VIRTUAL COMMUNITIES =REAL COMMUNICATION? THE LLCM Conference October 12, 2009 National Foreign Language Resource Center University of Hawai’i at Manoa -------- Gilberte Furstenberg Foreign Languages and Literatures MIT
Huge area • So many different kinds of virtual or online “communities” (social, professional) • Such a huge variety of modes of communication (via chatrooms, blogs, Flickr, My Space, Facebook, Twitter, etc..) and a variety of environments such as MUDs, MOOs,etc.. Everybody (including us) seems to be chating, tweeting, blogging, etc.. • So many different definitions of “communication” • So many ways of defining what “real” communication is. -----> will quickly narrow it to a particular type of online community, within a specific context (a language class) and with a specific purpose (developing intercultural understanding)
My goals for this talk • First set up the broader context for language-based intercultural learning • share with you what I see as the key components for ensuring “real/virtual” online communication between our students and the students abroad • focus on the very important questions of the teacher’s role and the issue of assessment • share important lessons I have learnt regarding the design and use of technology for learning language and culture in general
My perspective • Will speak on subject, not as theorist or even researcher but as a practitioner, and share my 12-year experience developing and using Cultura - a web-based exchange for developing students’ intercultural understanding • Personal background: not a “teckie”, but someone who views technology as a pedagogical tool
Back to the question VIRTUAL COMMUNITIES = REAL COMMUNICATION? • Obviously not a mathematical formula. • Communication within virtual communities: not more or less “real” than face-to-face communication • Indeed: we all know how easy it is to “parler pour ne rien dire” (= speak empty words)
Parler pour ne rien dire…? • It is quite common practice indeed… • It is also a subject of great debate (for the French at least) who even manage to turn this into a philosophical question.
But back again to our basic question • What constitutes “real” communication? • The corollary question for us being: Is there any way we, language teachers, can ensure that it takes place in the new virtual intercultural communities our students are involved in?
A quick definition of “communication” vs “real communication” Taken from a World Bank blog: • “Most dictionaries and basic textbooks define communication basically as “the act of sending messages or, more specifically as a sender transmitting messages through channels to one or more receivers [..] • Communicationneeds to be seen as a two-way process not used exclusively to send message or pass information, but to explore, discover and generate knowledge and consensus. Interestingly enough, the semantic root of the word communication is the same as in communion and community and it is about sharing [..] • It would imply that communication should not be restricted to informing people and persuading them to change certain attitudes or behaviors, but it should be used also to facilitate dialogue, build trust and ensure mutual understanding”
“Trust and mutual understanding” are in short supply • Cultural divides are many and deep, in our societies as well as the geopolitical arena. • Examples abound every day • The need for bridging cross-cultural barriers is greater than ever in spite of the globalization of our world • The necessity for us all to develop the skills that will allow us to “really” communicate across cultures is being increasingly recognized as central and crucial.
Intercultural communication is now increasingly taking center stage… … in domains such as: - business (the role of culture in international business now widely recognized) - and academia, with the internationalization of the curriculum being a very big topic (as illustrated by the creation of the “Internationalization Collaborative” by the American Council on Education), and such initiatives as the CLAC Consortium (Cultures and Languages across the curriculum)
A few quotes • “By preparing our students to work, lead, and thrive in cultures around the globe, we equip them with crucial skills for tackling the world’s great challenges.” Susan Hockfield, President, MIT. • “Giving MIT students deep knowledge of other languages and cultures, and the capacity to be global citizens and wise leaders, is vital to a 21st century education - and critical to the Institute’s leadership position”. Deborah K. Fitzgerald, Kenan Sahin Dean MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
The 2007 MLA Report .. made it very clear by emphasizing the importance of developing students "translingual and transcultural competence”, adding that it is one of five imperative needs to which higher education must respond in the next ten years if it is to remain relevant. http://www.mla.org/flreport http://www.mla.org/mlaissuesmajor
We, in FL, are at the heart of that mission • Have always been (teaching language and culture) • We have always known they are inextricably linked, and teaching about foreign cultures has always been part and parcel of what we do • So we do have a very big role to play in the international education of our students! • But we need to do more. We need to convince our institutions how crucial a role we play, and show them how we do open our classrooms to the world.
In fact, we are already doing it… ….by using one of our greatest ally: technology We have long seen the assets of the WWW (enabling our students to explore the world at large) and have long seized the assets of the W2 tools, connecting our students with native speakers all over the world via chat rooms or environments such as MochaLive and Second Life (examples of which we will see in this Conference) • And now, increasingly: we use those tools, in our language classes, not just for language learning but for intercultural learning - many of us having developed telecollaborative projects, connecting our students with native students abroad, with the explicit goal of developing intercultural understanding.
A new challenge for us • Not trained • Not necessarily specialists in the fields of communication or culture • We are used and very adept at getting our students to communicate in class, but how do we get them to communicate with native students, with a focus on intercultural communication?
Now, the core question How do we get our students to enter into “real” online communication in a way that will really help them better understand the other culture?
