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Language Learners' "Willingness to Communicate" through Livemocha.com

Le "désir de communiquer" d'apprenants de langue sur Livemocha.com
Elwyn Lloyd

Résumés

Cette étude de cas se base sur une analyse de l'usage qu'a fait un groupe d'apprenants de langue du site de réseautage social Livemocha.com, qui permet un échange linguistique par le biais d'applications relevant des médias sociaux. Les apprenants ont créé leur profil sur le site et sont entrés en interaction avec des locuteurs de leur langue cible, tout en rendant compte de leur expérience sur une période de dix semaines. Étant donné que la communication entre partenaires peut passer par différents canaux et être asynchrone ou synchrone, écrite ou orale, on a considéré que les préférences des apprenants présentant des types de personnalités différents (tels qu'indiqué par leurs réponses à un questionnaire d'indicateur de type Myers-Briggs) pouvaient être prises en compte.

Plusieurs études ont suggéré que l'anxiété ressentie par certains apprenants de langue quand ils doivent communiquer en L2, en particulier à l'oral, est réduite dans des environnements d'échange en ligne. Partant du principe qu'une réduction de l'anxiété peut conduire à un "désir de communiquer" accru (MacIntyre et al., 1998), le principal objectif de ce projet était d'examiner le type et la fréquence des interactions en ligne dans lesquelles les participants s'engageaient avec d'autres locuteurs de leur langue cible dans la communauté d'apprentissage des langues de Livemocha.

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1. Introduction

1Social networking sites (SNSs) with the specific purpose of enabling language learners to engage in language exchanges with native and other speakers of their target languages began appearing online in 2007, presenting convenient opportunities for authentic and meaningful communication in L2. In view of the fact that the communication can be asynchronous or synchronous, spoken or written, these websites may suit learners of different personality types, and some may display an increased willingness to communicate due to the disinhibiting effect often associated with certain types of online environment. MacIntyre et al. (1998) explain willingness to communicate in L2 as the confluence of a number of factors that impact on L2 use, starting with a person's personality (tendency towards extroversion or introversion is a key aspect), ranging through the person's level of self-confidence, motivation for speaking the L2 and attitude towards the L2 community, and also including the variable of "social situation"; the environment within which the communication is to take place. When conditions are propitious, the person will feel comfortable or "ready" to communicate and will actually make use of L2. (Figure 1 below is a diagrammatic representation of the WTC construct.)

Figure 1 – Heuristic Model of Variables Influencing Willingness to Communicate (MacIntyre et al., 1998).

Figure 1 – Heuristic Model of Variables Influencing Willingness to Communicate (MacIntyre et al., 1998).

2The social situation in which language learners' willingness to communicate was to be examined in this case study was the Livemocha online language learning community. In this variety of SNS users create a profile for themselves, just as they would in one of the mainstream, generic social networking sites such as Facebook, and they indicate which language(s) they speak and which they would like to learn or practise. The system then matches them up with speakers of those target languages, and they can interact with their new "language partners" – or "friends", to use SNS parlance – both synchronously and asynchronously, using speech or writing. The communication can be rewarding and beneficial if a rapport is struck up with a responsive and amenable language partner. It is quite easy to find such partners as a result of the feedback that members of the online language learning community are encouraged to give each other on their responses to the language exercises (mainly drill and practice) presented in the website. If a learner posts a response to an exercise, and then notices afterwards that other members have added useful comments, corrections and feedback to it, then he or she can send a friendship request to some or all of those members. The new language partners can then continue to communicate asynchronously by posting feedback on each other's responses to tasks in the website, and also via email within the site. They may also choose to communicate synchronously, using a text-based chat application, and they may later decide to open the audio and video channels, if they connect microphones or webcams.

3Consequently, websites such as Livemocha offer the possibility for learners to practise the four skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking, and there is considerable potential for learning about L2 culture(s) through direct contact with native-speaker members of L2-speaking communities.

4Although interactions in these websites are not without certain drawbacks, such as a lack of reciprocity in a language exchange, perhaps due to disparity in the levels of proficiency of the language partners, or encounters with individuals who have motives other than language learning, it does nonetheless seem possible that some genuine collaborations may be established between people who have come into contact through an online language learning community. It is argued that the very fact of being able to "chat" in L2 in this way may constitute an additional motivation for actually making the effort to learn the language, as learners may be keen to maintain and develop their new online friendships.

5Given the increasing amount of communication that is mediated through computers and other devices, it is of interest to observe how readily language learners exploit the access to speakers of their target languages that an online language learning community offers, and to consider the relationship between learners' personality types, willingness to communicate, and their preferred channels of communication.

6The objectives of this case study were to gather information with regard to the use a group of learners would make of a SNS devoted to language learning during a 10-week period, and to analyse this whilst taking into account the following variables:

learner personality type (described using a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator questionnaire);

familiarity with and usage of social media applications.

7Data were gathered through two questionnaires designed to address the above variables and through a series of five 1-hour face-to-face focus-group sessions. The participants were also asked to complete a "log sheet" recording details of the activities they engaged in each time they logged on to the website Livemocha.com. This platform was chosen for the study as it was the first of its kind to be launched, in September 2007, and has attracted the greatest number of people to become members of its "language learning community"; up to 4.8 million users by the end of 2009 (Wauters, 2009).

