BEING THERE: REAL VIRTUES ACCRUING FROM A COMBINATION OF THE TRADITIONAL AND THE ELECTRONIC
"Thanks in large part to developing technologies, users can now communicate and interact with one another in real time," profiting from "solid opportunities for authentic language use among native and non-native speakers on an unprecedented scale," CALL Chorus editor Jim Duber has noted (2001). Indeed, interaction is an entailment of communication, to the extent that language students will learn best when they are surrounded by "a continuous circulation of information" of the kind proposed by Sagna (2001), in his call for businesses, governments, and educational institutions worldwide to share competencies and data bases to the benefit of all wherever and whenever they may wish to take advantage of that sharing.
Coastline Community College, in Fountain Valley, California, has for nearly ten years been offering one- and two-credit-unit online courses in French language fluency development that permit learners to profit from the kind of continuous, comprehensive opportunities to join the international flow of information and ideas that Sagna suggests as most valuable to those who would apprehend not just language and literature but the culture, politics, and economics coloring those means of expression. Unlike traditional students, these Coastliners may enter their course Website and profit from its resources, they may do online quizzes, and they may send e-mail in a "continuous", non- "time-bound" way online; their materials are always available. Ranging in age from 16 to 86 and exhibiting computer skills from "no-tech" to "high-tech", these students proceed at their own pace, zipping through assignments quickly or waiting until confidence and comfort with their new language (L2) to develop; they are given no "due dates" or required times or places to make a "live" presence. Neither are these learners "place-bound"; they need no hard, rectilinear building in which to congregate for their course, and there is no single place where they are told wisdom is housed. They may surf into Djibouti, Burkina Faso, and Côte d'Ivoire, into Polynesia, Corsica, Guadeloupe, and Canada, finding that the 'Net is the sole source of news in Haiti, for instance, and that it is a place for banter and excitement, as well as sociopolitical argumentation, in Senegal. They may profit from the Canadian granddictionnaire.com or from Hachette's "Grand Dictionnaire de la Francophonie", from WebEncyclo, Le Grevisse, or even the University of Texas Austin's Computer-Assisted Language courses for word definitions and linguistic advice available at the click of the mouse, wherever that mouse might be and whenever the student may wish to click. Indeed, students are urged to click links, hyperlinks, and portals online in favor of traditional texts, dictionaries, or grammar references that they may have available in their home or institutional libraries. Most of these electronic resources have been collected/culled for them by their instructor directly from francophone data banks.
A common, nearly perennial, complaint made by students and their instructors about "traditional" language learning systems, besides their being "time-bound" and "place-bound", limiting learners to institutional structures, classrooms, and specific class times, is that those systems also "do not provide sociolinguistic information that would empower students to actually communicate effectively ", as a University of Texas study has reported (1997). Materials furnish what to say, but not how, or when, or to whom. "In essence, textbooks provide students prescriptive phrases with which to communicate without providing insights as to contextual influences."
But the Coastline Community College online students of French have demonstrated that learning a secondary language (L2) in a vast array of boundless socioeconomic/demographic contexts can be feasible-if not extraordinarily effective--in a cyberspace populated by L2 interlocutors from everywhere who may be communicating at any time of day or night. Besides chatting synchronously in their new L2 online for between four and sixteen hours a week, most of the twenty to thirty Coastline class members participating in the course each semester write between one hundred and seven hundred words of e-mail in French every week as well. And these activities are the "applied" portion of their coursework, whose matière, or assignment theoretical content, is included in a set of critical thinking "Lessons Questions" or "Travaux Pratiques" that their instructor has written; these questions/travaux each bristle with myriad francophone URLs. Onliners are asked to peruse the questions, which are written primarily in French with a bit of English, and to answer them in as much French as they can muster whenever they can; no due dates or length requirements are given, and learners are asked to do as much research as they can/wish before they submit responses. Onliners are also welcome, in fact invited, to re-do and re-submit their work to improve their scores; they may be offered further "surfing suggestions" to help. Moreover, students are requested to communicate any questions or doubts to the instructor as frequently as they wish, even as they are urged to surf the Websites embedded in their course content questions and to suggest new sites they may encounter during their assignment research. Learners who seek externally-imposed structure have found this system awe-inspiring; procrastinators have found it dangerous.
