Centre for Applied Linguistics & Language Education

Social Networking: a Game Changer for Language Learning?

I recently took a break from research to do a few days of substitute teaching at a local university’s ESL department. One of my duties was to supervise a group of students in their computer writing lab. I personally thought it was a waste of time for both me as a teacher, and for the students who where given a daily scenario about which they were to write a paragraph-long response. I could have understood the merit of such an activity about ten years ago, but obviously the curriculum developers for this program have yet recognize the widespread use of computers among modern university students and their ability to access the internet from their classrooms, dorm rooms, or even mobile phones.

During this exciting hour of supervising the students in the lab, I found one student fidgeting away on Facebook instead of writing his assignment. Now, in dealing with ESL students I have always taken the approach of American higher education — that is, they are students, but they are adults, and thus do not need me to babysit them, give them permission to go to the restroom, or any other such form of coddling (academic or otherwise) afforded school children. Upon noticing my coming around the corner this student quickly shrank down his web browser and attempted to look gainfully employed in his work before my smile yielded a guilty smirk from him. He seemed amazingly surprised when I told him to go ahead, and that I use Facebook all the time.

While talking to him, I observed that he was playing a zoo animal game of some sort (he’s probably 20), and chatting with a few friends. One chatbox was filled with his native Kazakhstani, another was an obvious flirt with some girl somewhere in the world but in English, and the third was a chat with another student across the room (who had managed their chat more covertly apparently) also in English. After a few minutes he finally stumbled out an “and you don’t mind the Facebook?” to which I replied of course not. My response seemed to confuse him even more until I explained that he was using an English-language version of Facebook, playing an interactive game in English, and having two live conversations (again, in English), all at the same time.  He was learning…he just hadn’t realized it!

As the map above shows, Facebook (light green) has become far more than the college connection it once was.  It’s now a worldwide phenomenon and is growing everyday.  And, websites like Facebook and Twitter are taking the place of what a few years ago would have been a slew of webpages and applications.  Even only 5 years ago just about every country had their own unique online chat program.  They were usually available in only one language, and these different systems rarely allowed users to communicate with those using another service.  Yahoo Messenger and to a lesser extent AIM and Microsoft Messenger seem to have weathered the first decades of the internet, most other smaller services have not been so lucky.  Google and their slew of “killer apps” have taken much of the information realm off the desktop and onto the web, bringing with it handheld data access.  Gmail, Google Maps, and the soon to be release Wave are the game changers of information management that neither users nor Microsoft could have ever imagined a decade ago.

Social Networking

Sites like Myspace, industry leader Facebook, and explosively growing newcomer Twitter are a game changer themselves.  More than merely moving email from Outlook to any internet access point (gmail), these Social Networking sites connect people — people who would have perhaps never bothered with such technology, instantly, continuously, easily and in a dynamic manner that makes staying in touch an integral part of the day.  Just this past week, I realized upon being ‘friended’ by a fellow soldier from my army days that I had lost touch with these 500 or so people I spent so much time with.  So, I started a group for my old unit on Facebook.  Within a day there were 13 other veterans in it.  Within two days that number had reached a hundred, and by the end of this week we were numbering somewhere around 250.  When you think about it, that’s amazing!  Of 500 people I have not seen in years, half have managed to find each other again in a matter of days on Facebook.

Facebook you see, is amazing.  There really is no reason not to promote this product here, because like google, it’s moved beyond the scope of being the property of one company and is now yet another piece of online real estate owned by the world (its upcoming IPO aside).  Like Coca-Cola and Disney, Facebook couldn’t close its doors and drop out of existence today even if it wanted to.  Somebody, somewhere, would keep it going.

The internet changed the world 20 years ago when it connected universities and countries and businesses together.  Suddenly free information exchange became an integral ideal of our modern global psyche.  But the internet, while overall free from control, was not free.  In fact, the cost of access in the early days of the internet precluded many from accessing it.  Then, as webpages became more complex and the quantity of data increased, broadband and other high speed (and high cost) connections became to required conduit for connection.  This meant that if you couldn’t afford DSL, if you didn’t have your own connection, computer, etc that you could not connect and that no matter how much information was out there, it wasn’t for you.

Then, along comes Facebook.  It has a simple interface, requires very little bandwidth, can operate on a slow connection, or even on a mobile phone, and allows anyone with an email address (which thanks to gmail, everyone in the world can now have for free), access to everyone else.  Students now have Facebook pages.  Parents have them, companies, organizations, schools, bands, even favourite foods have facebook pages.  The fact is, anyone and everyone can be on Facebook, and they can all connect, communicate, and converse with everyone else.

That, is a game changer for the Language Learning Industry.  Students, all students, anywhere, can now chat with, send messages to, and share information in English (or any other language).  Finally, the biggest challenge to teachers and students has a solution.  That challenge — an overall lack of language exposure, of contact time, or access to content, is no more.  If your students have a computer, access to an internet cafe, or even a smartphone, they have access to the language they are learning.


The game has changed.  Now, the question is how we, as an industry, will change with it.


December 20, 2009 - Posted by | Industry Tends, Teacher Resources | , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. I have used Twitter for language learning (German) as a adult part-time learner for almost two years. I find it is great for short, simple conversations in German and for asking for help or translations. It’s only one tool I use; I also attend classes, talk to friends, travel and more. However I find the immediacy and brevity of Twitter unbeatable.

    Comment by Paul | December 21, 2009 | Reply

    • Und wie haben Sie den Twitter benutzt Paul? Für Vokabeln oder Chattern oder was?

      Comment by Drew Ward | December 21, 2009 | Reply

      • Hallo Drew. Ja, ich benutze Twitter für lesen and schreiben lernen. Ich habe die Leute hier (Australien) und in Deutschland kennengelernt.

        Comment by Paul | December 21, 2009

      • … und Sie können mir “follow” auf Twitter. Ich werde dir helfen. @madam3181

        Comment by Paul | December 21, 2009

      • Paul, I started to write back what ‘follow’ would be, but then I realized that I’m not totally sure the Germans say follow for twitter. It made me think of another aspect of using these networking services in learning a language — that is, that each language has their own version of online slang and or ‘leet speak’ as it’s also known. I think my German actually got much better (or worse depending on opinion) but at the minimum it got faster from chatting online.

        Comment by Drew Ward | December 23, 2009

  2. facebook is the largest social web..

    Comment by darkdruid99 | December 21, 2009 | Reply

  3. Did you know that there is a social connector feature in Outlook 2010? This will funnel all of your social networks into one place. Find out more at

    MSFT Office Outreach

    Comment by Andy | December 21, 2009 | Reply

  4. I liked your blog very much thank a lot… lol

    Comment by yurtdışı eğitim | January 4, 2010 | Reply

  5. Damn, that sound’s so easy if you think about it.

    Comment by ruletke system | January 16, 2010 | Reply

  6. when i was quite younger, i alway enjoy online chatting with friends and relatives “”

    Comment by Pedestal Table · | November 3, 2010 | Reply

  7. online chats are nice, you can meet lots of friends and acquintances out there over the internet “.*

    Comment by Plastic Pond | December 2, 2010 | Reply

  8. I am very thankful to this topic because it really gives great information “`.

    Comment by Glandular Fever Symptoms | January 23, 2011 | Reply

  9. I agree, you did an awesome job with this site.

    Comment by Coca Adin | July 11, 2011 | Reply

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