Social Networking

The popularity of social software, such as MySpace and Facebook, has led to a huge increase in the number of language-related social networking sites. It has never been easier to find a language-exchange partner. Whereas early internet-mediated language exchange was text-based, developments in VOIP software mean that you can now also talk (and see) your language partner. Typically, language learners sign up to a site (most of which are free), and specify their native language and the language(s) they are learning. Students can either find a partner for language practice on a one-to-one basis outside the classroom, or a teacher can set up a class exchange.

Some examples are:

Mixxer - Offers student or class exchange. Developed by Dickinson College, US, so education-oriented.
xlingo - Uses Skype as the main form of communication.
LiveMocha - Language-learning site with social-networking bolted on.
Worldia - Social-networking site aimed at international users. Include a service to provide/receive language lessons.
My Language Exchange - Offers voice and text chat, lesson plans.

Studies have shown how computer-mediated communication (CMC) can have pedagogical benefits for language learning. Language practice with native speakers offers authentic interaction, and the ability to put learning into practice in a real context is a powerful motivational tool. Kern (1995, cited in Thorne and Payne 2005) undertook a quantitative assessment of a chat programme, 'Daedalus Interchange' on language production with a group of French students. He found that Interchange led to more language production, and was of an overall greater level of sophistication than in a face-to-face discussion. Also, there was evidence that the environment reduced communication anxiety, with students feeling free to communicate in what they considered to be a more informal atmosphere.

Another language-related development of social software is the advent of the social dictionary. Two examples are: Word Source, and Lingoz. In the case of Lingoz, users can add/edit terms, vote on the quality of definitions, and expert users are rewarded by increased visibility on the site. As a lexicographer, my view is that the translations tend to be too glossary-like for the language learner, ie not enough context is presented, but there is potential for teachers to create vocabulary-building exercises around these sites, and the forums are a useful resource for query resolution for the independent learner.

User-contributed resources such as 43 Places and the REALIA project can also enhance language-learning by offering cultural insights into the countries whose language one is studying. On 43 Places, users upload and tag photos of places they've visited. REALIA is a repository of images related to seven languages, with contextual information attached to each image. For instance, this image of a Uruguayan drinking mate tells you a bit about the custom of mate drinking in the South America, and suggests you might like to discuss how this custom reflects the cultural values of a country. Anyone can contribute to REALIA, but unlike 43 Places, contributions are peer-reviewed to ensure usefulness in a pedagogical context.

Social bookmarking tools, such as, which make use of human-generated tags (folksonomies) to create an online repository of websites, can also be a useful resource for both the language learner and the teacher. A quick search for sites marked 'Spanish' on returns a wealth of useful resources: dictionaries, language-learning sites, Spanish newspapers. Within a class context, a unique class-specific tag can be used to share resources with other members of the class. See, for instance, the bloggingenglish tag used by English students at the University of Padua. There are country-specific social-bookmarking sites too, eg Mister Wong in Germany, which can be useful for teachers and students looking for resources in a foreign language.

There are also plenty of opportunities for educators to network online with peers. The ning platform, which enables users to create social networks around specific subjects, is particularly popular, eg Classroom 2.0 ning, EFL Classroom 2.0 ning.

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