Parlez-vous #emoji? Fostering Intercultural Discourse via Social Media

trentBy Trent Hoy, Adjunct Professor of French at Broward College, FL.

“What’s that?” I asked, gesturing at the half-packed box sitting on my parents’ kitchen table. I was visiting for Christmas and any present-shaped object immediately piqued my curiosity and warranted further investigation. “Oh, a goody box for my Twitter friend in England!” replied my mother cheerfully. Twitter friend?! Since when did my mother talk to strangers on the Internet? “She’s part of my German Shepherd group and we wanted to send her and her dog some American treats.” Unbeknownst to me, my mother had built a network of fellow German Shepherd owners by actively engaging and participating in the Twitter community. Not only had her messages reached people across the country and internationally, but also in other languages. She regularly saw comments on her photos whose messages were only decipherable from the kissy face and dog emojis. Even on topics other than pets, my mother regularly conversed with English learners around the world. Simply by sharing something she enjoyed, she was participating in international, intercultural, and interlanguage exchange.

As language teachers, we dream of inspiring our students to practice autonomously and make human connections outside of the classroom. Using the internet to find engaging authentic resources and to connect to native speakers is nothing new. For quite some time, pioneering instructors have curated linguistic and cultural artifacts from all over the web for examination by students. They’ve networked with international contacts to launch computer-mediated-communication programs with instant messaging and video chat. It comes as no surprise then that many educators have begun turning to a now integral part of internet use – social media. Yet applying this same curation model to tweets and posts ignores the fundamentally communicative and participatory aspects of social media that have rendered it so successful. How can we as teachers harness student enthusiasm and encourage authentic discourse rather than outside observation?

The secret lies in designing activities that emulate the same types of interactions and communicative styles that natively occur on individual social media platforms. Additionally, we can use these interactions to assess learner productions. To adequately do so, the media type should naturally elicit language functions that can be tied to ACTFL standards. By establishing both a base mode of communication and method of assessment that are scalable to learner level, we open the door for a myriad of options for authentic language production.

 

When creating opportunities for students to connect with others via social media, we should first understand how people generally communicate in these contexts. Messages are largely personal, expressing preferences, reactions, and commentary on a variety of topics. They are also intrinsically interactive, in that they request, implicitly or explicitly, a dialogue of some kind via sharing, tagging, and hashtagging. But above all, they are short. Even though the majority of social media platforms have generous character limits, users typically avoid lengthy writing, favoring frequent short posts instead. Furthermore, it’s not just the message that is short, but also the time spent creating it. The average mobile phone user only connects to social networking apps for two to three minutes at a time (Localytics). Part of the appeal of social media is the ability to capture every fleeting thought and moment, no matter how mundane. Thus our activities should hinge on pseudo-spontaneous self-expression that encourages inquiry and intercultural interaction.

 

Diving headfirst into a global conversation is doubtlessly daunting for many instructors and students alike. Wading in together within a classroom setting can act as a much more manageable initiation. Before turning to the outside world, it is crucial that teachers establish a supportive environment and a safe space for practice. This not only allows for correction and clarification of messages that will eventually be transmitted to a wider audience, but also underscores issues in online privacy, refines netiquette, and builds community. The design of these in-class activities should again mirror natural behaviors. It is important to recall the brief nature of social media and app interactions and therefore limit the time spent with the technology. This not only reinforces spontaneity, but also prevents straying off-task. In-class activities should also be fairly simple and straightforward. Lengthy instructions and complex, reflective tasks are best reserved for other forms of practice or assessment.

One such activity that I have done with my students uses Instagram. When learning adjectives of personality in my Beginning French I course, the novice-low and novice-mid learners divide into groups and take selfies portraying an adjective of their choice. They then write an appropriate caption and include relevant hashtags, including one unique to our class. I can use this tag to then pull up all of the images on the Instagram site and have students guess the vocabulary based on the photos. This kind of activity could easily be adapted for a wide range of vocabulary and learners. I’ve outlined below some important aspects of this activity and suggestions for modification.