Excerpt from a Cultura forum • Of what I consider to be real intercultural communication, and we’ll then take a step back and look at what ingredients seem key to creating real intercultural conversations and communities.
A conversation around the word “family” • Initial impetus: the students’ comparative analysis of the answers to the word “family”. • Subsequent forum
Alicia, an MIT student starts the conversation • One big difference that I noticed in reactions to this word was that on the American side, "love" showed up a lot of times. However, on the French side, only 2 people used "amour." I think that in America, there is a strong emphasis placed on cultivating a "loving, caring, supportive family environment" which is why "love” is one of the first words that come to mind. I was wondering, what do the French not use that word much..
Gabrielle, a French student, responds • Il semble effectivement que les Français utilisent moins le mot "amour" dans le test. Peut-être est-ce parce que, justement il n'y a aucune crainte de manquer d'amour, donc ce n'est pas une préoccupation. Cela dit, ce n'est qu'une théorie : je ne sais pas réellement à quoi cela tient. Il faudrait avoir plus de détails sur les contextes familiaux pour avoir une meilleure analyse. Mais cela deviendrait peut-être trop personnel...
Gaëlle, another French student, chimes in • J'ai également remarqué la forte concentration du mot amour dans vos réponses. Peut-être qu'en France, il reste plus implicite, caché, ceci ne signifiant pas alors que l'amour n'est pas présent.
Howard, an MIT student, asks a good question • Is it possible that love has a different connotation in France and other words related to love are being used do describe family on the French side? Words such as “entraide”, “bonheur”, “soutien”, etc.? From my experience, I know that Americans sometimes tend to overuse the word love and the exact meaning really depends on the context.
Alicia, responding to Gaëlle’s comment • I think Gaelle touched on something very interesting about love being a more implicit emotion in France than it is in America. Definitely in America, the word "love" is thrown around a lot. It is used a lot as a way of parting, like people will say "I love you" before ending a phone conversation with their boyfriend/girlfriend, parents or siblings, even sometimes with very good friends. This is something that happens very often and we don't think very much of it. I was wondering, what is the case in France? Are the words "amour" or "s'aimer" spoken very often?
Gaelle tries to respond • Cette question est vraiment intéressante. Les Français sont, je le crois, peut-être un peu pluspudiques, plus discrets sur leurs sentiments amoureux. Je viens de faire un petit sondage dans la classe pour savoir combien d'entre nous disaient parfois "je vous aime" à leurs parents. Or, personne ne semble le faire, moi y compris. Malgré cela, il est certain que cet amour existe. De votre côté, cette habitude (très bonne d'ailleurs) de dire "je t'aime" assez souvent n'entraine t-elle pas une dévalorisation partielle de ce mot? Existe t-il des mots plus forts encore que "love”?
Kezia, an MIT student, is confused.. • Interesting comment, Gaelle. I always thought that the French were more open about their emotions. The French always seem to be kissing and hugging each other. Whereas in America, people tend to touch less when they're in public. Some people even frown upon couples kissing in front of others and mothers breast-feeding their babies. Why do you say the French are more discreet?
To which Gaëlle responds… • Les Francais sont plus pudiques quant à leurs sentiments, le fait de les clamer haut et fort, mais il est effectivement fréquent d'apercevoir des couples s'embrasser dans la rue [..]
Some key components of this intercultural forum Students: • share observations and reactions (One big difference I noticed) • piggyback on s.o.’s observation (il semble effectivement) • make hypotheses (Peut-être que..is it possible that?)
Some key components (continued) • ask questions: why do the French not use that word much.. Are the words "amour" or "s'aimer" spoken very often? Are there other words? Existe t-il des mots plus forts encore que "love”? • acknowledge the others’ postings, going further: “I think that Gaelle touched on sth interesting. Cette question est vraiment intéressanteabout love being more implicit”(in the process acknowledging that she thought it was an interesting observation and perspective)
Some key components (continued) Students: • provide pertinent, real life illustrations (in America, the word "love" is thrown around a lot. It is used a lot as a way of parting, like people will say "I love you" before ending a phone conversation) • take initiatives: (Je viens de faire un petit sondage dans la classe..) • respond to questions
Some key components (continued) • challenge the other “Cette habitude (très bonne d'ailleurs) de dire "je t'aime" assez souvent n'entraine t-elle pas une dévalorisation partielle de ce mot?) • allude to the context (I know that Americans sometimes tend to overuse the word love and the exact meaning really depends on the context. • confront clichés and raise paradoxes (I always thought that the French.. The French always seem to be kissing and hugging each other…Why do you say the French are more discreet?