2. SNSs in Language Learning and Teaching

8Social Networking Sites are widely seen as being among the most significant of the so-called social media applications that have begun to proliferate since 2005 (Stevenson & Liu, 2010; Harrison & Thomas, 2009; McBride, 2009; Godwin-Jones, 2008; Sykes et al., 2008; McLoughlin & Lee, 2007; boyd, 2007), and which have played a fundamental role in the evolution of the world wide web into its current web 2.0 "version" (O'Reilly, 2005).

9Proponents of the use of web 2.0 tools in language teaching and learning naturally point to the wealth of opportunities that social media applications – particularly social networking sites – provide for learners to engage in authentic communication in meaningful contexts (Stevenson and Liu, 2010; Harrison and Thomas, 2009; McBride, 2009; Godwin-Jones, 2008; Sykes et al., 2008).

10McBride puts forward the case for making use of SNSs in language learning and teaching in quite simple terms.

Social networking sites (SNSs) are websites built to allow people to express themselves and to interact socially with others. Self-expression and social interaction are some of the most important contexts for language use that we try to create, or at least imitate, in our foreign language (FL) classrooms to encourage language acquisition (McBride, 2009: 35).

11She alludes to the "addictive appeal" of SNSs, suggesting that they may "induce in some of their users a sense of 'flow'" (McBride, 2009: 35), the mental state described by the psychologist Csíkszentmihályi (1990) in which a person feels strongly focussed motivation and may lose track of time as a result of being fully engaged in an activity (Egbert, 2005). According to Goleman (1996: 91), such a state "may represent perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning". Any language teacher would be pleased to observe such an effect occurring in learners and indeed McBride concludes:

If language learners become similarly involved with SNS activities containing pedagogically useful FL experiences, they might become more motivated and spend more time on the FL tasks. Also, if students gain skills in communicating and connecting with others through SNSs in the second language (L2) through a class, they will be well poised to establish relationships with other speakers of the L2 via SNSs in the future and to become autonomous, lifelong learners (McBride, 2009: 35).

12A number of authors have argued that there need to be major changes in pedagogical approaches in order to accommodate the needs and expectations of today's students (language learners included); McLoughlin and Lee (2007), Fischer and Konomi (2005) and Owen et al. (2006) underline this in the points they make regarding the impacts on education of the diffusion of information and communication technologies, with particular reference to the social media applications of web 2.0. McLoughlin and Lee (2007: 664) assert there is "increasing demand for new educational approaches and pedagogies", and overall it would seem that many see in social media applications opportunities for implementing pedagogies that could ultimately signify a move away from the linear, instructivist approaches to teaching and learning that are increasingly viewed as restrictive and outmoded (Sturm et al., 2008; Carroll, 2007; Felix, 2005).

13The hypertext (and now hypermedia) nature of the world wide web can be considered as conducive to the sort of non-linear learning that would be characteristic of the progression from instructivist to constructivist pedagogy that Felix (2005) calls for. She too argues that "education has changed tremendously over the past few decades, not least as a result of easier access to networked information and communication technologies" (2005: 86). Gillespie, referring to tertiary education specifically, makes the same point quite clearly and frankly.

Everything has changed. Broadband, mobile technologies, podcasts and social software are part and parcel of everyday life. Students coming to university are looking for a similar level of digital resource, and they are increasingly getting it (Gillespie, 2008: 121).

14As Felix (2005) suggests, the key concept behind the fact that "everything has changed" is the networking that has been facilitated by the world wide web. Initially, it afforded the easy access to networked information that Felix (2005) mentions, and since then web 2.0 social media applications such as blogs, chats, wikis and podcasts, along with forums, discussion and review boards, Instant Messenger and Voice over Internet Protocol applications (e.g. MSN, Yahoo! Messenger and Skype), and finally social networking sites (e.g. Facebook, MySpace) and media self-publishing sites such as YouTube have enabled users to participate more deeply in extensive networks based on communication – asynchronous and synchronous, written and spoken – with other people from quite literally all around the world.

3. Methodology

3.1. Context

15Undergraduate students taking short (10-week duration) elective modules in a variety of languages at Coventry University, UK, were invited to participate in the study. As these modules involve attending just one 2-hour class per week, and tend to be taken by students who are new to language learning, the teachers have to emphasise even more the need for continuity in language learning, encouraging students to engage in extra contact with the language as much as possible in their own time between classes. With regard to reading, writing and listening, extensive skills practice is relatively easy to arrange, but practising the skill of speaking outside of the classroom has always been more problematic, as students need another person with whom to speak. Online language learning communities such as Livemocha seem to offer the potential for going some way towards covering this need in that their principal feature is precisely that of pairing learners with speakers of their target languages. For students taking the elective modules, it was thought that using Livemocha could conveniently provide some of the continuity and extra practice they need in order to ultimately achieve greater success in their module assessment tasks. The fact that these opportunities for practising foreign language skills were presented by means of the type of web 2.0 application that most young people seem to be already quite familiar with – and which many of the participants reported using on a daily basis – was regarded as being particularly important. It was hoped that students would feel higher levels of interest and motivation for practising their target languages in this way.

