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Can Facebook help language learners?

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Can Facebook be educational? Can teachers use it? Can English teachers use Facebook as a way of helping language learners? Fran Austin looks at the language learning possibilities offered by this popular social network.

What?

We all knew that the use of online communities to build bridges between people who share ideas, information and interests would eventually catch up with us, and that many of us would be enticed into the use of them in our workplace. The use of computers has become increasingly embedded in our everyday lives. So much so, that we struggle to pass a single day without the use of one.

The online community Facebook is fundamentally altering life for better or worse; even the White House and many police departments have their own Facebook pages! From a girl who is reunited with her birth mother with the help of Facebook, to a woman who lost her job because of her online postings, there are an abundance of Facebook stories to tell.  And millions of people around the world are tapping away right now on their keyboards as a member of Facebook; chatting, flirting, participating and discussing with friends and strangers.

But can Facebook be educational? Can teachers use it? Can English teachers use Facebook as a way of helping language learners?

Why?

I am a teacher at Oxford House in Barcelona and I have noticed that there has been an outburst of students and language trainers, here and in other academies, becoming active members of social networking communities. From a personal and professional point of view, I have embraced the idea of using such a resource to promote positive relationships among students, individualized opportunities to interact with fellow classmates, language learners and professionals.

Native speakers of a variety of foreign languages have found online communities an essential tool to build bridges between those learning, studying and teaching, to create a common platform for an exchange of ideas and information. Many people use these communities either as a complement to their classes, in order to increase exposure to natural language, for additional exercises, or for communication. Many students rely on technology for information gathering, to stay up-to-date  on social concerns and national issues, for inter-personal communication, and as a way to learn. It’s a simple fact that without the use of computers and the support of internet platforms, we would be holding back our students from the language exposure they need.

Another reason to use social networks and communities such as Facebook is that sometimes textbooks are not always reliable sources of  input for language learners. They usually provide a limited amount of information about conversational norms, and may contain language samples that are not authentic. Unfortunately, this trend has not particularly evolved, even though some foreign language textbooks attempt to discuss typical socio-pragmatic situations, such as the use of appropriate form of address (i.e.: tu/usted in Spanish) in order to reduce errors or deficiencies that learners often demonstrate. Facebook can provide an avenue for exposure to sociolinguistics, and eventually competence in this area, due to the variety of language found here.

Global varieties of English and colloquial expressions are also lacking, and exposure to English via a medium such as Facebook could make up for this. Encouraging students to use different online tools will expose them to different varieties of English, as well as the standardized English found in most text books.

Some teachers use online media  also to promote learner autonomy. As language teachers, we should be promoting learner autonomy in all of our classrooms. When promoting learner autonomy we can often refer our students to online resources. So why not refer them to a place they are already accustomed to and which is already integrated into many of their daily lives?

How?

A variety of options are possible on Facebook as a group member or page fan for sharing views, ideas, and topics, and engaging in virtual cyber discussions. Being a member or fan highlights the benefits of authentic language interaction and the development of socio-pragmatic awareness, which is an aspect of language acquisition that is often omitted in textbooks.

A learner can use observation as one of the best tools for understanding the practices of any given community. Furthermore, the same tasks will be an eye opening experience for many language learners who usually have had little exposure to language variation. Language varieties exhibited by members of Groups from various English-speaking countries exposes learners to linguistic varieties and colloquialisms that language departments and textbooks cannot match. The initial experience with language variation increases understanding of actual language use in context.

In addition, accessing group discussions on Facebook can help language learners to comprehend how culture and language are interrelated as well as develop their awareness about the fact that certain speech acts are difficult to translate from their native language to the target one for cultural reasons.

Groups and Pages on Facebook are also often associated with linguistic-geographical pride and present basic images associated with the main concept introduced, such as flags or landmarks, powerful visual cues for certain types of learners. Consequently, language variation and other important linguistic and cultural issues can effortlessly be presented to learners.

As educators it is essential to take advantage of such technological tools to enhance autonomous language education and abandon our pre-digital instinct and comfort zones. Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping experience and transforming it. So, we can assume that language can be acquired by communication with, or exposure to, native and non-native speakers on Facebook.

What now?

If you are a teacher, I challenge you. Set your students a task on Facebook which will get them interacting online. You could ask your students to join in a Group discussion on a topic you have visited in class; read articles posted on Facebook pages to explain to the group in the next class; or visit a page and make notes on the differences found between British and American English. It’s up to you. Have fun!

You can visit the Oxford TEFL Facebook page here and the Oxford House Facebook page here.

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