This monograph, a revised version of the author’s 2011 dissertation, is an empirical analysis of text chat interactions in informal language learning. The data come from the synchronous text chat “JETZT Deutsch lernen” (‘NOW Learn German’), a tool hosted, moderated and tutored by the Goethe Institute that is open to any user around the globe. The chat data sets consisting of 40 tutored and 40 untutored chat hours were subjected to both quantitative and qualitative analysis. In the “JETZT Deutsch lernen” chat room, users typically participate as individuals rather than as group members and ask questions about German language and culture.
Following a research review of interaction and computer-mediated communication in Second Language Acquisition (SLA) in Part A (Chapters 1-3), the author describes the design of this study (Part B: Chapters 4-5) and reports her findings in three areas of analysis, namely a) error correction, b) learner questions related to language and c) learner questions related to culture (Part C: Chapters 6-10). The reference section is followed by an extensive appendix containing questionnaire forms, interview notes and analytical categories, inter alia.
Part A is divided into three chapters which provide an introduction to research into second language learning and interaction, technology use and text chat, respectively. Taking a sociocultural approach, Marques-Schäfer underscores the promise of second language text chat for language learning by arguing that through dialog and interaction learners can construct collective knowledge that contributes to second language competence. As learners negotiate questions of language and culture, language learning is conceptualized as a dynamic and interactive process, dependent on both cognitive and sociocultural factors. Chapter 2 provides a relatively broad description of technology use in language learning, highlighting the need for careful pedagogical design and planning. Chapter 3 describes the chat mode, its linguistic features and its pedagogical potential for language learning, and summarizes major research findings on text chat in SLA. Table 1 (pp. 68-86) gives a convenient overview of forty studies of text chat in SLA from 1994 to 2010, highlighting selected findings.
Part B introduces the present study, along with the research questions (Chapter 4) and provides a detailed description of the data collection and analysis procedures (Chapter 5). Following Smith (2003) and Tudini (2007), Marques-Schäfer identifies four phases in a chat sequence, namely “trigger”, “indicator”, “response” and “reaction to response”.
Part C reports on the findings. Following a very brief analysis and discussion of supplementary survey and interview data on learner participants and tutors in Chapter 6, Chapter 7 looks at error correction in text chats to ascertain to what extent chat participants and tutors correct themselves and/or others, which types of errors get corrected, and how, and how chat participants react to the corrections. Marques-Schäfer finds that error corrections are an important part of text chat interactions on the “JETZT Deutsch lernen” platform, with self-corrections occurring more frequently than other-corrections. Even in untutored text chat sessions participants were self-correcting. Other-corrections are done by tutors as well as peers but are requested only in tutored, not in untutored text chat sessions. Marques-Schäfer also finds that most error corrections concern spelling and grammar, rather than vocabulary or expression.
In Chapter 8 the analysis focuses on the extent to which learners use the text chat to ask metalinguistic questions, which kinds of questions the ask, and whether these questions arise in the emerging interaction. In addition, responses to such metalinguistic questions are analyzed. To do so, the author distinguishes between questions focused on form and questions focused on meaning. The findings show that tutored sessions promoted more metalinguistic questions than untutored sessions. Roughly half arose out of the ongoing interaction (48%), while 52% did not, suggesting that it is an important tool for language learners, a place where they can get answers to their questions. Roughly 90% of metalinguistic questions were answered, a remarkably high percentage in light of the speed of the interaction. In answering these questions, tutors used a range of techniques from providing synonyms or examples to referring participants to websites. Based on her analysis, the author concludes that the metalinguistic exchanges in the chat interactions promote language learning.
Chapter 9 provides a broad introduction to teaching culture in SLA before zooming in on the central question, how intercultural text chat can promote (inter-)cultural competence. The analysis explores to what extent learners ask questions on culture in “JETZT Deutsch lernen”, what kinds of questions they ask and how these questions are answered by the tutors and/or other learners. The findings show that asking questions about German culture not only provides chat participants with the opportunity to talk about the target culture but also about their own or their peer’s culture. Because participants share their personal stance rather than merely facts and information, the author argues, these interactions often provide a window on cultural practices and perspectives. In her analysis she distinguishes between short-answer and long-answer questions. Most questions prompt short answers and frequently lead to intercultural comparisons. However, since questions requiring longer answers and requests for expansion or justification are rare there is little evidence of reflection on culture.
Chapter 10 provides a brief summary and conclusion.