3.2. Participants

16An invitation to participate in a research project centred on a social networking site for language learning and practice was sent out to all students enrolled on the elective language modules. They were told that they would be expected to use the site during a period of 10 weeks, from mid January to mid March 2010, and to hand in "log sheets" detailing what they did each time they logged in on the site. Ten students responded to the invitation and attended an introductory session in which they completed the questionnaires mentioned above, and they were shown how to use the Livemocha website. They attended four subsequent informal focus-group sessions at 2-week intervals, in which they discussed their experiences of using the site with each other and with the researcher. Interesting points raised and comments made by the participants were recorded for discussion in the project write-up. A total of twenty log sheets from each participant was requested, supposing a commitment to log in on the site an average of two times per week during the project period.

17Although ten students attended the introductory session, only eight finally participated in the study; their details are presented in Table 1 below:

Table 1 – Details of the project participants.

Student

F/M

Age

L1

Programme of study

L2 in Livemocha

Level of proficiency

1

F

19

English

HND Building

Russian

beginner

2

F

21

English

BSc Building Surveying

Spanish

intermediate

3

F

22

English

BSc Criminology

Spanish

intermediate

4

F

23

Spanish/ Galician

BA English

French

pre-intermediate

5

F

22

Spanish/ Galician

BA English

Russian

beginner

6

F

20

English

BA Spanish and TEFL

Dutch

beginner

7

M

21

Gujarati/ English

BEng Mechanical Engineering

Portuguese

pre-intermediate

8

F

20

Spanish/ English

BA Spanish and TEFL

French

intermediate

3.3. Data collection – Questionnaires

18In the introductory session the participants were asked to provide basic biographical information and to complete two questionnaires. The first was an adaptation of a shortened, online version of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality "test". It was used in this case study to enable the examination of any possible link between the participants' personality types and their willingness to communicate in L2 with Livemocha language partners.

19Free versions of MBTI questionnaires are available online through numerous websites whereby individuals can respond to a series of objective questions and discover for themselves whether they tend to exhibit Extroversion (E) or Introversion (I), or can be considered as being Sensing types (S) or Intuitives (N), Thinkers (T) or Feelers (F), Judgers (J) or Perceivers (P). These psychological preferences are arranged on four bipolar scales, which are independent of one another so that completing an MBTI test will yield one of sixteen possible combinations of preferences; in other words an indication of the test-taker's personality "type" will be given. A type is designated by an acronym made up of the initial letters of the preferences listed above. For example, a person preferring Introversion, Intuition, Feeling and Perceiving is referred to as an "INFP-type". (Intuition is conventionally abbreviated "N", since Introversion has already used "I".) A brief description of some behavioural traits that characterise the different preferences is provided in Appendix i.

20The purpose of the second questionnaire was to gather information on the participants' frequencies of usage of the main web 2.0 applications and channels of computer-mediated communication – SNSs, IM/chat software (MSN, Yahoo! Messenger, etc.), email, VoIP applications such as Skype – and how often (if at all) they made use of the audio and video options enabled in some of the applications by connecting a microphone and/or webcam.

3.4. Data collection – Livemocha log sheets and focus-group sessions

21The main focus of the research was what the students actually "did" when logged in to Livemocha. To enable this, the students were asked to fill in a log sheet (see Appendix ii) each time they used the site, giving details such as the length of time spent logged in, activities engaged in (drill and practice, text chat, voice chat, etc.), what they were pleased with, what they were not so pleased with and so on. In addition to providing information on what participants were doing on the site, it was hoped that the log sheets would prove to be a useful pedagogical instrument per se, inspired by the idea of "learner diaries" recommended by O'Malley and Chamot (1990), Bailey (1990), Wenden (1991) and Nunan (1992), among others. Of particular interest from a research perspective would be log sheet entries referring to synchronous communication with language partners, whether this was conducted through the text chat, audio, or audio + video channels, and how the participants felt about any interactions they had engaged in. It was hypothesised that participants recording more numerous instances of synchronous communication with language partners were exhibiting a greater "willingness to communicate", and that some links might be drawn between this, their personality type, and their level of familiarity with web 2.0 social media applications.

22The focus-group sessions were held at 2-week intervals, conducted in English, and allowed the participants to share experiences and "tips" on using the website. This could involve discussion of language learning strategies, e-learning strategies, advice for managing online communication, or even sharing technical know-how regarding the use of microphones and webcams. It was hoped that these conversations would produce data and insights that might not have surfaced without the participants listening to each other's verbalised experiences.

3.5. Data collection – observation of participants' activity from within the SNS

23Finally, some observation of the participants' activity in Livemocha was possible within the site itself. The researcher was able to search for the participants' profiles and from these gather data on how many language partners they had added to their lists of "friends", whether they had submitted any responses to the tasks included in the learning units, and, if so, what sort of feedback they had received from other members of the language learning community. Submissions and feedback are visible to all Livemocha members, and sometimes threads of asynchronous communication develop as learners respond to feedback comments, or comment on the feedback provided by other members. Again it was interesting to analyse any such examples of asynchronous communication, while taking into account the personality types of the participants and considering how this and the communication setting might be influencing their WTC.

4. Findings

4.1. MBTI Test

24Ten students completed the MBTI questionnaire and it was revealed that three corresponded to personality type ESTJ, two to type INTJ and one each to types ISTJ, ISFJ, INFJ, ENFP and ESTP. Comparing the figures for the sample of students with those for the general population, the "judging" and "thinking" and "intuitive" dimensions seem to be over-represented. Possible explanations for this are put forward in the Discussion section.

