IATEFL 2012: Awareness, appropriacy, and living language use

Just got out of Steven Thorne’s plenary on “Awareness, appropriacy, and living language use”.  My brain (and tweeting fingers) nearly exploded trying to keep up with him but it was well worth the effort.

Here’s my round-up of the key bits…

Steven starts by saying today is one of the most exciting and compelling moments to be a language educator.

Social media and online gaming offer so much potential for independent and collective language learning activity – maybe even as part of instructional educational formats.  But how do we utilise these effectively?  We need to critically assess their value as sources of linguistic input and meaningful social interaction.

We learn from peers, mentors, on the football pitch… a tremendous amount of life learning happens in non-instructional environments. How can teachers incorporate this?

There’s good news.  Neuroplasticity.  What we do, how we do it, who we do it with, the cognitive engagement in all this have an influential impact on our ontogenesis – our development across the lifespan.  So teachers might want to think about time and place of learning…

Usage-based linguistics: a new area of research.  When you think about it, all language that you’ve learned (and that your students learn) happened in discrete moments of time in particular places and they involve consumption and production of language.  All this learning is rooted in visceral experience.  So what teachers do matters.  We engineer or construct experiences.  We help make things salient, understandable, usable, learnable.  How do the activities etc. that we use matter in terms of language development?

We (as teachers) look at recurrent patterns, microdynamics, how humans ‘mean’ and ‘language’ with each other, register, genre, etc.  Usage-based linguistics study is a solution in part to looking at this real intercultural communication within the artificiality of a classroom.

Representations and models of the world get in the way.  It’s better to use the world as its own model!

Typical gamer stereotype: adolescent boys riddled with adrenaline and… other things… maybe online gaming isn’t a great learning tool?  But in fact there’s a lot for us to learn here.

A talk in four parts:


Part 1:

It’s never been easier to synchronously communicate.  2.1 billion Internet users worldwide, 200 million Twitter accounts… and people’s technology use starts early!

There are all sorts of virtual environments (e.g. Second Life), gaming environments – massively multiplayer online games in many genres – he’s gonna talk about World of Warcraft, which has (had?) 14+ million players at its peak.

Part 2:

Steven shows us a book by Lankshear & Knobel (2006).  He was talking so fast at this point, I missed the relevance.  Sorry.

“Digitally addicted kids threaten to return civilisation to the Dark Ages.” (The Guardian)

So surely they’ll become “the dumbest generation in history”?  We need empirical investigation to validate this.

Emergent-contingent logics of high frequency digital vernaculars are stigmatized varieties (according to Labov, Bourdieu).

Part 3:

Where was Part 2?!  Looking forward to re-watching this online later… with subtitles, I hope?!  Damn, he’s fast.

Steven Thorne has a female avatar when he games.  Teehee.  He says it’s “awesome”.

Open persistent spaces, massively multiplayer games and serious gaming –> a trilogy that yields potential for learning.

One example: World of Warcraft.

Lots of people are trying to develop ‘serious’ games and content for English language learning, but this is hard.  World of Warcraft has VERY high production values ($50million or so?).  How can we as language teachers exploit commercially available games?  What about organic everyday interaction in the wild, in these settings – what potential is there here for language learning and development?

A lot of emergency relief personnel are trained on World of Warcraft!  They need to be playing the game but all the while communicating by text, VOIP and so on… a busy environment.

An example of language use in World of Warcraft:

afk g2g too eg ot regen no poms = Just a minute. I have to go to the Elven Forest to regenerate, I’m out of mana potions.

Language co-weaves with context and experience.

You can’t understand what’s happening in discourse unless you’re actually there and you share the background, the context… there are lots of shifters and didactic reference that aren’t specified or clarified or determined for us.  A lot of language is very vague.

SLA tenets that are critical to understanding what’s happening:

1. It’s hard to learn things without meaningful engagement and a lot of exposure to language

 2. This helps us figures out distribution, frequency, forms associated with learning to present a social self in a new language.  Linguistic structures need to be salient when presented in a classroom.

3. Quality of linguistic environment…. ohh, I missed it.  Slide moved on.  He goes too fast!  Sorry.  I guess the quality of the linguistic environment is important.

He presents some data from his forthcoming work with Fischer on “online gaming as sociable media”.  People play World of Warcraft for 10-12 (maybe more) hours a week.

Some people did some research into when adolescents and children developed particular structures and mapped this onto online gaming.  Here it is:


Essentially, sentences produced in the game are either really simple or really complex.

Game-external websites are a big part of playing the game.  Basically – people don’t just play the game.  They’re hooked up to a bunch of sites, looking things up and so on to help them play the game.

Game-related strategy and general topics related to World of Warcraft available at http://elitistjerks.com – best URL ever!

Third level (outer circle in pic above): artifacts.  Fans create their own fiction around the game.  They create narratives using the characters, etc. (See http://fanfiction.net –> Games –> Warcraft)

One L2 learner wrote some fan fiction and within 2 years received 7,000 responses from fellow fans in response to her work.  Maybe this is better than writing essays?  Plenty of enthusiastic feedback from an enthusiastic audience.  And sometimes it’s good advice!  e.g. “Show us what’s happening rather than telling us what’s happening.”

We learn language by creatively imitating.  Some new “remix authors” are demonstrating this – they don’t consider it plagiarism, but remixing what they’ve been exposed to.

We could get students to write fan fiction – inherit the characters and their development from stories that resonate with them, then write their own stories.  A great way to get students enthusiastic about writing.

World of Warcraft quests and external website texts: (1) High lexical sophistication, lexical diversity, syntactic complexity; (2) Mix of both structurally simple & complex sentences; (3) Interactive, phatic and interpersonally engaged discourse.

Narrative & remix texts – compelling by volume, creative, interactive, relevant, community-related.

It’s a complex semiotic universe!  So what can we do with this?…

Part 4:

Internet technologies have transformed everyday communicative contexts, genres & practices.

New literacies are highly relevant to youth culture but present challenges for educators.

We can work on critical language awareness around appropriacy.  Students ask – what’s distinctive about this?  How does it compare to other texts and genres that I’m expected to master?  How are these differences stylistically realised at the level of morpho-syntactic instatiation?

(An aside: Yeah, sure.  My students say this.)

So we can have our students go out, collect texts, observe them and bring them back – report to other students.  Maybe they can subsequently contribute to these communities with their newfound passion.  This will bring some of the world into the classroom context.

People learn when they spend lots of time under conditions of high engagement.  We as educators should let them do this, then pedagogically, expertly mediate it.

Our students don’t need to be GREAT at English. They need semiotic agility. #iatefl

PHEW!!!  Aaaaaand…. breathe.


About Laura Patsko

Teacher trainer, language learner, language teacher, linguist, researcher. Not necessarily in that order.

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