Monday, January 3, 2011

Kinds of chat

(the following originally appeared at but was moved here in 2011. It is part of a 2009 TESOL presentation: Uncharted but breathtaking: Chat in writing class which can be accessed here.)

I have learned that it's important to distinguish kinds of chat, and to introduce students and friends to the kind(s) of chat you intend to have with them. My students, all adults, have not all chatted, but all have encountered stereotypes about chat and what it's used for. Introducing kinds of chat is one way of saying that they're not all the same; the kind you are about to see may be different from what you're used to. There are other reasons for knowing differences. First, students chat a lot, with each other, in many different ways, and in different languages. It's useful to know what they do and ask them how they feel about its effect on how they are learning formal English. They may not have even thought about it, but more likely they suspect it has been hurting them, and they are embarrassed about that, unlikely to tell you about it unless you open up the conversation with them.

I am not dogmatic about the idea that their consistent, repeated chatting may have hurt them or may be hurting them; I'm not even convinced that it does, in the big picture. Clearly, to me, it both hurts them and helps them simultaneously. The main way that it hurts them is that it takes up a lot of their time, time they could be using to study or to practice more formal English. But they may not be aware that they could be chatting in more formal English; they could be helping themselves in various ways, and again, they won't know about this unless you open up the topic. The question of whether an English language learner should just go out and find chats throughout the world of available chats is not a simple one, since some semi-formal chats will be very good for them, while a whole universe of bad writing habits and seedy predators awaits them in others. For us to dismiss the whole picture as frivolous is not the answer; they need chat skills, they need to be able to distinguish between kinds of chat environments, and they need to behave and respond appropriately in the environments that they are in.

Just before writing this (Jan. 2009) I made a reservation for my hotel in Denver for the conference at which this demonstration is being presented. Immediately after I had reserved my room, a chat window appeared on the screen, clearly endorsed by the hotel and implying that I was obliged to respond. Upon scanning, I noticed that it was one of those deals where I am offered $20 or $30 off on my room in return for joining something that would cost me three or four times more, over the long haul, if I don't get mad and cancel first. I credit my scanning skills, my familiarity with chat, and the enduring cynicism of the American consumer for extracting me from this nightmare. But I'd like you to put your students in this situation for a moment. Would they be able to do the same?

In my classes I do written (text), multi-user, semi-formal English chat. I ask students to be respectful and remember that it's a class; most have no trouble with this. Beyond that, if they can use shortened versions of words (pls, thx, lol) and be understood, I don't object. I am pretty quick with the question marks for times when I don't understand their emoticons or abbreviations, and in any case, it's a lesson for them in what works and what doesn't. I measure communicative competence, which in this case is not measured in perfect grammar. It's measured in what they can do and whether they can show minimal politeness in the process. Nevertheless, it's somewhat like any raucus class of young people communicating constantly: mistakes happen. Native languages slip out. Not every message is successful. I also stress that semi-formal chat is available to them in other places besides my class (including Facebook) and that it would benefit them, in general, to practice it. I give advice for students who venture into the world of chat; most of what I tell them is here. It is important to note that at the first moment you start chatting with students electronically, there may be a wide variety of experiences with chat in the room, from the older student who has never seen it or used it, to the young gamers who have logged thousands of hours of video games with all of those thousands accompanied by a constant stream of vulgarities and game-lingo. Does the student with those thousands of hours of experience have an advantage over the other? Yes, in terms of familiarity with the technology, and in typing and reaction skills. You may have some students, absolute newcomers, who will invariably complain that they just can't do it. Others may come from the world of text-messaging, where knowledge of codes and symbols is a given.