4.2. Usage of ICT applications

25It appeared that nearly all the participants were signing in to an SNS (Facebook is used by all the participants) and email accounts several times daily, as was expected. While more than half the participants seem to be fairly frequent users of Instant Messaging applications, most either rarely use or have never used the audio and video channels available, opting instead for synchronous (or near-synchronous) text-based communication or "chat". Usage of VoIP services such as Skype is low, and, despite considerable media attention, the social networking/"microblogging" service Twitter does not seem to have caught on among this group of students. This, however, is probably related to the age of the participants, the median age of a Twitter user being 31 (Lennart & Fox, 2009).

Table 2 – Frequency of use of social software applications.

Several times every day

Every day

More than one day a week

Occasionally

Rarely

Never

Social networking sites (Facebook, MySpace, etc.)

7

2

1

0

0

0

Instant Messaging (MSN, Yahoo!, etc.)

3

0

3

0

2

2

IM with voice

0

0

1

2

1

6

IM with voice and webcam

0

0

1

3

1

5

Skype or other VoIP service

1

0

2

2

1

4

YouTube

3

1

2

3

1

0

Twitter

0

0

0

0

2

8

email

8

1

1

0

0

0

4.3. Observations of participants' activity within Livemocha

26Eight of the ten students who completed the initial questionnaires went on to register in Livemocha. It was possible to access the profiles the participants had created in the website, and from this starting point gain some indication of the extent of their engagement with the learning material available in the site, as well as with other members of the Livemocha language learning community. It was considered that willingness to communicate might be manifested in several ways, including in the number of language partners or "friends" added by each participant, the number of "mochapoints" and "teacher points" accumulated as a consequence of activity in the site, and in the number of "submissions" (responses to tasks or exercises) posted in the site by each participant. Users are encouraged to "be active" in the site through the incentives of "mochapoints", which are a reward for posting submissions, adding friends and interacting with them; and "teacher points", awarded to those users who take the time to post corrections and feedback on other users' submissions. Users' mochapoints and teacher points totals are displayed on their profiles and provide some initial indication to anyone browsing profiles of how serious a particular user seems to be with regard to practising a target language, and of how helpful that person may be as a "teacher" of her or his L1 (or of an L2). A further useful piece of information that could be gathered from the participants' profiles was the "date of last log-in". The participants were asked to report on their use of Livemocha during a period of ten weeks ending on 19th March 2010, and, as can be seen below in Table 3, six of the eight participants stopped using the site in that same week, as soon as the project finished. However, two participants continued to use the site and were still signing in a few months after the end of the project period.

27It can also be seen from Table 3 that only two of the participants used the voice recording facility and posted spoken submissions. One of these two posted ten spoken submissions, and also posted the highest number of written submissions. This participant also provided quite a lot of feedback on the submissions of other Livemocha members, as can be seen from the relatively high number of teacher points she accumulated. Overall this participant was the most active, which is reflected in the fact that she gained the most mochapoints, but she was not one of the two who continued using the site after the end of the project period. From the numbers of teacher points accumulated it can be seen that four participants were quite active in terms of helping their peers, posting feedback on other members' submissions, accepting "chat invitations", and generally engaging with other Livemocha members. A tendency towards extroversion had been revealed in the MBTI questionnaires handed back by three of these four, and these students had also added a relatively high number of language partners/friends. It would appear that the four active students were expressing a higher willingness to communicate than the other four, perhaps as a natural manifestation of the relatively strong extroversion dimension in their personality type, or perhaps due in some part to a greater affinity for or comfort with online communication – the social situation variable (MacIntyre et al., 1998).

Table 3 – Indicators of activity in Livemocha.

Student

MBTI type

Mochapoints/ teacher points accumulated

no. of friends added

written submissions /av. no. of comments on submission

spoken submissions /av. no. of comments on submission

date of last log-in

1

ISTJ

1855/55

30

8/11.75

0

17-3-2010

2

ESTJ

637/255

31

1/5

0

07-6-2010

3

ESTJ

2248/256

18

2/4

0

16-3-2010

4

ISFJ

406/0

2

1/1

0

19-3-2010

5

ESTJ

649/24

10

5/6.6

3/6.3

05-6-2010

6

INFJ

2647/144

7

13/1.4

10/1.9

15-3-2010

7

ESTP

764/0

5

1/6

0

12-3-2010

8

ENFP

1895/210

17

3/2.2

0

19-3-2010

4.4. Livemocha log sheets and focus-group sessions

28Six of the eight students who had registered in Livemocha completed 20 log sheets, giving details of the activities they engaged in each time they logged in on the site, and the same six students attended all the focus-group sessions.

29The principal feature meant to attract language learners to use Livemocha is that of the possibility of authentic communication with native speakers of their target languages. For this to take place, and certainly if they were to initiate communication, the participants in this project could be expected to exhibit some degree of willingness to communicate. It was considered that evidence of WTC might be seen in log entries for communication "events" that the participants recorded on their log-sheets. As can be seen from Table 4, two participants engaged in synchronous communication on most of the occasions that they signed in on the website, while another two were quite active in terms of asynchronous communication – email messages and feedback posted on peers' submissions. The two students who engaged in synchronous communication did so predominantly by using text-based chat, logging only three and four entries for voice chat. One participant did not log any communication events at all, and spent an average period of only 15 minutes signed in on the website.