Additional coursework required of Coastline's online French students includes "projets écrits", mid-term and final exams that are each student's close study/analysis of additional Web-delivered materials made available through their instructor's use of a Canadian "Classe Branchée" molded to the course. The "projets" may also examine more deeply an idea or an attitude presented in certain original francophone "documents" that their instructor has collected in a Blackboard and in a Lycos Tripod area. Students' projets écrits and travaux pratiques, like their simple questions and comments about the course, are submitted via e-mail directly to the instructor.
E-mail is seductively simple to send, even in a new language; the writer may hide his pronunciation, his oddly contorted mouth, his hesitation all inside a computer. Indeed, electronic communication in a new language is almost a liberation for some of these students, they say. And perhaps as a result of that, Coastline's onliners are developing an e-mail-writing technique that is qualitatively different from the usual cryptic style characterizing American English messaging; the dialect in the Coastliners' writing is something more than an awkward hermaphroditic result of the careful-the stilted, self-conscious, grammatically exact form of the traditional classroom in its restricted context---marrying the casual-the relaxed, comfortable, spontaneous, and frequently unstructured style of speech.
With the Coastline French class listed among France Telecom's advertised correspondence opportunities in the francophone world, and with its recent inclusion among the north African KesTuCherch options, Coastline online French writing and culture students have been able to link up electronically with native speakers/writers to "talk" about whatever they wish. And whether this international correspondence is the reason or not, the Coastliners' writing style has begun to develop "French-like" stylistic and grammatical features. For instance, just as native francophones tend to use longer sentences in most forms of writing than do anglophones, to the degree that the French are often classed as "too wordy" or "heavy" by English-speakers, so are the Coastline French students' e-mail messages dotted with more complex sentences, longer sentences, and more details than are ordinary English notes; this is a "French-like" stylistic feature that is imposing itself upon learners' L1s. Likewise, just as French formules de politesse require salutations in e-mail messages, so does the Coastline onliners' e-mail include greetings and leave-takings, whether they are answering lesson questions or merely reporting their progress or checking in with a brief "bonjour." Cultural sensitivity, awareness, and linguistic growth seem to be flourishing in the kind of "boundless" environment that the Internet has offered.
At least two specifically significant linguistic structure developments appear to be germinating in the online environment populated by Coastline Community College's students of French. Archived evidence of electronic live chat sessions engaging Coastline onliners with francophones from diverse countries, along with electronic mail samples from native English-speakers learning French online while communicating in their new language with francophones from places such as Burundi, Canada, Belgium, Madagascar, Guadeloupe, and Tunisia, reveal that the Coastliners have come to make deep- and surface-structural mistakes similar to those made by native speakers online; this is the grammatical side of the "French-like" form developing among Coastline's L2 learners. In addition, the Coastliners have been able to attain "advanced" writing and comprehension skills (cf. the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, ACTFL), in less than a semester; this is the semantic side of the "French-like" form. Significantly, Coastline students seem to be spending less time, and they are perhaps exhibiting fewer interference problems, in the sort of Purgatory that they consider to be the world of French-English "interlanguage."
It has been demonstrated and is accepted that all learners of a secondary language exploit a natural, normal, functional process, an adaptive strategy called "interlanguage", to help themselves be understood in their new non-native language, L2. While different learners may proceed by different fits and alternative starts, they all use formulaic language, omissions, overgeneralizations, reduction, restructuring, simplification, substitutions, and language transfer. The result is a dynamic, changing, yet systematic development of a fresh dialect of the new language that is neither entirely L1, the learner's native language, nor completely L2.
Coastline College's online French learners seem to be passing through the usually long and frustrating interlanguage period in a distinctive way. Although most interlanguage speakers get stuck in a simple morphological system, for instance, and though their syntactic errors are often deep-structural and long-lasting, the Coastline onliners seem better able than most classroom students to accommodate varying endings on verb forms and to understand their alternative linguistic contexts. And while another common interlanguage problem is the nettlesome one surrounding function words, leading to the frequent absence of these words in classroom students' work, Coastline's onliners seem to revel in synonymy, stylistic variability, and vocabulary development (e.g. evidence of genuine joy in having determined alternative uses of quand and lorsque to mean "when" or excitement in having determined when and when not to use an article with the preposition de). Indeed, as it was pointed out earlier, Coastliners' e-mail and archived electronic chats reveal that their mistakes in grammar are more similar to those made by native francophones online than they are to other non-natives' writings done for traditional classroom courses. Like the native francophones with whom they are asked to correspond and whose messages are distributed to them to read, the Coastliners have come to produce more surface-level "goofs" than they do deep-structural errors. The deep-structure difficulties that do occur in the Coastliners' writings tend to parallel those of native French speakers, generally appearing in sentences with multiple subordinations or co-ordinations plus subordinations. Coastline onliners know which pronoun to use-conjunctive v. disjunctive, for instance-and which type of subordination to use; their mistakes are frequently simply homophones of the appropriate form.
