second language acquisition

Technology and Learning for Language Students

By Dr. Rebecca Sachs

According to Conole (2008), many students appear to be autonomously “creating their own social networks to support their learning” (p. 135), and several studies have shown that learners tend to have favorable attitudes toward the use of communication technologies in language classes.

In view of this, it has been argued that institutions failing to appreciate and build on students’ preferred modes of communication “run the risk of becoming irrelevant to the culture of discourse for young people and to the way in which people interact and exchange ideas” (Sendall, Ceccucci, & Peslak, 2008, p. 5). Student expectations may increasingly create a need for training and professional development among language educators, many of whom may not be digital natives themselves and, even if they are, may not be fully prepared to assist learners in avoiding communication breakdowns in computer-mediated intercultural encounters.

To make best use of the language learning opportunities available through CMC (computer-mediated communication), Lai and Li (2011) argue that teachers must take on multifaceted roles that involve making sense of a “complex system of digital literacy, communicative competency, and intercultural understanding” (p. 507). Beyond preparing their students with culturally appropriate strategies for negotiating meaning, language educators need to be adept at encouraging self-reflection and raising awareness of the affordances and socio-cultural norms surrounding various technologies. In doing so, it will be crucial not to neglect a focus on the linguistic. Considering the likelihood (supported by research) that learners may overlook communicatively redundant grammatical forms when focusing primarily on conveying meaning, teachers may need to set up expectations for metalinguistic analysis and self-correction and explicitly promote attention to inflectional markings and syntax, for example. Whether in CMC or FTF (face-to-face) environments, solid pedagogical task design plays a major role in calling attention to linguistic features that learners may need to notice in order to increase their language proficiency.

Finally, it is worth emphasizing that not everyone in the “Net Generation” actually conforms to stereotypes about digital natives and that technology itself does not improve language instruction. CMC may become normalized to the point of becoming invisible, but there will always be differences among learners, and many aspects of sound pedagogy will look exactly the same.

Much of the information in this article draws on overviews and evaluations of empirical research as summarized by Golonka, Bowles, Frank, Richardson, and Freynik (2012, Computer Assisted Language Learning); Lai and Li (2011, CALICO); Macaro, Handley, and Walter (2012, Language Teaching); Steel and Levy (2013, ReCALL); and Wang and Vásquez (2012, CALICO); as well as on a chapter I am co-authoring with Dr. Ken Petersen for a forthcoming edited collection entitled Technology and Second Language Learning: A Psycholinguistic Approach (Editors: Ronald Leow, Luis Cerezo, and Melissa Baralt; Publisher: De Gruyter). These sources can be consulted for broader and more detailed reviews of computer-assisted language learning.