Table 4 – L1/L2 combinations, MBTI type, average time spent signed in on Livemocha and log entries for communication events.

Student

L1

L2 practised in Livemocha

MBTI type

av. length of time spent signed in (mins)

logged synchr. comm. events (text/voice)

logged asynchr. comm. events

1

English

Russian

ISTJ

45

1/0

22

2

English

Spanish

ESTJ

30

2/0

6

3

English

Spanish

ESTJ

50

14/3

1

4

Spanish/ Galician

French

ISFJ

15

0/0

0

5

Spanish/ Galician

Russian

ESTJ

70

17/4

0

6

English

Dutch

INFJ

55

3/0

17

7

Gujarati/ English

Portuguese

ESTP

8

Spanish/ English

French

ENFP

25

0/0

7

30During the focus-group sessions the participants discussed their experiences of using the website. They saw the exercises and communication with language partners as a good way of revising and practising language that they had studied in their elective modules, and they liked the way that reciprocity was facilitated and encouraged through the system of being automatically asked to give feedback on other members' submissions whenever they posted a submission themselves. The participants mentioned some examples of very useful feedback having been provided on their submissions, and they liked the way this sort of collaborative learning helped to develop a sense of community. One student did however report a lack of reciprocity on the part of a Russian language partner during chat sessions, but she admitted that her partner was much more proficient in English than she was in Russian.

31In the second focus-group session, after four weeks of using the website, several of the female participants reported having received friendship requests and chat invitations from males who seemed more interested in "flirting" than in serious language exchange or peer tutoring. It had been expected that female participants in particular might report being bothered by this type of unwanted attention from so-called "Alpha Socialisers" (Ofcom, 2008), who were also likely to take advantage of the feeling of diminished inhibition that is associated with online communication. According to the Ofcom definition, Alpha Socialisers are "mostly male, under 25, and from socioeconomic classes C1/C2/D" (lower middle class/skilled working class/working class), and use SNSs "in short bursts to flirt, meet new people, and be entertained" (Ofcom, 2008: 29).

32Referring to the benefits for language learners, Freiermuth and Jarrell (2006) sum up the "disinhibiting" effect of CMC when they argue that "online chat elicits a willingness to communicate because it suspends, at least partially, the social rules that are found in face-to-face settings" (2006: 197). Although some of the participants in this study did mention that they had been asked to exchange contact details for other applications such as MSN Messenger, Facebook and Skype, they seemed mostly unfazed by such requests and they were generally considered to be a minor irritation.

33Another negative issue related to the voice recording facility in the website. Some participants said that they had tried to post spoken submissions but that they had been unable to record themselves. It was not clear if their problems were due to a lack of knowledge of how to use the sound recording widgets in the site, a faulty microphone, or poor configuration of microphone settings. Two of the students said they had successfully used the voice chat option, but none had used video conferencing (some did not have a webcam).

34After six weeks of using the site the participants still exhibited generally positive attitudes towards it and some seemed to have genuinely picked up the habit of signing in to engage in some language practice. These students reported feeling that they were developing real friendships with some of their language partners and were communicating with them regularly, one having transferred the communication to Skype, with its better sound quality for voice chat. This student also reported using video conferencing in Skype to practise Spanish with a language partner she had made contact with through Livemocha. Another participant said that she had accessed the website on her iPhone, which was encouraging as it suggested that Livemocha might even be seen by students as an enjoyable way to pass the time, or at least a way of making good use of otherwise "dead" time.

35In the final two focus-group sessions, held eight and then ten weeks from the beginning of the project, it was evident that the participants had become quite accustomed to using the website. They shared strategies for lessening the likelihood of receiving unwanted requests and chat invitations from Alpha Socialisers, discussed technical details relating to the use of the voice recording facility, and also demonstrated a more critical attitude towards the drill and practice exercises available in the website. Some students had found mistakes in some of the exercises in French and Spanish, as well as a range of other weaknesses, and this had a negative effect on their overall appreciation of Livemocha. However, this study was primarily focussed on the extent to which these learners would exploit opportunities to communicate with speakers of their target languages, and was not concerned with the quality of the pedagogical material offered in the website.

36Overall the participants seemed to enjoy using Livemocha and most seemed motivated by the idea of having opportunities to communicate with speakers of their target languages from all over the world. Some made more use of the website than others, but the observations of the students' activity in the website, together with the comments they made in the focus group sessions, provide starting points for discussion on a range of issues regarding participation in online language learning communities.

5. Discussion

37One of the overriding aims of this project was to introduce the participants to a new tool that would allow them to practise their target languages in ways that they might find enjoyable and motivating, and that might prove to be beneficial for them when examined from a number of different perspectives. From a pedagogical perspective it was considered that Livemocha offered possibilities for language learners to engage in authentic communication, collaborating with peers in a learning environment underpinned by social constructivist principles, and in which some development of learner autonomy might tacitly take place. It was hoped that the students would notice a feeling of "being in control" of their learning through logging on to Livemocha at times that suited them, in whichever locations were convenient for them at those times, and with feedback on their L2 performance provided by peers rather than by a teacher. From the perspective of learner motivation, the key aspect was that these learners would suddenly have an additional and, crucially, immediate reason to actually be making the effort to learn a language in the first place; that of developing new friendships and communicating with online language partners.