The fact that homophony and certain other prosodic features can be apparent in a body of data comprising only written bulletin board postings, e-mail, and electronic live chat reveals that the Coastline onliners have come to understand the notions of possible words and possible spellings, as well as the relationship between spelling and pronunciation, in their new language. Thus, k's and w's do not appear, of course, and verb endings are the French -ais, -ait, -aient, -é, or -er, for example, these last representing groups of homophones. Morphology, word placement/syntax, and semantic/syntactic relations are clearly more French than they are English among these students' writings. "Communicative competence," the effective use of a language within its social context, and "pragmatics", certain illocutionary and sociolinguistic demands, seem also to be developing among the Coastline onliners in an unusually quick way. That is, they are finding how to send and receive intended meanings, they are using correct register and degrees of politeness, and they play with metaphor online. Chat sessions make it apparent that their conversational subject matter is not "context-reduced", limited to specific situations and certain vocabulary; rather, it is "context-sensitive", varying in tone according to topic. They cover topics ranging from dogs and cats to ballot initiatives and the rights of women in certain African countries, passing through Olympics and the Tour de France, film competitions and news coverage, good restaurants and the price of hotel rooms, all in French.
American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language (1985) "advanced" reading proficiency is marked by an "(ability) to read somewhat longer prose of several paragraphs in length, particularly if presented with a clear underlying structure Reader gets main ideas and facts and misses some details. Comprehension derives not only from situational and subject matter knowledge but from increasing control of the language. Texts include descriptions and narrations such as simple short stories, news items, bibliographical information, personal correspondence ", and "advanced plus" proficiency by an added ability "to understand parts of texts which are conceptually abstract and linguistically complex which treat unfamiliar topics and situations and .an emerging awareness of the aesthetic properties of language and its literary styles." The "advanced"-level writer is "able to write routine social correspondence and join sentences in simple discourse of at least several paragraphs , write cohesive summaries and résumés, as well as narratives and descriptions of a factual nature." The "advanced plus" writer is "able to write about a variety of topics with significant precision and in detail , can describe and narrate personal experiences fully but with some difficulty supporting points of view in written discourse ."
Evidence from Coastline onliners' writing, remarks made to their instructor by their francophone interlocutors, and comments made in e-mail from students to the instructor about their understanding of reading materials reveals that more than half of those who enroll for the course each semester improve to at least the "advanced" levels in both reading and writing within a single semester of online activity. Students who have been taking the online course for more than two years have achieved skills beyond the "advanced plus."
Although the Coastline onliners seem to be spending less time in the interlinguistic doldrums than do their traditional-classroom counterparts, they frequently remark that they use "three, four, or five times as much time doing work for this class" as they do in classroom courses. Those who succeed best are independently motivated, sophisticated adults who have learned how to learn, who have managed somehow to have developed the skills of the "good language learner." And it may be that these students are using literally "more brainpower" than classroom learners generally do. As adults, they have well-developed left cerebral hemispheres; they have learned how to analyze and to intellectualize their learning, applying logic to tasks that may bear resemblance to other experiences they may have had in the past. Also as adults, they have learned to focus, to attend to materials even as their brains "learn peripherally", to process material subconsciously, to draw significant data from a field of information while they are at the same time being influenced by/affected by/taught by some of that apparently superficial information. These onliners may use news sources from France or Africa or Switzerland to gain a perspective on affairs they know about from the American press; new vocabulary for people and events they know is easy to assimilate. The 'Net is an interconnected environment and the language expressed therein is dynamic. The online students are therefore able to profit from both the "left-brain" skills of specificity and deduction and from "right-brain" talents of intuition and interpretation. It might be worthwhile to explore just how and/or whether the "whole-brain" nature of Internet learning might be related to quick acquisition of "advanced" and "advanced plus" L2 language skills. The fluidity and ambiguity of 'Net-delivered material, coupled with the need for specificity of expression and even clear typing/writing skills, may facilitate language learning online.