Tapping into the biggest potential of technology for SLA, more and more language learners engage in informal or even incidental language learning (e.g., through global social media). This growing trend creates an urgent need in the field to understand how Web 2.0 tools shape the language and social interactions in second language contexts. Marques-Schäfer’s empirical study is a welcome addition and an important contribution to the growing body of research on interaction-oriented digital tools in language learning and as such enhances our understanding of how chat tools can promote learner interaction and exchange with peers and tutors. Whereas the vast majority of previous empirical studies have looked at data from intraclass or interclass formal language learning, this study breaks new ground in its analysis of computer-mediated informal language learning. As far as I know, this study is unique in the type of chat data analyzed. Unlike in most other studies, chat users participated as individual learners rather than groups of learners. Another important difference compared to prior research concerns the location of chat participants. Whereas other studies have drawn, for the most part, on chat data generated by two groups of participants in two locations such as in telecollaborative set-ups, participants in this study were geographically dispersed. Along with medium factors, these social factors are likely to impact computer-mediated discourse and interaction in major ways (Herring, 2007) and help to illustrate the rich variation inherent in learner computer-mediated communication. In this way, the study’s data sets featuring tutored and untutored chat interactions between learners and their peers and between learners and their tutors in this global informal language learning space extend the empirical base of chat research in SLA beyond interclass or intraclass formal language learning data.
With its analysis of learners’ metalinguistic and metacultural chat, which echoes the major research trajectories within the field of technology in language learning into negotiation of meaning and intercultural competence, this study’s broad goals have been achieved in part because the research questions have a fairly narrow focus. In each of the areas of analysis, the research questions are formulated in such a way as to allow for the coding of analytical categories (e.g., self-initiated self-correction, other-initiated self correction, self-initiated other-correction, other-initiated other-correction.). In the intercultural competence section that analyzes learners’ questions about German culture, some of the analytical categories are more useful than others. Tutor G’s question ‘Were you a sailor with the Navy?’ in extract 88 (p. 268) is coded as a question that invites a short answer (presumably because it’s a yes-no question) but in the context of Tutor G’s repeated attempts to elicit extended discourse, the coding of questions into those that invite short answers versus long answers does not advance the analysis. After all, some questions that invite short answers may just be a way to coax the interlocutor into more extended discourse. Yet, Marques-Schäfer also offers an in-depth, spot-on data analysis and discussion of some data extracts. Referring to extract 96 (p. 284), for example, she discusses some of the pedagogical challenges that arise in the computer-mediated discussion of clichés and stereotypes. Data coding into analytical categories may be useful but does not always do enough to enhance our understanding how, in the emerging interaction, learners construct collective knowledge that contributes to second language competence.
Overall, Marques-Schäfer’s book is best when she delves more deeply into the microlevel analysis and discussion. From that perspective, the barely forty pages allotted to the analysis and discussion of learners’ metacultural questions (pp. 258-297) leave this reader wanting more, perhaps an unreasonable expectation given the scope of analysis. Because the intercultural analysis is only one of three foci, the book’s subtitle “An analysis of intercultural interactions in chat” is somewhat misleading.
Another quibble is with some of the introductory sections of the book. The perspective at the beginning of chapter 2, for example, seems far too broad before zooming in on what is relevant. One wonders why the reader needs the excursion into the digital divide or digital literacy; after all, they don’t seem central to the main line of argument. Similarly, in chapter 9 the author begins the chapter on metacultural questions with a broad discussion of language and culture that offers little of use for the ensuing analysis. Overall, the book is well-written and remarkably error-free, with the exception of a few typos. However, a formatting error in extract 88 (p. 268) could lead to confusion as the transcript lines in the left column and the analytical code on the right seem to be misaligned.
Among the most interesting findings are the results of a comparison between tutored and untutored chat sessions, the participants’ insistence on correct spelling and abundant reporting of personal concrete cultural experiences that neither challenge co-participants nor prompt real reflection of cultural perspectives. These and other results are contextualized appropriately in the discussion. Yet, the data sets analyzed also prompt many more questions, e.g., how intercultural interactions and meta-cultural talk change in the absence of common cultural ground, to what extent negotiation of meaning or metalinguistic talk may differ when the target language also serves as a ‘lingua franca’, or whether among the individual chat participants there is any evidence of social cohesion or perhaps even of ‘tribalization’. The discussion hints at some of these questions and thus opens up potential future research. With implications for future research and informal language learning practice, the book should be of interest to CALL researchers.
Herring, S. C. (2007). A faceted classification scheme for computer-mediated discourse. “Language@ internet”, 4(1), 1-37.
Smith, B. (2003). Computer–mediated negotiated interaction: an expanded model. “The Modern Language Journal”, 87(1), 38-57.
Tudini, V. (2007). Negotiation and intercultural learning in Italian native speaker chat rooms. “The Modern Language Journal”, 91(4), 577-601.