38Some of the project participants began to interact with their language partners on a regular basis, arranging to meet online at certain times, while other interactions were of a more spontaneous nature.

39Previously, having opportunities to communicate with such a large number of speakers of a language would have required (more often than not) actually travelling to a country where the language was spoken. Aside from offering them the chance to now make meaningful use of their L2s without having to go anywhere, Livemocha was considered as providing other practical benefits for the language learners participating in this study. The most important of these would be the situational conditions themselves that could potentially lead to more extensive L2 output being produced by the students, as they took advantage of a reduction in the feelings of inhibition and anxiety that often impede learners' productive performance in traditional classroom settings.

40Ultimately, underlying the whole project was the hypothesis that willingness to communicate would be increased in this online environment, and the study's main objective was to enable an examination of the combined influence on WTC of the variables of personality and social situation (in this case social interaction via CMC), which might be observed in the participants' activity in Livemocha.

5.1. Continuity between formal and informal learning

41The results of this case study suggest that SNSs such as Livemocha may be useful for enabling some continuity between formal and informal learning contexts. Most of the project participants commented on how they were able through the website to put into practice language they had been studying in their elective language modules, and it seemed that this added to a feeling that their language learning was proving to be useful and worthwhile. They had opportunities to use language structures they had studied in the classroom, as well as to pick up more vocabulary and hone their skills serendipitously through the sort of informal learning described by Kukulska-Hulme (2006) as "stumble and learn", or by Comas-Quinn et al. (2009: 101) as the "knowledge we had not set out to acquire but we chance upon in conversation, listening to the radio or web surfing".

42At this point it is worth mentioning how the presence of the so-called Alpha Socialisers, and of another, more numerous group of SNS users labelled "Attention Seekers" ("mostly female, teens to 35+, craving interaction with others", Ofcom, 2008: 29) could potentially undermine the sense of a community of practice. Harrison and Thomas (2009) refer to this aspect in their study of the use of Livemocha by postgraduate Applied Linguistics students at Kobe University in Japan. They explain how a female participant identified probable Alpha Socialisers before responding to any friendship requests by checking via their profiles the networks of "friends" they had created. If a preponderance of female contacts in a potential language partner's network aroused suspicion as to that person's motives, then friendship requests and messages could simply be ignored. The participants in this study at Coventry University were also able to identify some Alpha Socialisers, but fortunately this did not become a problem for any of them.

43However, as a consequence of considering this issue, it became apparent that more genuine, focussed communities of practice could be set up inside Livemocha by teachers who were in contact with their counterparts at institutions in other countries. Students could be asked to sign up to the website and create a profile, then lists of the students' Livemocha usernames could be exchanged via their respective teachers. This would enable the students in partner institutions to search for and "add" each other, thus creating their own networks with native-speaker friends. Class-to-class collaborations might also be developed on this basis, perhaps even involving some synchronous interaction in order to complete tandem-learning tasks in real time. This would depend on the possibility of classes being arranged to take place at the same time, which in turn would depend on there not being too large a difference between time zones.

44Many researchers have reported on such online tandem-learning and telecollaboration projects (Mullen, Appel & Shanklin, 2009; O'Dowd & Ritter, 2006; Ware & Kramsch, 2005; Belz & Müller-Hartmann, 2003; Little et al., 1999), but the majority of these have been conducted within environments specifically set up by teachers and educators, and therefore the learning that the participating students have engaged in – however fun and rewarding it may have been – can always be regarded to some extent as falling under the "formal learning" category. This is not to criticise formal learning but rather to emphasise the point made by Thorne and Reinhardt (2008) that online language learning communities such as Livemocha may now serve as a convenient, ready-made "bridge" between classroom-based language learning and actual, communicative use of L2s in real-life situations, with its concomitant siuated and informal learning.

5.2. Willingness to communicate

45It is not overly fanciful to envisage students interacting regularly with language partners in this type of online language learning community, having fun "socially networking" and using L2 as they do so. It seems likely that this was in fact occurring in the cases of the student who began accessing Livemocha from her iPhone, and the others who either continued logging on to the website after the end of the project period, or transferred communication into other social media applications. These participants were those who recorded the highest numbers of "communication events" on their log-sheets, and who therefore can be considered as exhibiting a higher willingness to communicate than the others. Data for the five participants who showed higher WTC are presented in the table below.

Table 5 – Participants exhibiting relatively high WTC.

student

L1

L2 practised in Livemocha

MBTI type

logged
synchr. comm. events (text/voice)

logged asynchr. comm.

events

date of last log-in

1

English

Russian

ISTJ

1/0

22

17-3-2010

2

English

Spanish

ESTJ

2/0

6

07-6-2010

3

English

Spanish

ESTJ

14/3

1

16-3-2010

5

Spanish/ Galician

Russian

ESTJ

17/4

0

05-6-2010

6

English

Dutch

INFJ

3/0

17

15-3-2010

(Students 4, 7 and 8 are not included here as they did not provide any evidence of WTC.)

