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
Changing the Language

The Internet has had a major impact on language use. The rapid spread of email, Instant Messaging, and SMS, has spawned a new type of language that that has traditionalists turning before they reach their grave. There are reports of this technology driven shorthand creeping into student writing assignments.

Normal conventions of spelling and punctuation are being flouted in this rapid-fire abbreviated form of communication.  Internet communications started it, and it has been picked up and multiplied by the mobile phone phenomenon. I’ll give you a minute to read these two different reactions to this new form of communication….

An interesting twist to all of this is the fact that these technologies have meant that people who hitherto would rarely write anything, are know prolific outputters of text. They are writing. They may not be writing what we want to teach them, but they are writing. Bruce Enting, a colleague of mine in Adelaide is currently working with a group of disenfranchised young men between 15 and 19 years old. Attempts to engage them in classroom based literacy activities went nowhere. When Bruce offered these students the chance to create their own websites these same students began assiduously writing text for their personal sites. As Bruce says, “it has given them power.” (see for an example)

Alongside this revolutionary change in written language, definitions of literacy are also broadening. Literacy once meant simply the ability to read and write, and we knew what that meant – the ability to read written text and reproduce it on paper. You now hear mention of technological literacy, information literacy, critical literacy, digital literacy, and multimedia literacy. I will never forget the day a young man fresh out of Multimedia Studies at our institute came to apply for the position of trainee in the materials production arm of our work unit. He shyly mumbled a few words of introduction and proffered a CD as an example of his work. We put the CD on and out came an amazing display of animations, graphics, music, narration, and written text in a compelling multimedia compendium of resume and portfolio. It was simply stunning, and he got the job. Nor will I forget the 16 year old high school student who stood before an audience of adult educators and told us that “for 10 years I was asked to do things I didn’t like, and wasn’t any good at.” When he suggested that the traditional print based school magazine should be a multimedia production, and that he could be its editor, his school decided to give him a chance. The success of that venture resulted in that troublesome, bored, underachieving student now being the public face of the school in prominent public forums.

So when we talk about language skills, or literacy skills, we need to be clear about what the purpose and context is. Language for what? And for where?

One of the Internet’s inherent and more positive advantages for language teachers and their students is the abundance of authentic contexts. How many of you have taught fragments of language in the classroom, had most of your students know it off by heart (they can get all the oral drills correct; they score 70% or better on any written test or exercise you can give them); then on excursion out in the real world, in an authentic context, the students’ language falls apart. The Internet is one gigantic authentic context.  There are no artificially fabricated communicative events. When you communicate on the Internet you are always communicating with real people (though granted, some sadly are not who they say they are.) But they’re not characters from a book, or fellow students in a roleplay. 


Mark Warschauer, author of E-mail For English Teaching, states that

“It is precisely "the real thing" that students must engage in on the computer; real problem solving, real writing, real collaborating, real communicating, real group work……. This can be accomplished by helping students develop active mastery of computers for their own production of knowledge, rather than passive use.” (

Internet chat rooms on many valuable educational sites, discussion forums, email exchanges and the like, are there to get students talking with each other, with other teachers, and even with guest speakers. You can have Mark Warschauer, talking with your students. Or Thomas Robb, the creator of the ESL student email exchange. Or Vance Stevens, founder of the Webheads. Or any of the Webheads themselves, some of whom are present today and are experts in their own right in computer mediated communications in language learning environments. Invite these people into your classrooms to work with your students. They’ll usually say yes. We are no longer limited to just using the human resources in our neighbourhood. There are people all over the planet who may be willing to join your classrooms for a time, just as here today people are online and present during this presentation.


Another major impact the Internet has had is in the area of public writing. Twenty years ago most educational writing, except for those few who published books or articles, was a private concern between the teacher and the student. You set an assignment, and the student, ideally, handed it up to you, the teacher. No one else ever saw it. Now, with Internet and mobile technologies, we have great tools for public writing. And people are using them. Witness the millions of webpages created by Joe and Josephine Average. The web has given everyman a stage, and many have taken it. It has enabled everyone to publish. To be given a voice. People send emails out to groups of people, online classes and communities of practice share volumes of public discussion about education, motorbikes, Justin Timberlake music, and travel yarns.


Blogs, or weblogs, are the latest incarnation of this desire to communicate in public – a wonderfully egalitarian tool where everyone has a voice, where everyone can comment on the opinions of others, and no one person’s opinion is worth more than any other. This is the not the world of experts or stars. This is ordinary people finding their voice, and having their say. Not as in the traditional media where newspapers and television are full of important people and their opinions. I say turn off the television and blog!

So, rather than bemoan the appalling things these technologies are doing to the language (and drastic things ARE happening – I don’t deny it), better celebrate the fact that people are now communicating on a global scale, and often in written text, more than ever before. There are dreadful websites out there; there is some shocking spelling and plenty of bad grammar – but the common man has been given a voice and Moscow is talking to Washington, Taipei is talking to Beijing, and some Palestinians are even talking to Israelis.

Introduction | Language | Community | Diversity | Conclusion
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