Finding Your Voice on the Internet – changing the language, building community, and reducing diversity?
Keynote address at CLESOL Conference, Christchurch, New Zealand, September, 2004
by Michael Coghlan (with help from Vance Stevens and Colleen Kawalilak)
Introduction | Language | Community | Diversity | Conclusion | Feedback


I am a Netizen. In all the ways that we think of ourselves as citizens of a society, I am a citizen of the Internet. The Internet is an integral part of my life – I use it for work, I use it for play (yes I occasionally play games or check the football scores), I use it to pay bills, and I use it socially. I am a member of several Internet communities, and feel a responsibility to support them, and behave appropriately in them. Fortunately, as yet, there are no Internet police, but if I behave badly on the Net the friendship and comradeship I enjoy would soon disappear. To that extent it is a self-regulating organism – using many of the planet’s languages (mainly English currently but some estimate that by 2010 the predominant language of the Internet will be Chinese; a colleague told me recently after a visit to China that Chinese broadband is the best there is); the Internet houses hundreds, probably thousands, of online communities, and is accommodating diversity like no other phenomenon before it has even come close.

I want to declare this up front – that I am a big fan of the Internet. I certainly have some reservations (the financial cost to educational institutions is phenomenal and one can’t help but wonder where all that money that now goes on hardware may otherwise be spent) but I have decided to go with the flow and see where this extraordinary medium can take us, or better where I can assist taking it. While you listen and experience the next 45 minutes I want you for this time to assume some basics – that access to reliable Internet abled computers in your place of work is a given. I know this is no slight assumption. I am aware that this is a major issue for teachers all over the globe. But I have become one of those people who travel with a laptop and connect to the Net while on the road. I insist in my workplace that I and my students have access to reliable computers that are well supported by IT staff. I understand why some teachers may have given up the battle to earn these rights for themselves and their students, but I could not in all conscience go down this path. It is my responsibility to make it happen. The opportunities for student advancement, not only as language learners, but for personal and professional development, are just too profound.

When I began teaching ESL to adult migrants in Australia, part of my brief was to teach them language they could use in the outside world – in the post office, on the bus, or at the shop. Life skills. Knowing your way around the Internet is now an equivalent lifeskill. You get cheaper tickets when you travel, you are charged less fees if you bank online, you can keep in touch with friends and relatives far away. This is all part of finding your voice in this new electronic community.

Let’s explore for a minute this notion of voice. We use it in a literal and a more metaphoric sense. Finding your literal voice in a new language is hard enough (I remember spending hours on my own at the bus stop mastering the guttural “ch” of Hebrew when I lived in Israel). When we speak of voice in the metaphorical sense we allude to an opportunity to be heard, a right to speak, a credibility, an authority even. We often refer to ‘giving people a voice’ or people ‘being given a voice’.  Interestingly, some language learners don’t ever seem to need to be given this ‘right to speak’, to be given this voice. They have sufficient self-identity to speak with authority with the 50-100 words they know in the target language. More typically though, students of a new language need months or years to find this voice, and they require competence in the literal sense of the word voice - they need to know enough vocabulary, with sufficient correct grammar, and comprehensible pronunciation before they are at all comfortable in the host society. While I can draw on no academic evidence to support this, I know from my own experience that linguistic competence does not necessarily have to come first. Students who have the good fortune to fall in love with someone from the host culture invariably learn faster – not only because they have greater exposure to the target language, but they already feel at home in the target or host culture. They already have a metaphorical voice in the new language.

I have seen the same process in play when students approach the Internet for the first time. Some need hand holding every inch of the way, even though they may have excellent typing and computing skills. Others with no typing or computing skills are instinctively off surfing with the click of a mouse and little assistance.

I believe the Internet can offer students voice – both literal and metaphoric. There is a plethora of language based sites on the Net. Hundreds of sites designed to aid students and teachers of language. But perhaps more importantly I have seen the Internet act as a medium for acquiring what I am calling metaphoric voice, or a sense of empowerment. There are imaginative language teachers who are creatively exploiting the Internet to their students’ advantage. I have been party to a remarkable assessment event where students in an EFL classroom in Kuwait delivered their oral presentations in their final class to an international audience. I have seen a student use email to communicate with a brother in the Serbian army via the only medium that was not censored by the authorities. I have seen an online Chinese student appreciate the knowledge gained from contact with people outside of China to balance the prejudicial view of international events promulgated inside China by their government. I have seen first hand dialogue taking place between EFL students and someone inside Iraq in the last days before the fall of Saddam Hussein – all occasions when membership of an international electronic community has enabled students to gain greater understanding of world events. Empowerment. Greater credibility. Knowledge. I have experienced this myself when one of my online students in Seoul wrote moving descriptive pieces of his strained relationship with his aging parents in rural Korea, and gave me a glimpse of a world that I could not possibly have known if he were not my online student. This student was teaching me. The student was teaching the teacher. This is not an uncommon occurrence on the Internet. This particular student had also tried for years to get articles published in the Korean English language media, and when he sent me the first article he had published in English it brought tears to my eyes – I had helped him find his voice.

I found my voice on the Internet very early on. I signed up with EFI (English for the Internet) in 1998. I would like to publicly acknowledge the vision and tenacity of David Winet, the founder of EFI. Based in San Francisco, David was a true pioneer of language teaching over the Internet, and when he suggested, for my FIRST assignment, that I teach English listening skills I thought he was kidding. He wasn’t. With patience and dedication he tutored me through creating sound files, searching the web for existing oral resources, and sending voice emails to the point where I came to realize that you could teach listening skills online.  

I have just spent a year researching the use of voice technologies on the Internet as part of the Australian Flexible Learning Framework’s FLL program. I know that the use of voice online enhances English teaching online. That is perhaps stating the obvious. I also know that voice based communication over the Net brings people closer. That too is perhaps stating the obvious.

With us today are a number of people online in this virtual classroom. So far they have appeared as names, as creators of the written text occasionally scrolling down the screen in the bottom left hand corner. Let’s hear from some of those people now and have their voices flesh out their online presence!

Introduction | Language | Community | Diversity | Conclusion | Feedback
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