It is also the authentic, dynamic, current material available online that has done much to have stimulated Coastline's French students to learn. With much of the portion of Africa that was once ruled by the French now having united to form an educational/informational consortium, and with countries as diverse as Haiti and Switzerland, Canada and Cameroon, all participating in the Agence intergouvernementale de la francophonie, the Internet has been recognized as "the best and most effective means to educate and communicate," (Bamarais, 2001). The Agence has supported 'Net initiatives in Mali, Gabon, and Burundi, for instance, and its thot.cursus.edu link evaluates sites, educational materials, and international efforts to connect everything from hospitals to postal services to university labs to children in orphanages. Coastline's French language students have been linked into the Agence connection, as well as to thousands of francophone Urls and hundreds of 'Net portals that have permitted them to profit from these boundless opportunities.
It must also be recognized, however, as Sagna (2001) has written, that the 'Net is not to be assumed to be a "natural, intrinsically positive, (feature) of the 'normal' course of modernization in society (and education), meriting no reflection, no debate." Rather, as Sagna adds, the questions of authority, control, access, privacy, security, and freedom of expression must all be debated among all sectors of society that will be touched by the introduction of 'Net access, and "that means everyone, since everyone will be so touched, in intellectual circles and in political ones, among unionized laborers and ordinary citizens " Sagna, a Senegalese researcher writing for the United Nations Institute for Social Development in Switzerland, suggests that world-wide, inter-governmental cooperation is essential if true internationalization, true "boundarylessness" in the Internet is to result. If Coastline Community College students are to learn real French as it is spoken wherever it is spoken, they must be able to bridge the gap between the "info-rich" and the "info-poor" and to know how and where and why it exists. If these same California community college learners are to recognize the importance of what they are learning, they must see and read for themselves, from genuine primary sources, that, as Lamontagne (2001) says, "Le French Power" is strongest when it is exercised in French; it is not necessary "to abdicate one's language; on the contrary, one can take advantage of it, see it grow and change and export itself see that the image of quality is then better yet." Sagna notes that most African societies are communal ones, with everyone cooperating, contributing, and then benefiting from the result(s). He avers that the speed of modern communication should be taken advantage of so that the world as a whole can cooperate to achieve certain benefits; immediacy can render time truly immaterial. If Coastline's online French students can participate in this sort of cooperative communication, they may be able to see Lamontagne's "image of quality" become clear.
Agence intergouvernementale de la francophonie. 2001. Accueil. Available: http://www.francophonie.org.
American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. 1985. ACTFL Proficiency guidelines. Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.
Bamarais, G.V. 2001. Présentation: Agence haïtienne de presse. Available: http://www.ahphaiti.org/AHPPRESENTATION.html.
Burdeau, I. 1997. Virtual classrooms, virtual schools. Unpublished Master's dissertation. University of Brighton. England.
Doheny-Farina, S. 1996. The Wired Neighbourhood. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Duber, J. 2001. CALL Chorus. Available: http://www-writing.berkeley.edu/chorus/.
Essono, L-M. 2000. Bamako 2000: Internet, passerelle du développement de l'Afrique. 2 Febraury. Available: http://thot.cursus.edu/rubrique.asp?no=3528.
Lamontagne, D. 2001. Le "French Power" du e-learning "s'implémente" en France. In Nouvelles de la formation à distance, 28 October.
O'Banion, T. 1995. Learning communities and the learning college. Available: http://www.pbs.org.
O'Banion, T. 2000. The learning revolution. Keynote address, Innovations 2000. The League for Innovation in the Community College, Orlando, Florida.
Sagna, O. 2001. Les technologies de l'information et de la communication et le développement social au Sénégal : Un état des lieux. Document du programme no.1, Technologie et société. Geneva, Switzerland : Institut de recherche des Nations Unies pour le développement social.
Swaffar, J., Romno, S., Markley, P., and Arens, K. 1998. Language Learning Online: Theory and Practice in the ESL and L2 Computer Classroom. Austin, Texas: Labyrinth Publications, the Daedalus Group, Inc.
University of Texas. 1997. Research reports. Austin, Texas. Available: http://www.utexas.edu.
Wingspread Group on Higher Education. 1993. An American Imperative: Higher Expectations for Higher Education. Racine, Wisconsin: The Johnson Foundation.
TCC Online Conferences