Learning languages in virtual exchange: do we just get connected and start talking?
Communities (...) develop their own mechanisms to accomplish their purposes
It is undeniable that the development of computer and information technologies has brought changes to the way we communicate with each other. Resources like WhatsApp, Facebook, Skype, Zoom, Google Meets have allowed us to overcome the barriers of physical distance, making our personal, academic and professional lives a lot easier. On the one hand, the current pandemic and social distancing context has promoted the overexposure and use of such resources in professional and academic settings. On the other hand, their use is not such a novelty in language teaching.
In international university settings, professors and institutions have been promoting virtual contact between different cultures for over two decades, enabling students, located in different countries, to get in touch with one another for learning purposes. Such initiatives have been known as telecollaboration, and, more recently, as virtual exchange. In Brazil, Sao Paulo State University (UNESP, in the Portuguese abbreviation) was one of the first universities to promote telecollaboration. Teletandem Brazil: Foreign Languages for All was conceived by professor João Telles and has been carried out since 2006. In teletandem, learners collaborate with one another in dyads, help with the learning of their languages, and are somewhat autonomous when it comes to deciding about their learning, that is, it is up to the dyad to choose what and how to learn.
At first glance, it might seem that there is no pattern in these encounters, but do learners just get connected and start talking disorderly? Research shows that it is not the case.
On the one hand, the current pandemic and social distancing context has promoted the overexposure and use of such resources in professional and academic environments. On the other hand, their use is not such a novelty in language teaching
Based on genre theories of New Rhetoric and Sociorrhetoric, researchers understand that human communication is enabled through genres, that is, through the use of repeated patterns of actions that help us fulfil our goals. That being so, it is expected that just as our language use is structured in other contexts – undergraduate final papers defense, for instance, follow a protocol – leaners in teletandem structure their learning in similar ways.
Up to now, researchers that investigate teletandem from a genre perspective have identified the existence of a group of people who share common goals. Such group is known as the Teletandem Community (TC), and its members are the learners – the Brazilian and the foreign students –, the professors, who design the partnerships and tasks, as well as the researchers, who investigate such learning environment. Communities, for the genre theories mentioned, develop their own mechanisms to accomplish their purposes, making use of conventional forms of communication. It follows that communication in TC is also conventional and conversations resemble one another.
At first glance, it might seem that there is no pattern in these encounters, but do learners just get connected and start talking disorderly?
One way of communicating in TC is the virtual encounter. Studies on the first Skype encounter show that there is some sort of standardization in the talk between learners of a dyad, that is, students recognize what the purpose of the talk is and the different dyads start acting in very similar ways.The observation of the initial minutes of the first encounter of 10 dyads has identified moments in which learners greet each other, exchange information about themselves – mostly about their academic lives –, and negotiate aspects such as the appropriate use of language. On these results, researchers argue that the encounters of different dyads are going through a standardization process as participants recognize the regularity in the situations, and communicate following certain patterns. Research also suggests that communication in this telecollaborative environment tends to be based on texts from other communicative situations, such as the first contact among people who want to become friends.
Studies on the first Skype encounter show that there is some sort of standardization in the talk between learners of a dyad, that is, students recognize what the purpose of the talk is and the different dyads start acting in very similar ways
Research that investigates the systematization of the talk in teletandem from a genre-based perspective is still in its infancy. Nevertheless, these studies demonstrate that communication mediated by the use of digital technologies in the language classrooms is not disorganized, on the contrary, similarly to communication in other contexts, it is organized in patterns. Furthermore, digital technologies may be an important ally in promoting linguistic and cultural exchanges.