Voice chat

There are various programs to help set up voice chat in a lab full of computers, but this presentation doesn't deal with them, or with what would happen, if one started using voice chat in class settings. In general, the world is moving into online learning environments where one can post an essay, see one's teacher and classmates live, regardless of physical proximity, and have an ongoing chat on the side; this, however, is often overwhelming for even native speakers. I recommend putting students in this environment, since it is apparent that online conferencing will play a crucial role in modern business and diplomacy in the near future, but for students struggling with the language in the first place, it's best to start with the component parts of the process, i.e. chatting (1).

txt msg

It's important to distinguish chat, which happens with a full keyboard, from text messaging (or SMS), which generally happens from a phone with more limited keyboard. Text messages are more extremely abbreviated than chat, so they rely more on partners being able to understand the more extremely abbreviated forms. I don't have a lot of experience with text messaging, but know that in some environments it is used often enough to become essentially its own language, and gather its own idioms, unknown outside of the texting universe. Generally, its rigid abbreviation patterns serve as a proving grounds: if thousands of texters understand pls, thx & lol, every time, these will move over into chat and slowly into standard writing. Why not? Everyone understands them! Texting tends to be more common where people are always moving, always relying on simpler cell-phones, or, for example, in classes, where the smaller keyboards on phones can be manipulated more easily, more quickly, and more secretly, than larger ones. Again, I have to admit to not fully understanding this universe of activity, much of which goes on without me even knowing, even in my own classroom.

As time goes by, the distinction between texting and chatting (especially in the minds of those for whom they were not clearly distinct to begin with) seems to fade, at least in English in the US; certainly more cell phones have better capability (and students increasingly carry the higher-capability phones), and regular chat, by virtue of its huge popularity, abbreviates more and looks more like text messaging. They are not the same, however; at least they did not start out that way. Any literate native speaker can start chatting in any given environment, for example the hotel exchange mentioned above, and chatters on the other end, regardless of how adept they are at texting or other kinds of chat, can simply adapt by typing more standard semi-formal English. This is fairly common, and can be observed any time an older teacher begins chatting with more adept and more jaded texters (2).

Some effort has actually been made to reach out to the veteran texters, and engage with them about their language, even use it in the process of teaching (3).

An interesting question arises about the learners who have entered English through the use of texting English; who, perhaps, have logged hundreds of hours texting for every formal sentence they've tried to produce. What effect does this have on their progress? It's an open question (4).

MUD world chat

This is what the gamers play in multi-user, gaming environments such as World of Warcraft and Runescape (5). The chat here is part of the game, in that each player can speak to any other player, or block a particular other player, so that one gets a stream of chat when one plays, and can either respond or not respond. If someone spends six or more hours a day in one of these environments, we can say that they in effect have more experience with that language than any other, and this is not uncommon, especially among young boys in the US and in a host of other countries, including Korea and Japan. The question is really whether this vast experience can give the gamer any advantage over the person who is really much less familiar with the keyboard, or the appearance of language on the computer screen. In a native language, a gamer will type much more quickly than his/her classmates, but might get in trouble, for example, by being unable to sit in a class or by any keyboard for more than ten minutes without checking e-mail, or even checking e-mail without being aware of how it might appear to people who are standing right over him/her. The second-language gamer who enters an ESL computer-supported learning environment has a more interesting situation: what if one is introduced to English through one of these games, and one spends hours learning and playing while using that chat language? How does that influence one's learning, or one's later experience with the larger, more formal language? I'm not sure, but based on experience, I'd say that the gamer is more likely to be intimidated by the difference between gaming chat and the formal language he/she is trying to learn, intimidated especially by the awareness that the vulgarity and abbreviation he/she is used to is so strongly stigmatized in the academic world. The intimidation can lead to paralysis; yet the gamer, used to presenting a polite face to the world, and at the same time venting hostility by killing little electronic avatars on a playing field, often hides the fact that in fact he/she carries around significant skills - a familiarity with the keyboard, familiarity with browsers, flexibility in variation of chat settings, etc.