46The sample size is small, and the MBTI results probably not wholly reliable, but it is nonetheless worth considering some possible explanations for the participants' rates of activity in Livemocha that were reflected in the data collected. From Table 5 above it can be seen that students 1 and 6 engaged in quite frequent asynchronous communication (email messages and comments posted on discussion boards), while students 3 and 5 were more active in terms of synchronous communication. Most of this took the form of text-based chat, but these students did also use voice chat on several occasions. The MBTI results for students 3 and 5 indicated a tendency towards extroversion, and perhaps this is being further demonstrated here in their affinity for more direct involvement with their language partners. Student 2, also inclined towards extroversion, was very active as a teacher and was one of the two who continued to use the website after the end of the project period. She did not log many communication events in Livemocha, but later admitted that she had been (text) chatting in Skype with friends she had made in Livemocha. This student also revealed in one of her log sheets that she had not "plucked up the courage" to use voice chat, but at the same time gave the impression that she very much wanted to try it. It is possible she will in future, if she maintains and develops the relationships she has established with her new online language partners. Students 1 and 6 exhibited a tendency towards introversion, but nevertheless they were clearly quite willing to communicate, albeit asynchronously.

47Numerous studies carried out since the proliferation of the Internet in the 1990s have reported that learners generally approve of the exploitation of CMC for language learning, finding it both useful and enjoyable (Rosell-Aguilar, 2004; Stepp-Greany, 2002; Felix, 2001; Beauvois, 1996). Some studies suggest that students' approval of the use of web-based tools for educational purposes is not linked to their personality type (Kanuka & Nocente, 2003; Beauvois, 1996), which may serve as reassurance for teachers who are especially concerned with individuals' learning styles and preferences. Other research has shown that willingness to communicate, which is influenced by personality, is increased when learners have the option of using text chat (Freiermuth & Jarrell, 2006; Schwienhorst, 2002; Chun, 1994), as the anxiety sometimes felt by learners in face-to-face conversation is greatly reduced when using this social media application. The majority of the project participants reported that they generally felt less inhibited when communicating online, and, although it is thought improbable that WTC in L1 is a reliable indicator of WTC in L2 (MacIntyre et al., 1998), a considerable willingness to communicate in L2 was nonetheless observed in the participants' activity in Livemocha. As might be expected, those exhibiting a stronger introversion dimension in their personality type favoured asynchronous communication, while those tending towards extroversion engaged much more in synchronous communication. With regard to the personality types of the participants, the results of the MBTI questionnaire did seem to reflect the findings of Moody's (1988) study of the proportions of students with certain personality types according to academic discipline (Language, Science, Engineering or Business) in that there were biases towards the judging, thinking and intuitive dimensions for these students taking elective modules in languages. However, the sample size is much too small to allow for any real conclusions to be drawn, and, moreover, these students were not "de facto" language students but came from disciplines as diverse as Building Surveying, Criminology and Mechanical Engineering. At any rate, a closer look at Moody's results reveals that "students in general" seem to exhibit greater inclinations towards the judging, thinking and intuitive dimensions than those revealed on average across the wider population.

48This case study suggests then that online language learning communities such as Livemocha may be a genuinely useful tool for language learners with different personality types and learning preferences. For "extroverted" learners there is the potential for voice chat with literally hundreds of speakers of their target language, and for more introverted learners there are the customary asynchronous communication channels. The large numbers of potential language partners could pose a problem, however, as learners may find themselves wandering from partner to partner, engaging frequently in rather superficial "introductions" as opposed to benefiting from the type of interactions that would result from getting to know one or two partners in greater depth. Nevertheless, as one of the main goals of language learning – even for introverts – is the ability to engage in spoken, synchronous communication in the L2, whether this be interactional or transactional, being able to "step up" towards this from writing emails and posting on discussion boards, through using text chat, and finally speaking via voice chat, could be a gradual, relatively anxiety-free progression that would suit many language learners.

49Teachers encouraging students to interact with other members of these online language learning communities have a very important role to play, from helping them to construct appropriate conversational gambits to begin with, to raising their awareness of culturally specific discourse styles, and to guiding them towards developing an online savoir être (Byram & Zarate, 1994) that will enable them to manage interactions in L2 via CMC more effectively.

6. Conclusion

50The results of this case study suggest that Livemocha could be a convenient and potentially quite useful tool for language learners. The principal feature it has to offer is easy and immediate access to speakers of a whole catalogue of languages, meaning that learners can interact with members of different language communities in a meaningful and authentic context. Where languages as widely spoken (and learned) as French and Spanish (and of course English) are concerned, the number of potential language exchange partners with whom to interact in Livemocha can be measured in tens of thousands (although admittedly this may lead to the type of problem described previously), but it is also possible to establish contact with speakers of other major languages, such as Arabic, Mandarin and Russian, as well as with speakers of less widespread languages. Given the large numbers of people already using Livemocha, and the fact that their user profiles can in effect be "browsed" beforehand, it seems fair to say that learners have a good chance of making contact with like-minded language exchange partners who can help them to continue developing their L2 proficiency. The likelihood of making contact with partners who are genuinely serious about language learning could be increased, however, if teachers from partner institutions were to use the website as a platform for language exchange projects involving students from their respective institutions.

