal reports on their analysis of vocabulary use in these discussion forums focused on the benefit of the experience as a whole and specifically on the literacy and cultural benefit that they gained from these various observations.

First, students first noted that such an activity impacted them positively.

"I like that I wasn't completely clueless around the native speakers."

"I was proud of myself for being able to figure out what they could say and only had to look up a few words."

"I liked that I didn't have to look everything up."

"I used the group dedication and information about the topics and the participants to help me figure out what the conversations would be about."

Second, they understood some similarities that were associated with the medium itself more than the language and commented on the use of various abbreviations.

"They abbreviate just like we do but I'm not sure if I could figure it out live." (1/13)

"They put slang and abbreviations in their posts too." (1/13)

"I liked the estimad@s example because it's a great way include everyone." (1/13)

"I'm going to use it (estimad@s) from now on"(1/13).--Me too." (4/13)

Finally, they expressed a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment being able to identify cultural elements in authentic conversation and to integrate new ways to learn a foreign language. Taking advantage of such a SNC website allowed the students to experience virtual exchanges that enhance the communicative engagement of language learners, and increase their confidence as well as their enthusiasm for the subject matter (Swaffar, 1998).

"I like knowing where these words come from because if I can guess where the people are from I can figure out something to talk about."

"I didn't think we'd know this much at this level; I feel like we've accomplished a lot."

"The groups brought the course to life because I realized that what we were learning in the book was relevant 'cause otherwise it seemed like ancient history."

Clearly, students learned from real-life language use and examined it beyond the social and cultural confines of their L1. Participating in this kind of SNC website provided attractive cultural information that stimulated the language learners to autonomously explore a target culture and thereby actively engage in the use of authentic source materials. Their dictionary use proved to be an enriching experience because they had to examine the context in which the word was used and had to choose the definition that suited the context in order to comprehend the exchanges. When the word was not in the dictionary, they relied on context only to guess meaning. Given that word selection is an essential element in communication, evaluating the adequacy of language in this particular medium has great potential in the development of students' sociopragmatic competence.

Depending upon the electronic media (chat, blog, or discussion forum) apocopes, acronyms, syllabograms, and other less formal expressions are found; however frequent use of expressions clearly indicates a user's long experience of a particular medium. In the case of Facebook Group forums, participants typically come from a variety of backgrounds. Consequently only common abbreviations are selected by forum contributors (Blattner & Williams, 2009), and as a result the students in this study easily identified abbreviations and their meanings. With regard to the medium itself, 12 out of 13 students reported the use of the @ symbol as a means by which to express gender inclusivity (e.g., estimados + estimadas = estimad@s to cover both male and female group members) and thereby demonstrated some development of multiliteracy skills. Similarly, they accurately reported on understanding the use of emotives, specifically capital letters and the impact that such variation has within a forum discussion in terms of expressing anger, stating excitement, or getting attention. In addition, students demonstrated that they sought out contextual and linguistic cues that would help them to identify a participant's place of origin and open up the doors to interpersonal communication (i.e., understanding when and by whom the form of address vosotros is used).

CONCLUSIONS, LIMITATIONS, AND RECOMMENDATIONS

Despite growing up in the digital age, and being familiar with SNC websites, it is essential to note that both the instructor and the students who participated in this study had never previously used Facebook for educational purposes. Kok (2008) pointed out that for online communities to effectively function as learning tools, educators must guide their students and model effective knowledge construction and collaboration by establishing trusting relationships with students through feedback and appropriate supervision. The results from the awareness-raising tasks taken in conjunction with the verbal reports gathered in the intermediate Spanish class are in line with Kok's research; students had a resource for examining authentic language, they learned to navigate uncharted sociopragmatic and electronic-medium territory, while building a rapport with their instructor. In addition, as Blattner and Fiori (2009) explained, by incorporating versatile Web 2.0 tools that enhance the quality of their classrooms, educators can also show learners how to exploit SNC sites such as Facebook for academic purposes to create a dynamic learning environment, promote critical thinking, offer authentic L2 learning opportunities and make deeper connections with the culture of the native L2 speakers.

Regarding sociopragmatic awareness, students examined language within cultural and social contexts. The students' analyses revealed that they examined sociopragmatic features when they established what they viewed as norms for greetings and leave-taking. The vocabulary and colloquial expressions they reported on not only exposed them to a variety of language, but also obliged them to draw conclusions about the messages exchanged within its broader context. Overall, the tasks presented the opportunity to assess functional and cultural appropriateness of a variety of acts in an authentic context, an opportunity that students capitalized on.

With regard to multiliteracy skills development, the students' reports demonstrate that such modes of communication were empowering and offered a variety of transferable skills for interpreting, evaluating, and negotiating electronic foreign language discourse. Students quickly recognized certain forum norms (e.g., capital letters for anger or excitement and use of a variety of abbreviations). Exposure appeared to provide the necessary grounding to further their multiliteracy skills, which is in line with Blattner and Williams's (2009) assertion that the foreign aspect of discussion forums will fade away if language learners have acquired a good understanding of the linguistic, social, and structural dimensions of this mode of communication itself.

The students' rich observations suggest that learners have the potential to increase their sociopragmatic awareness as well as their ability to develop multiliteracy skills in a foreign language, undoubtedly important aspects of language acquisition in this technological era, and their reports accord with previous research on sociopragmatic instruction (Olshtain & Cohen, 1990; Lyster, 1994; Tateyama, 2001).

The potential of the SNCs lies in the way they allow students to interact with L2 speakers and provides opportunities for learners to engage in authentic meaningful communication. Therefore, the development of L2 sociopragmatic awareness will create favorable conditions in the development of communicative competence, which in turn leads to the next logical step--production. For students who have become more familiar with the conventions of discussion forums and of cultural aspects of the L2, it is essential to make meaningful connections with NSs.