 

 Selfie Activity

 Instagram, hashtag, picture of students

 App: Instagram

Students

 Instructor

  • Learning Outcome: Familiarity with French adjectives of personality
  • Activity Types: Practice, Review
  • Simple: Take and upload a group selfie
  • Social: Students work together and share their work with the class
  • Short: The process of taking, captioning, and posting a picture takes under 5 minutes
  • See below for instructor prep and evaluation
  • Easily adapted for any course format or to another app or site (e.g. Twitter, LMS)
  • Free, Top 10 Downloaded Apps
  • Students share a device and work together; only one student per group needs an Instagram account

Additional Instructions

  • Remind photographers to make their accounts Public before posting their picture. Otherwise, you won’t be able to see them.
  • Have students write a short target language caption and add relevant hashtags.
  • To easily track the photos down, have them also include a hashtag unique to you or your class. You may also want to have students tag you in the photos so that you’ll receive notifications as they are posted.
  • Using the Instagram website, search for your unique hashtag and show them to the class.
  • Have students guess the adjectives being portrayed in each photo.

Possible Alterations

  • Can be used with any topic that students can represent visually
  • Use Twitter or your Learning Management System to avoid dealing with Instagram’s privacy settings or to limit additional apps or accounts needed by students
  • Make it a competition by having students vote for the best picture by “liking” other photos. You can even track who liked which photos to prevent voting for their own submission.

 

Apart from in-class practice and review, integrating social media into assessments can expand the scope of conversation beyond the classroom. A key facet of social media is the facility of broadcasting your voice and joining global conversations. By taking advantage of trending hashtags, students can not only make their voices heard, but also have rapid access to an unprecedented range of other opinions and perspectives. These linguistic samples are fertile ground for not only interpretive tasks, but also cultural comparisons and analysis. Crafting Integrated Performance Assessments (IPAs) around social media both provides boundless worldwide native productions and ample opportunity for student agency and self-expression. With Twitter, for example, we can use trending hashtags to compare and contrast views both between and within linguistic groups. Below is a sample IPA and how it can be adapted to different learner levels:

 

Les Jeux Olympiques (The Olympic Games)

 Students browse Twitter results for target language Olympic-related hashtags, e.g. #JeuxOlympiques, as well as English hashtags, #Rio2016, #Olympics, etc. for comparison

Communicative Mode and Task

Proficiency Level Interpretive Interpersonal Presentational
Novice Compile a list of popular sports and athletes for both language groups Discuss findings with a partner and share their own preferences Present your findings and how you compare; Write a tweet stating which sport/athlete you like and use an appropriate L2 hashtag
Intermediate Find tweets narrating and reacting to a match or competition of your choice Discuss findings with a partner and compare reactions Describe the event, summarizing what happened, how others reacted, and your personal reaction; Tweet your reaction and use an appropriate L2 hashtag
Advanced Find expressions of patriotism (and nationalism), noting responses to successes, failures, and controversies Discuss findings with a partner and determine the pros and cons of similar large-scale international competitions Choose a side and argue for/against the Olympics, citing evidence from tweets and discussion; Tweet personal opinion about a controversial situation and use an appropriate L2 hashtag

 

Similar suggestions could be made for Snapchat, Facebook, YouTube, and a variety of other social media and networking platforms. I’ve included at the end of this article additional examples of social media, common interaction types, and examples of student practice opportunities. Even less widespread media or more niche networks can provide unique opportunities for authentic interaction on specific topics. Students can view and post restaurant and business reviews on Yelp or interact professionally with international peers on LinkedIn. No matter the scale, the key to social media’s success is in self-expression and therein lies our point of entry as language educators. We need to meet students where they are and let them share and discuss what is personally meaningful. Yet just as we help our students expand from discussion of “I” to “you” to “they”, so too does social media afford us the opportunity to both capitalize on selfie culture and cast a critical eye on greater global trends.

It is crucial, however, to keep in mind that not everyone uses all social media or even the same social media in the same way. While we should contribute to learner agency and let students lead, we must also be active in creating guidelines lest any individual be alienated or even abused. Students may not be willing to use their personal accounts for school, so suggesting using an alternative account or email address may alleviate fears of the unwanted merging of the personal and public persona. Many of these platforms allow for multiple accounts and it is often fairly simple to switch between them. Students may be initially wary (or overly gleeful) of using typically contraband devices or media within a classroom context, but with proper guidance they can use it as a truly connective tool to expand their world beyond their own friend list.

