Saturday, January 15, 2011

Chat and the language learner

Chat and the language learner

Thomas Leverett on the concerns of internet chat and its effect on language learning

If you are learning a language and have an internet connection, a temptation is open to you: should you seek out chat situations, and learn to chat in your new language, typing LOL like everyone else and laughing as you do it? It is not an easy question. If you are young, you may be much more comfortable using chat, the keyboard-typed version, than learning with the more traditional methods of reading articles, stories, or reading exercises that appear in English textbooks. Chat at least gives you live people to talk to, young people who speak your new language, but be careful: they're using shortened versions of words, misspellings and abbreviated grammar; they're leaving out punctuation and capital letters; is this good for you?

Language learners who have tried it are cautious about the power of computer chatting and its cousin text-messaging, though they may have mastered both chatting and their new language simultaneously. They are not so sure that it was good for their reading or their writing in the formal language, though they'll be the first to say that they learned to type faster, they read more, and they were able to participate actively in a new language. The influence of time spent chatting is considerable, and should not be taken lightly. You may, in the end, know more chat slang than anything else, just due to time spent in heated discussion with people who have become your close friends. Will this actually hurt your ability to learn and master formal English? I believe that it probably won't. People learn several languages at once, successfully, and become bilingual or trilingual, relatively fluent in more than one. Chat slang is like another language: you may have to struggle to separate it from other things you are learning; it may get in the way of your conscious production of your new languages, or even your native language, but it won't prevent you from learning anything. Your fluency in your new language, English for example, will be determined by how much time and energy you put into English, and won't be set back too badly by the fact that you are learning other things as well.

There are several problems associated with chatting that you should be aware of, however. The most obvious reason that chat itself carries a kind of stigma, is that it is associated with pedophiles and people who stalk the young and innocent for their own purposes. This is in fact a problem in virtually all chat rooms worldwide, anywhere where access is open to anyone, or anyone who can pretend to be someone else. Though there are many kinds of chat, formal and informal, for various kinds of people, there are also many kinds of people taking advantage of the anonymity of the chat room, for their own purposes. Be careful; follow the advice of the wise, don't reveal too much of yourself, and don't spend time in places that have proven to be trouble.

Further, as you may be aware, chat and text-chat slang carry a kind of stigma themselves, as you turn around to try to communicate formally, in virtually every language. If people in the formal English world catch you spelling "you" as "u," for example, which can happen very easily, they will associate you with a generation of young people who are versatile with chat slang but have trouble with commas, periods, and proper spelling; teachers at native-speaker high schools and middle schools have been railing against this problem for some time, and may have lost patience with students who can't or don't distinguish between slang and the proper language. You may have to work twice as hard to separate the two yourself, since both are somewhat new to you; you are in effect learning two different languages, though they are kinds of dialects of the same language. Do you have the time and patience to learn two different languages at once? Do you have the time and patience to sort out two similar, yet different, sets of rules, spellings, and customs? You'll have to. Mixing them will be easy, but dangerous, especially putting chat slang into the formal world.

This leads to your final problem, which is simply your own use of time and brain power, which is limited for everyone. If chat is more fun and more engaging, you'll naturally spend more time doing it, at the expense of your formal English study. If you can use chat to inspire you, and keep you focused on integrating yourself into all kinds of English-speaking culture, it can still be good for you. You can pick up vocabulary, notice and adopt an easy fluidity in making sentences and expressing yourself, and in general become more comfortable with the nature of English sentences and the people who use them. But if you spend all of your time typing out abbreviated vulgarities, as some people have called chat, and as it is best described, in some places, then that will be all you will know, and that won't help you much in the world where you really want to succeed, and may even hurt you.

Those who have been there point out the advantages of using chat to learn a language. You can choose who you want to talk to, and choose those whom you learn the most from. You can have long, engaging conversations that teach you a lot and are not threatening to your immediate safety or well-being; you can talk to older, interesting, polite and/or articulate people if you wish; you can talk at your own rate, and you can choose what you want to talk about. Finally, you can talk at the times of your choice, which can be good if you have trouble going to your standard English classes whenever they are offered. The advantages are clear and tempting. The dangers are also important. Don't lose your goal, which is formal study using formal language. Learning something similar to this formal language will be deceptive; it will seem easy, as if you can use the same language in both places. But it's like false cognates in related languages: words can look alike, and have the same roots, but if they are used differently, you have to learn the different variations, and that can be more difficult than learning two completely different words from the start. You'll need more discipline, and you'll need to take careful notice of the differences between chat slang and formal English, so that you don't confuse the two, especially at the wrong moments.

In the end, if you keep your eye on what you want, and you put enough time into it, you'll get it. Learning and using chat won't block you or stop you from learning anything else. In fact, you'll become master of yet another language, a kind of written dialect, which may as well be considered another language. And, you'll be using it for what it's supposed to be used for, talking to others, sharing, learning about people around the world. This can't be bad; you very rarely find anyone, anywhere, who was ever sorry that they learned any language. Sorry that they spent too much time on the wrong one, maybe. Sorry that they learned and used a new one? Almost never.

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