Finally students • learn some key cultural concepts, such as: • the different culturally imbedded ways of expressing emotions (saying and verbalizing vs showing and demonstrating) • Notions of implicit vs explicit Both being fundamental culturally driven values (values they will revisit when looking at other documents) • In the process, they also learn a lot of language and get to see first hand how the French structure their arguments
Essential components • Asking questions • In the context of comparing the French and American to what a good neighbor is, Ellie, an MIT student wrote: “After viewing the responses of the French students, it appears that in France, a good neighbor is simply one that respects your privacy and is discreet. In other words, there is not much interaction between neighbors at all. My question is: why is there not much interaction between neighbors in France? I feel like interacting with your neighbors is just another opportunity to make good friends”
Essential components Receiving informative responses Bénédicte • Peut-être que ces relations disons plutôt froides entre voisins viennent du fait que l’on n’aime pas que les autres se mêlent de nos affaires (même si ces derniers sont pleins de bonnes intentions). Another one wrote: Les Français sont souvent méfiants vis à vis de leurs voisins. Très souvent, les jardins mitoyens sont séparés par des murs ou des haies suffisamment hautes pour qu' on ne puisse pas être vu. Ne pas être vu est d' ailleurs une obsession chez beaucoup de Français.
Essential components Doing cross analysis of several documents, making connections, (spontaneously) raising paradoxes, in order to try and reconcile what they see as contradictions. In a discussion about what is viewed as “a good neighbor/un bon voisin”, an MIT student, referring back to a discussion about what constitutes a “rude person/une personne impolie” in the two cultures, asks:“in the "Rude Person", many Lille 3 students indicated that it is impolite not to say hello. How is it that strangers are expected to greet each other but neighbors do not socialize?”
Essential components • Synthezing observations - which often leads to complex, in-depth cultural feedback. • Hashem: "One major difference that I found between the two cultures is the issue of social norms. I felt like there was greater rigidity in the French culture on what is acceptable and what isn't when compared to the US. Do you feel like this is true based on what's been said in the forums and the questionnaires? I feel like in France, these social norms are much more defined and agreed upon by the people.". • "Salut Hashem, En ce qui concerne les conventions sociales, il faut savoir qu'ici les règles du "savoir-vivre" sont certes très codifiées et parfois complexes mais leur mise en application est très flexible. Il n'est pas réellement considéré comme inacceptable de ne pas respecter toutes les règles, bien au contraire : toute la subtilité des relations consiste à choisir la bonne mesure de politesse […]
Essential components Reading across several types of documents. Excerpt from an on-line discussion forum based on comparison of the films.. Allison - Hi Sébastien. I am surprised to hear that you think that the French don't accept authority well, and that is why you think the men didn't cooperate in the French movie. In the word associations for "police" and "authority", the French responses were much more positive than the American. Also, I was looking at the opinion polls on the Cultura page, and one poll asked French people if they had faith in the police... 70% said yes. There seems to be a contradiction here... What are your thoughts on this?
Essential components • Providing insider’s information and questioning back Fabrice G - Bonjour!. La contradiction entre le sondage qui montre que 70% des Français ont confiance en leur police nationale, et le fait que dans le film français la police se fait doubler, est caractéristique du fait que les Français font toujours le contraire de ce qu'ils disent en public. On craint l'autorité, donc on dit qu'on est confiant en elle. Mais derrière son dos on n'y pense plus, ou pire on essaye de la contourner. N'est ce pas le contraire aux Etats Unis, la police n'est-elle pas moins bien perçue ? en tout cas on pourrait le croire en regardant les réponses américaines au questionnaire sur l'association de mots. Mais en réalité on craint son pouvoir et donc on collabore avec elle.
Finally, a “real” intercultural forum is when.. • Students, in the process, reflect about themselves and their own culture • Example: In reaction to a posting by Martin, one of her classmates who had written: “I tend to notice that many Americans try to avoid confrontation as much as possible. While deep down it would really bother me to be cut in line by a complete stranger, I don't know them and I can't imagine starting a verbal confrontation with them”, another MIT student wrote: “Perhaps Martin has made a good point? I tend to want to avoid confrontation when I can (without, of course, causing myself harm), and I thought it was due to my personality. But perhaps Americans in general tend to want to avoid confrontation unless absolutely necessary”.
To summarize • The characteristics of a strong online intercultural community are: students helping understand each other’s culture, clarifying, explaining, providing “real” insider’s information
What helps… … this complex and multi-layered exchange of information is the fact that students express themselves in their native language. That is the only way they can fully express the complexity, nuances and subtleties that in-depth understanding of a culture requires.
The use of the native language… … also allows for the cultural differences of discourse to emerge and come to the surface
Discourse as a cultural artifact: an illustration • “In America I think people value individualism. Today especially, young people are concerned with being "individuals." When you see American fashion, you see a reflection of this type of thought. [..] Individualism also stands for original thinking and creative ideas. As an artist, I am always trying to be an individual, and I work for a personal and unique style”.
American discourse (continued) • “As an American, I feel that individualism is very important. Being an individual is the status of being unique and setting yourself apart from everyone else. [..] Unlike the French, I don't view individualism as a solitary and selfish quality. Being an individual helps me to help others because all people view things differently. [..] Being different doesn't make me feel lonely or alone. Knowing that I'm happy with who I am boosts my self-esteem”.