51The main focus of this project was on the use the students would make of the social media applications available in the SNS to communicate in L2 with language exchange partners. The participants engaged in communication that was asynchronous – written, synchronous – written, and synchronous – spoken, and it seemed, unsurprisingly, that only those with a more extrovert dimension to their personalities were comfortable with using the synchronous spoken option of voice chat. Although the number of voice chat events logged by the participants was small, perhaps due in part to a lack of experience with using such applications, most of them exhibited a considerable willingness to communicate in L2, with participants of a more introverted inclination favouring the asynchronous written channels, and more extroverted participants making use of synchronous text-based chat. Several studies have already highlighted the potential value of text-based chat for increasing learners' WTC, and the findings of this current project would seem to reaffirm their usefulness as a sort of "stepping stone" on the way to developing L2 speaking proficiency.

52Development of the ability to "speak" the target language is the priority for most language learners, and is a principal goal of Communicative Language Teaching. Many learners envisage or imagine themselves using L2 at some point in the future, in face-to-face communication for interactional or transactional purposes, and considerable time in the classroom is devoted to activities in which learners speak with each other in L2, perhaps in conversation or discussion about "general" topics, or through the role-playing of typical service encounters, for example. Through participation in an online language learning community such as Livemocha, authentic, "real use" of L2 no longer has to be something which is envisaged as possibly taking place at some unknown time in the future, and instead learners can begin to see it as something that can take place immediately and regularly, at times and in places that are convenient for them. The authenticity and convenience of the communication are likely to have a positive impact on motivation, and it could be interesting for students to revisit reasons for learning a language, with the development of online language partnerships – or friendships – suggested here as a new, additional motive for making the effort to learn other languages. With some coordination, and meeting in classrooms equipped with computers, it might also be possible for language partners to become "virtual classmates" from time to time. This would depend on teachers and their counterparts in partner institutions being able to between them set up group collaborations within an SNS, arranging (if possible) for classes to take place at the same time, or at least for there to be some overlap during which their respective students could interact with each other to complete tandem learning tasks. Assuming that students were able to strike up a good rapport with their peers in other countries, and were therefore interested and motivated to communicate with one another in their free time between classes, then this sort of inititiative might enable some continuity between formal and informal learning contexts, allowing students to see some integration of their learning into their lives outside the traditional learning environment.

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Références

Les liens externes étaient valides à la date de publication.

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Websites

Facebook (nd). http://www.facebook.com/

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MySpace (nd). Social entertainment. http://www.myspace.com/

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Annexe

Appendix i – Descriptors of MBTI personality types.

Extroverts (E)

Introverts (I)

Oriented to the outer world

Oriented to the inner world

Focusing on people, things and action

Focusing on ideas, concepts, inner impressions

Using trial and error with confidence

Considering deeply before acting

Scanning the environment for stimulation

Probing inwardly for stimulation

Sensing (S)

Intuitive (N)

Perceiving with the 5 senses

Perceiving with memory and associations

Attending to practical and factual details

Seeing patterns and meanings

In touch with the physical realities

Seeing possibilities

Attending to the present moment

Projecting possibilities for the future

Confining attention to what is said and done

Imagining; "reading between the lines"

Seeing "little things" in everyday life

Looking for the big picture

Attending to step-by-step experience

Having hunches; "ideas out of nowhere"

Letting "the eyes tell the mind"

Letting "the mind tell the eyes"

Thinking (T)

Feeling (F)

Using logical analysis

Applying personal priorities

Using objective and impersonal criteria

Weighing human values and motives, my own and others'

Drawing cause and effect relationships

Appreciating

Being firm-minded

Valuing warmth in relationships

Prizing logical order

Prizing harmony

Being sceptical

Trusting

Judging (J)

Perceiving (P)

Using thinking or feeling judgement outwardly

Using sensing or intuitive perception outwardly

Deciding and planning

Taking in information

Organising and scheduling

Adapting and changing

Controlling and regulating

Curious and interested

Goal oriented

Open-minded

Wanting closure, even when data are incomplete

Resisting closure to obtain more data

Appendix ii – Livemocha log sheet.

Name:

Date:

Session no:

Logged in at:

Logged out at:

I studied:

I learned (can refer to "anything", not just the language you are studying):

I communicated with …. (name of language partner) by …. (message, text chat, voice chat, other?):

I made mistakes with:

I was pleased with:

I wasn't pleased with:

My difficulties are:

I would like to know:

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1 – Heuristic Model of Variables Influencing Willingness to Communicate (MacIntyre et al., 1998).
URL http://journals.openedition.org/alsic/docannexe/image/2437/img-1.png
Fichier image/png, 122k
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Référence

Elwyn Lloyd, « Language Learners' "Willingness to Communicate" through Livemocha.com », Alsic [En ligne], Vol. 15, n°1 | 2012, mis en ligne le 30 mars 2012, Consulté le 16 décembre 2017. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/alsic/2437 ; DOI : 10.4000/alsic.2437

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Auteur

Elwyn Lloyd

Elwyn Lloyd is coordinator of EFL teacher-training at Coventry University, UK, having previously accumulated extensive experience as an English teacher and Director of Studies at language schools in Spain. He also teaches modules in Spanish and EAP, and his research interests are focussed around the use of Social Networking Sites and mobile technology in language learning and teaching.
Affiliation: Coventry University, UK.
Email: e.lloyd@coventry.ac.uk
Web: http://wwwm.coventry.ac.uk/researchnet/cucv/Pages/Profile.aspx?profileID=292
Address: Department of English and Languages, Faculty of Business, Environment and Society, Coventry University, Priory Street, Coventry, CV1 5FB, UK.

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