Limitations

The size of the group of participants is a limitation of the study (N = 13). Fortunately for the educators, intermediate language classes tend to be much smaller than those at the basic level of instruction; however, it does limit the scope of the results reported. Despite these limitations, this project was successful both from the instructor and students' perspectives and provided valuable insight in how educators can easily enhance their foreign language classes.

Recommendations

Blake (2008) explained that ultimately language educators will have to go beyond a simple computer functional competence (knowing how to use technological tools) and reach both a critical (understanding what tools are good for) and a rhetorical competence (realizing how certain tools transform the learning environment) in order to use technology effectively. From this perspective, given that research based on the integration of SNCs in a language learning environment is in its infancy, this study serves as an initial step to develop a better grasp of the role this particular tool may play in the development of sociopragmatic competence and multiliteracy skills in the context of foreign language education. Even though Facebook appears to provide valuable benefits and opportunities for learners and educators in the field of foreign language education, more research is needed to further establish the effectiveness of this tool in foreign language classrooms. Clearly, the potential of social networking websites is growing everyday with the creation of even newer applications.

APPENDIX A

Sample Facebook group page


APPENDIX B

Posted links

Facebook Group           URL

MEChA                    http://www.facebook.com/group.php?sid=799a7
                         9a34dc05d2c73bdf0f4caa51f09&gid=289723125
                         61&ref=search

Apoyo a los maestros     http://www.facebook.com/group.php?sid=aa2ed
(as) de Puerto Rico      791e2e2505b02b5b246ec891263&gid=70412706
                         57&ref=search

ADMIRADORES DE FRIDA     http://www.facebook.com/group.php?sid=cf41e6
KAHLO                    5158397f4e2919394d36273c41&gid=172708909
                         79&ref=search

Replicante               http://www.facebook.com/group.php?sid=cf41e
                         65158397f4e2919394d36273c41&gid=1727089
                         0979&ref=search#/group.php?sid=310e1ec98f9
                         5b5747a3f5cdfd49db553&gid=7690541149&ref
                         =search

Foro Espana              http://www.facebook.com/group.php?sid=5765e
                         1897a2986ef98aca25188548480&gid=10473134
                         357&ref=search

A VER CUANTOS            http://www.facebook.com/group.php?sid=2fa34d
MEXICANOS LE ENTRAN?     d690c29fbf65355c342e722145&gid=221503114
                         0&ref=search

La poesia mexicana       http://www.facebook.com/group.php?sid=37f5c5
                         0283b9734a84a5a8f1874766d7&gid=661061150
                         06&ref=search

Yo [??] Ecuador          http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=22047
                         45137


COTOPAXI Y GALAPAGOS     http://www.facebook.com/group.php?sid=4375a
NUEVAS MARAVILLAS DEL    998050a36e80c0d7c5b491034df&gid=92250943 56
MUNDO /VOTEMOS!!

NO!!!! AL INGRESO DEL    http://www.facebook.com/group.php?sid=45743
ESMAD EN UNIVERSI-       f652a24f1354c7d750f0c840042&gid=316596309
DADES PUBLICAS.          12&ref=search

PERU ANTITAURINO         http://www.facebook.com/group.php?sid=082c2
                         7a9d4bb08f491bd3dc5f0815b46&gid=18829824
                         712&ref=search

Latinos Unidos           http://www.facebook.com/group.php?sid=69f1ca
                         45c4b13bf788be865529501421&gid=220480648
                         2&ref=search

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GERALDINE BLATTNER

Florida Atlantic University

MELISSA FIORI

Daemen College

NOTES

(1) One student took it upon herself to contribute to a post by the end of the semester.

(2) The Group name is posted; see links in Appendix B.

AUTHORS' BIODATA

Geraldine Blattner is an Assistant Professor of French and Linguistics at Florida Atlantic University. Her research focuses on technology-enhanced foreign language teaching and learning as well as sociolinguistic and pragmatic variation in French language in computer-mediated discourse.

Melissa Fiori is an Associate Professor of Spanish and Applied Linguistics at Daemen College where she is the Department's Assessment Liaison. Her research interests include computer-mediated communication, teacher training, and foreign language pedagogy.

AUTHORS' ADDRESSES

Geraldine Blattner, Ph.D.

Department of Languages, Linguistics and Comparative Literature

Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters

Florida Atlantic University

777 Glades Road

Boca Raton, FL 33431

Email: gblattne@fau.edu

Melissa Fiori, Ph.D.

Department of Foreign Languages

Daemen College

4380 Main St.

Amherst, NY 14226-3592

Email: mfiori@daemen.edu


Table 1

Summary of Facebook Groups Whose Topics Reflected Course Material

Textbook topics             Samples of relevant Groups that the
                            students identified and posted to
                            SPA240-Fall2008

Unit 1: Chicanos, Puerto    MEChA
Ricans, Cuban Americans,    Apoyo a los Maestros(as)
Dominican Americans,        de Puerto Rico
Central Americans

Unit 2: Spain, Mexico,      Admiradores de Frida Kahlo
Puerto Rico, Dominican      Replicante
Republic, Cuba              Foro Espana
                            A Ver Cuantos Mexicanos Le Entran?
                            La Poesia Mexicana

Unit 3: Peru, Ecuador,      Yo [??] Ecuador
Bolivia                     Cotopaxi y Galapagos Nuevas Maravillas
                            del Mundo No!! Al Ingreso del ESMAD en
                            Universidades Publicas Peru Antitaurino

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A295259604