ASCII chats

This is a name given to languages that have sprung up using standard English-letter (qwerty) keyboards but essentially another language. ASCII Arabic is probably the most important and biggest (6), but the Indian subcontinent has had many, and Africa has also (7). An ASCII chat takes place when one or more typists does not have access to native language script capability, and is forced to use ASCII (qwerty) characters to replace the native script. People on both ends have to be able to understand the ASCII characters, or it won't work, but this was no problem for the users of these languages, most of whom had some training in English. For example, ASCII chats were very common among computer programmers from the Indian subcontinent, studying in the US, who wanted to chat with colleagues back home by computer; before most keyboards had Hindi capability, ASCII chats were easy, available, and convenient given the fact that the vast majority of programmers and their colleagues had familiarity with English letters and the sounds they were associated with anyway. ASCII Arabic actually takes some English letters, and some numbers also (I called it 3/5 chat for a while, since I saw a lot of 3's and 5's in it; these are numbers that look like Arabic letters and thus represent sounds). So a more correct characterization of the script is that it combines basic English letters with English numbers that look like Arabic letters- and, it spreads out words frequently, much as chatters are likely to use looooool. But there are remarkable features to ASCII Arabic which are important. First, ASCII Arabic is still strong, and widely used, in spite of the fact that almost all computers now have Arabic capability; some young people actually prefer it in many cases over Arabic script (8). Second, because spoken dialects of Arabic are so different from standard dialects, ASCII Arabic allows them to get closer to their spoken dialect with their script than traditional Arabic; it thus has become a major written source for descriptions of these spoken dialects (9).

As one who has been accused of being a behaviorist before, I'll admit that I believe that an activity that a student engages in many hours a day can and does influence their learning later in the day. So what do I do when I find that my students spend 3-5 hours a day typing in ASCII Arabic? Get them to talk about it; ask them if it is helping them with their formal English. Get them to describe why it is so difficult to use formal written English when they are so used to ASCII Arabic. One can look at this situation as a test of language learning principles. If people learn English in a natural progression, then it shouldn't matter what they do with their free time; we will teach them, they'll speak English in class, and they'll acquire it naturally and effortlessly as a result of the positive things they are doing in class. If, however, a set of similar but still different habits is occupying most if not all of their free time, then will these habits conflict with their new language? Will their habit of ignoring punctuation, for example, cost them in papers, essays and exams? Time will tell.

Truly bilingual chats

With these the advice becomes more difficult; we know so little about them. Two places I know of where large communities of people know two languages, and use them freely in electronic environments, are south Texas/north Mexico (Spanish- English) and Taiwan (Mandarin-Taiwanese). I am very interested in these environments, because in essence there are enough people fluent in two languages that chatters can use whatever is most convenient from either language and fully expect people at the other end to understand. The obvious question that arises is whether another language, of consistently mixed grammar and vocabulary, can emerge from this situation. Further questions: is this a good environment for a monolingual student to get his/her feet wet with a new language? Does extensive time communicating in this venue compromise one's ability to think or speak clearly and distinctly in a single one of them?

You may ask me to provide evidence that this even happens; at the moment, I don't have it (10). I can only say that I believe truly bilingual chats are far more common now; that there is a likelihood that they develop into dialects or languages of their own, mostly on the basis of frequent use, distinctness in terms of online environment, and usefulness to people on both sides of a given language divide; that, finally, we as teachers will see evidence of people coming to us from this environment, and/or asking us about the value of using language in it, and its effects on learning a formal language as they are practicing. At this point I would not know what to tell them, though I have some idea. I'll save it for research.

Native language chats

Students may spend enormous amounts of time chatting with their friends back home, or even across the classroom, in their native languages. My attitude about this, I'll admit, is different from that of most teachers I know, many of whom will confiscate a bilingual dictionary in class, reprimand students for speaking in native language, or even charge fines for doing so, to be used later for end-of-term parties. My attitude is that they are adults (mine are, anyway); they control their time and their fate; labeling their native language as evil or wrong is pointless and counterproductive, as it attacks the core of their being, and they are sure to fight back, if not overtly, at least covertly. The major variable in their ability to learn and master academic English is their willingness to study it and use it; time spent doing other things may interfere, but mostly in terms of the time itself, not specifically because of the language itself. This partly contradicts the section above; it's true that, as the language they are using approaches English in its structure and look, the chances of it interfering with their English are greater (11). Any activity that they do to the exclusion of studying is harmful by default, but in general, the activities involved in chatting, including reading & interpreting, typing, and mastery of browsers and programs necessary to open and operate a chat, are good for them. The major variable in their learning arc, so to speak, is how much time they choose to spend, thinking, reading and writing in formal or semi-formal English. Having good, meaningful assignments is the best way to get to that point.

