Finding Your Voice on the Internet – changing the language, building community, and reducing diversity?
Keynote address at CLESOL Conference, Christchurch, New Zealand, September, 2004
Introduction | Language | Community | Diversity | Conclusion

Reducing Diversity?

As a much younger man I like many others at the time wandered the world in search of idyllic, untouched locations that we could call our own. By untouched we meant untouched by Western civilization. We found one in southern Sri Lanka. We of course told our friends who told their friends and when I returned some years later I was horrified to see an international hotel on one side of the beautiful and previously untouched Welligama Bay. I somehow felt responsible. It felt as if I had been party to the despoiling of an area that had been invaded by an alien culture. My culture.

Those who travel the world these days can’t help but notice the similarity of life everywhere the West has been. The proliferation of the café culture has spread like a plague to support and encourage mass tourism. On one level there is a homogenization process going on. Jon Baggaley from Canada’s Athabasca University comments that wherever you go in the world you find Internet cafes inhabited by young people who apart from skin colour, all look and behave much the same. From Wellington to Kathmandu, from Marrakesh to Seoul, they are using the same communication tools – largely web-based instant messengers and mobile phones. They listen to the same music. They wear the same clothes. The army of the connected and globalised young.

Tony Wheeler, creator of the Lonely Planet phenomenon, an English born chap who now lives in Australia and who has been successful enough for us to claim him as our own (you here in New Zealand will be well aware of this Australian habit of poaching the birthright of people like Russell Crowe and the Finn brothers) says this homogenization of cultures is not an inevitable process, and does not always affect the core values of a culture. He points to the Balinese as an example of a people who have maintained their cultural integrity in the face of a tourist onslaught. Singapore is a tripartite nation that blends three major cultural and language groups. One of the more wired nations on earth, public posters around Singapore exhort their people to “stand together in the new Singapore”, and remind them that “we are one.” They are clearly wanting to downplay diversity with such slogans.

Nokia and other mobile phone manufacturers are trying to work out how they can make greater inroads into the Muslim world. Phones shaped like minarets, a compass that  always shows you the direction of Mecca, and a built in alarm that sounds at Muslim prayer times are some of the marketing strategies they are exploring.  They know their products as they stand now are of limited appeal to many in the Muslim world, so they will create hybrid versions of these products. Where it concerns culture and language people tend to hold very strong views on hybridization. Cultures do blend and create new variants which can either be seen as new and vibrant entities, or as a watering down or weakening of a culture. But like many emotionally laden topics that humanity likes to present as polarized opposites, the truth is more subtle. There are points along the continuum of cultural and language shift – in the west and north of Australia there exist both pidgin and Kriol speakers among the Aboriginal populations of those regions. Pidgin represents the first stage of languages blending where the two codes are being used in a creative, if unfortunate, bastardization of both. Further along the continuum you find Kriol speakers who speak a complete and fully featured language with its own internal logic, grammatical and linguistic structures. The cultural blending has created a new language.

So what of the Internet in all this? Is it responsible for reducing diversity as the global community talks to each other more and more?

Howard Rheingold, a widely quoted expert on virtual communities, tell us that

“This new technology allows communication from all around the world to have the opportunity to engage in conversation, and form relationships without barriers of ethnicity, nationality, class, religion, gender and age, enhancing the possibility of global community.” [Rheingold, 1994]

Will this removal of barriers reduce diversity and all the richness it brings with it, or form bridges between the world’s cultures? Or is it a case of diversity being in the eye of the beholder? At this point I would like to ask Vance Stevens to talk to us about what we experience when we relate to people from other cultures online. Vance is the founder of the Webheads, an online learning community for language students and teachers that you are all invited and encouraged to join. When we relate to people from other cultures do we see sameness or difference? Or does it depend on what we are looking for?


“I'd like to focus more on unicultural influences as opposed to cross-cultural impediments in the online environment, and show examples of how CMC can bring cultures together and broaden our understanding of the world and the peoples just like you and me who inhabit this planet and blend almost seamlessly together in the virtual spaces we create -- all this despite cultural background, which we share more as an afterthought online, whereas culture tends to be fronted more f2f. Maybe I'm hitting on a great advantage of an online environment here, the fact that avatars initially appear stripped of their culture which only gradually emerges, and then as a matter of interest. Meanwhile, the human element with its bonds of commonality has already predominated.”


To provide a complementary, and perhaps contrasting view to what Vance has just spoken about, I’d like to introduce you to Colleen Kawalilak from the University of Calgary. Colleen has recently completed a Ph D where amongst other things, she explored the value of diversity, and dwelt on notions like ‘relationships of difference’.

History is littered with examples of one culture taking over another. Witness the gradual disappearance of indigenous cultures and their languages all over the planet. History too provides many examples of cultures surviving extinction when cultural worlds collide. Australia and New Zealand provide interesting comparisons in this respect. In Australia Aboriginal cultures struggle to survive a blatant imbalance of power. The perspective from across the Australian side of the Tasman shows a Maori culture apparently in a far healthier and more vibrant state, but you’ll know better than me if that is really the case. Where there is a power imbalance the less powerful culture will eventually surrender.

“With any great technological advance, the balance of power shifts. The people who see the value of the new technology and therefore learn to use it get new power.” Anthea Tillyer (26/8/03; TESLCA-L)

Are power shifts occurring as a result of the Internet? Sure. Look at the dramatic growth of the Indian software industry. And Internet usage may well reflect an existing imbalance between developed and developing worlds; between dominant and non-dominant cultures. But as we saw earlier, the rapid rate of increase of Chinese language activity on the Internet dispels the claim that the Internet is merely an English speaking preserve, disseminating the values of the native English speaking cultures. David Crystal highlights the growth of new Englishes (Singlish – the English spoken among Singaporeans is one example), and these non-native speaker dialects reflect values that are not particularly Western.

Participating cultures in cyberspace are free to use this medium for the transmission of their own unique sets of values. At the same time the Internet is fostering a set of overarching global values that are not so much reducing diversity, but more demonstrating what we have in common. The Internet is allowing many cultures a new voice. While it is true that 50% of humanity has never made a phone call, and there is a legitimate concern that the developing nations may be left behind the information economy of the wired nations, should we turn our backs on the biggest revolution in communications in human history? Of course not. All the more reason for us as educators to ensure that those in our care have the skills and confidence to play an effective part in what will doubtless be a world where Internet communications become as common as electric power.

Introduction | Language | Community | Diversity | Conclusion
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