My mother is also a professor, and though I may have never been one of her students, her experiences have certainly taught me a lot about encouraging students to engage others in ways that are personally meaningful. Even without explicitly trying, she garnered followers from a variety of cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Their bond over common interests led to a deeper level of unforced cultural exchange. By harnessing the defining aspects of diverse social media platforms, we can nurture the innate desire to connect with others and foster authentic, meaningful second language interactions.

References

Localytics. “Time in App Increases by 21% Across All Apps.” September 16, 2014. Accessed February 15, 2016, http://info.localytics.com/blog/time-in-app-increases-by-21-across-all-apps

 

Twitter

When you only have 140 characters, you have to make your words count! This is great for novice students who can’t yet produce at length as well as more advanced students who are learning to distinguish nuance and carefully choose words. Users can also post images, gifs, and even polls to engage with others. As with Instagram, short back-and-forth conversations and the ability to connect to a global conversation with common hashtags allow Twitter to be used for innumerable topics. Novices can make a simple statement of preference tagging the account of a brand or celebrity, while advanced learners could discuss a trending sociocultural topic.

Activity Design Notes

Since the character count is so limited, instructors may want to forego a common class hashtag in favor of following every student’s account. The instructor can then add students to a Twitter List to facilitate tracking individual tweets. Twitter accounts are by nature public and multiple accounts cannot be tied to the same email address. In order to ensure personal privacy, instructors may want to encourage students to create alternate accounts using a school email.
Proficiency level Interpretive

Browsing hashtags and reading tweets

Interpersonal

Replying to tweets

Presentational

Composing original tweets

Novice Compile lists on a familiar topic, such as popular music, movies, or sports Reply with a statement of preference on a familiar topic, either concurring or dissenting with the original tweet

Conduct a poll about a preference or familiar topic

Tweet a preference on a familiar topic and include an appropriate L2 hashtag
Intermediate Reconstruct a series of events from tweets Reply with a question about an event

Reply with a reaction to an event, either concurring or dissenting with the reaction of the original tweet

Conduct a poll about reactions to an event

Tweet a reaction to an event and include an appropriate L2 hashtag
Advanced Analyze tweets about an event or controversial topic and understand the different perspectives Reply to a tweeted opinion, either concurring or dissenting, including additional justification

Conduct a poll about opinions on a controversial topic

Tweet an opinion and justification about a controversial event or topic and include an appropriate L2 hashtag

 

 

 

Instagram

More than simply posting pictures and short videos, Instagram encourages users to caption their images and comment on those of others. Students of all levels can demonstrate presentational writing proficiency through either method. Students can document vocabulary items, demonstrate adjectives or verbs, and a variety of other visually-representable concepts, then present their work with an appropriate-level caption. Their peers can then leave comments to practice situationally appropriate expressions, posing questions, or even draw in others to the conversation with tags and hashtags.

Activity Design Notes

Instagram allows users to set their accounts to either public or private. While they can post and comment while on either setting, a private profile limits the visibility of posts to only approved followers. In order to reach a global audience, student accounts must be public. In order to ensure personal privacy, instructors may want to encourage students to create alternate accounts using a school email. The Instagram interface allows users to very easily switch back and forth between different accounts.
Proficiency level Interpretive

Browsing hashtags, reading captions and comments

Interpersonal

Replying to comments

Presentational

Captioning photos and posting comments

Novice Compile lists about photos on a familiar topic, such as popular music, movies, or sports Comment on a photo (or reply to a comment) and state your own preference about a familiar topic Post and caption a photo or video demonstrating familiar vocabulary and include appropriate L2 hashtags
Intermediate Reconstruct events from a photo or series of photos Comment on a photo (or reply to a comment) that documents an event. Ask a question or post a reaction. Post and caption a photo or video representing an event and include appropriate L2 hashtags
Advanced Analyze photos that portray an event or controversial topic and understand the different perspectives Comment on a photo (or reply to a comment) that represents a perspective that you disagree with. Justify your position Post a photo or video representing an opinion about a controversial event or topic; Write a caption that explains and justifies your stance and include appropriate L2 hashtags
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