1. I have never actually put my students on online learning environments, and so can't speak to the process; I have not even begun to carry out a plan I have to set up a small but international conference involving my students and experts in a given field, or at least people who would be willing to talk to them in comprehensible English about a topic they want to hear about. For example, I thought that, since our hometown is a former residence of Buckminster Fuller, and home of a couple of domes modeled after his ideas, we could do a project on learning more of these, and invite international people to contribute. As sponsors, we could organize, hear interesting speeches, and become experts on an interesting slice of architectural and American history.

2. Each person carries his or her idea of what will be understood on the other end, and tries to adhere to that standard. In the presence of a respected teacher, the natural tendency is to try to maintain a standard that the teacher will understand and appreciate. This goal is not always achieved; informalities slip out.

3. My own attitude toward teaching with text-messaging is similar to that of the communicative teacher who disdains teaching with the native language of his/her students, since it reinforces habits of thinking in a language other than the one he/she is teaching. I would also point out, though, that it never hurts for a teacher to at least know something about the language his/her students are using with so much of their time, thus becoming familiar with patterns they prefer and use virtually without thinking. Carvin (2008) is a gateway to information about reaching out to texters and harnessing their knowledge and skills; Sheneman (2007) mentioned using it with ESL students.

4. The influence of texting on learning is debated in native teaching environments, where grade school teachers decry the texting abbreviations that pop up on formal exams and in other places. While anecdotally ESL/EFL teachers have also seen abbreviated forms such as u, r, and thx on formal papers, the actual "interference" caused by learning what is essentially another language is much harder to document. If one learns two new languages at the same time, is the second harder to learn because of the first? Is this impossible, inadvisable, or irrelevant? Does the resemblance of text-English to formal English influence our answer to this question? These are all research questions that I expect to be tackled in the near future, perhaps with government grant money, but probably not by me.

5. World of Warcraft and Runescape are perhaps two of the most popular; there are many more.

6. See Palfreyman and al Khalil (2003), below.

7. I know of no typology of ASCII chats, but would love to see one.

8. I hear this from my students.

9. This claim comes from Palfreyman and al Khalil (2003, see below).

10. I first encountered what I considered a truly bilingual Spanish-English chat zone about a year ago, but have lost the link; it struck me as amazing that both languages were bantered around so freely under the assumption that everyone knew everything. My Taiwanese students this year made the same claim about Taiwanese-Mandarin; they said that on the island virtually all young people spoke both, though they admitted that individually they may have a preference for one or the other; but that, in any case, much of their electronic chatting occurred using both frequently. Did they mix both the grammar and vocabulary? I asked them, and they responded, yes, as with other young people today, true integration of languages and cultures was far more common in their generation than, say with that of their parents, who were generally much more mono-linguistic and less inclined to mix.

11. I owe the essence of this principle to Andreas Kotsoudas, a professor I had at Iowa. I will look for the reference.

Barker, T. (2009, March 13). Texting surges as tool for more than just the young. St. Louis Post-Dispatch. ECD541041F7853698625756E0012DB17?OpenDocument. Accessed 3-09.

Carvin, A. (2008, October 16). Should schools teach SMS text messaging?, PBS Teachers. Accessed 1-09.

Leverett, T. (2008a, April). brb: Using chat in an esl/efl writing class. From Teaching writing in online and paper worlds, Demonstration, Writing IS, TESOL 2008, New York City.

___ (2008b, April). Digital fluency as goal and objective. From Teaching writing in online and paper worlds, Demonstration, Writing IS, TESOL 2008, New York City.

___ (2007a, Mar.). Fluency first: Fluency as a construct. From Student weblogging for fluency, skills and integration, Demonstration, Writing IS, TESOL 2007, Seattle WA.

___ (2007b, May). Dialects in a changing language. Global Study Magazine 4, 3. London. pp. 56-57. Available online at:

Palfreyman, D. and al Khalil, M. (2003, Nov.). "A Funky Language for Teenzz to Use": Representing Gulf Arabic in Instant Messaging. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 9 (1). Accessed 10-08.

Sheneman, K. (2007, May 3). Teaching through text message. The Rebel Yell, Univ. of Nevada Las Vegas. Accessed 1-09.

Text messaging. (n.d.). Wikipedia. Accessed 1-09.

1. Presentation home
2. Introduction & table of contents
3. Chat & esl/efl bibliography
4. where u at w/chat weblog

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