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Teletandems are not the Online Version of Face-to-Face Tandems; Here’s Why

Le tele-tandem n’est pas la simple transposition en ligne du tandem en presentiel : Voici pourquoi
Camille Debras


Le télétandem n’est pas la simple transposition en ligne du tandem en présentiel. Tous deux construits sur une base commune (réciprocité, autonomie, interaction entre pairs), ils constituent cependant des contextes interactionnels différents. Les interactions en présentiel permettent la co-présence des corps, le monitoring mutuel par le jeu des regards, une focalisation de l’attention, et une gestualité spécifique. A l’inverse, les interactions en ligne sont caractérisées par la distance physique, la possibilité du désengagement et la multifocalité. La webcam contraint fortement la gestualité, accentue les expressions du visage et exagère la proximité et la distance ; en ligne, il est impossible de croiser le regard de l’autre. Les deux types de tandem développent la pragmatique interculturelle, ainsi que des compétences complémentaires : la co-présence favorise la proximité et le contact, tandis que le télétandem met l’accent sur la culture numérique, permettant aux apprenants de trouver leurs marques dans l’espace virtuel post-culturel.

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1. Introduction

1The digital age offers many opportunities for language learning today. Globalization and the Internet provide ever-increasing occasions for language learners to come into contact with foreign cultures and languages. Opportunities of exposure to foreign languages take myriad forms, from communication tools like email, online forums and social networking sites, to cultural products like films, music, news channels. They also take the more institutionalized form of MOOCs (massive open online courses) or even complete online undergraduate programs. Digital technologies have fostered the development of telecollaboration settings and activities dedicated to language learning worldwide. A whole research field has developed in recent years on the study of Online Intercultural Exchange (OIE; see O’Dowd and Lewis). One blossoming area in Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL) is Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC), which can take the form of e(lectronic)-tandems based on email exchanges (Brammerts; Priego) as well as teletandems based on video-conferencing (Telles). Exolingual linguistic tandems have existed since the 1960s as a pedagogical dispositive. A tandem is a language-learning method based on autonomy, reciprocity and peer interaction, in which two learners of different mother tongues meet up to talk half the time in each language, so as to learn each other’s language (Helmling; Brammerts and Calvert; see also Cappellini and Meng for a synthetic review of the language acquisition theories that underpin language tandem pedagogy). Although videoconferencing tools have existed for more than fifteen years now (for instance, Skype was created in 2003), teletandems are still fairly new in the world of Computer-Mediated Communication pedagogy and research: indeed, in their systematic review of academic research on the links between OIE and foreign language learning, Lewis and O’Dowd count only six studies that used synchronous videocommunication tools.

2Teletandems using videoconferencing tools for synchronous interaction offer many advantages when one espouses a constructivist approach to language learning. They help bring together people from different time zones, they can be integrated into a university curriculum and are perfectly tailored for the language tandem’s traditional focus on learner autonomy (Elia). Teletandems are also fairly democratic: since they are far less costly and complex to implement than study abroad programs, they can be used by almost all students, unless a participation gap (Jenkins et al.) arises due to differences in the participants’ levels of digital literacy. Although teletandems are often seen as the straightforward online transposition of face-to-face tandems, this paper aims to show that things are not that simple. More specifically, I focus on the nonverbal component of communication to highlight how face-to-face tandems and teletandems are fundamentally different interactional situations that shape the acquisition of different knowledge and know-how. To do so, I recurrently refer to Richard Kern’s compelling and comprehensive 2014 paper Technology as Pharmakon: The Promise and Perils of the Internet for Foreign Language Education, among other major references in the field. In this paper, Kern analyses data derived from an ongoing pedagogy project between UC Berkeley and the University of Lyon/ENS de Lyon involving teletandem videoconferencing exchanges between French students at UC Berkeley and students preparing for a master’s degree in français langue étrangère at Lyon/ENS (Develotte et al.).

2. The linguistic functions of gestures in (tandem) interaction

3When people – native speakers and language learners, online and offline – talk, they gesture. They use their hands, body postures and facial expressions to express conventionalized meanings (Calbris) or to create meaning on the spot (Cienki and Mittelberg). A gesture can be defined as an “action belonging to the ‘story line’ of the interaction” (Kendon “Some reasons for studying gestures”). A gesture is a body movement inscribed in the sequentiality of the interaction and coordinated with other actions: it is here by “co-incidence” and not by “mere coincidence” (Schegloff). Gestures are traditionally defined in opposition with self-adaptors (Ekman and Friesen), i.e. gestures of self-contact done for reasons of comfort (e.g. adjusting one’s glasses). Gestures with conventional meanings, also known as emblems (Ekman and Friesen) are rooted in culture. But gestures also fulfil linguistic functions with respect to the co-occurring speech: they can serve to represent concrete or abstract elements (iconic or metaphoric gestures), to point at references (deictic gestures) or to mark prosody (beat gestures; see McNeill for a basic typology of gesture functions). Overall, gestures play a key role in the co-construction of meaning in interaction (Kendon “Gesture: Visible Action as Utterance”): they contribute to the construction of referents through representation (Müller) or pointing (Kita), express emotions and attitudes, can function as contextualization cues (Gumperz) that help disambiguate meanings, and play regulatory functions in the distribution of turns at talk (interactive gestures, Bavelas et al.). Gestures can also replace segments of speech that play the role of syntactic constituents (Ladewig “Linear Integration”). Each language contains a repertoire of recurrent gestures, i.e. gestures that display form-function stability across speakers and contexts (Ladewig “Recurrent Gestures”). Different body articulators can be mobilized to visually express linguistic meanings, e.g. whole enactments like shrugs (Debras “The Shrug”), head movements (McClave) or facial displays (Bavelas and Chovil “Visible Acts of Meaning”). Gesture use is especially key to L2 language production, since learners rely a lot on them so as to track referents in conversation (Gullberg).

4As exemplified by the research on the use of co-speech gesture in the SITAF project data (Spécificités des Interactions Verbales dans le Cadre de Tandems Linguistiques Anglais-Français, Horgues and Scheuer), gestures play a fundamental role in face-to-face tandems. In this project, the technical set up was especially well suited for the study of non-verbal cues: three cameras are used, one is aimed at each participant and one captures the whole set. Indeed, multiple angles allow for a rich capture of the various dimensions of kinesic output (Mondada). Gestures are omnipresent in tandem interactions (Debras et al. “The Multimodality of Corrective Feedback”, Horgues and Scheuer), and tandem participants rely on specific kinesic repertoires and gesture functions to perform corrective feedback and express positionings (Debras et al. “Corrective Feedback Sequences”), to negotiate meaning, or to construct multimodal chains of reference (Debras and Beaupoil-Hourdel “Gestualité et construction des chaînes de réference”). Although gestures are also used extensively during teletandem videoconference exchanges (see Kern’s analysis of the Berkeley/Lyon university teletandem data), gesture use and even perception are highly constrained by the use of videoconference tools, as we will explain in more detail below.

3. The effects of computer mediation on interaction

3.1. Contrasted characteristics of offline and online interaction

5Although they share common principles, face-to-face and online tandems are fundamentally different in nature, and this simply because offline and online interactions are fundamentally different communication situations. As proposed by Goffman (“Behavior”), face-to-face communication is characterized by three features: copresence, mutual monitoring, and a central situational focus. Copresence describes situations where participants in an interaction are together in a single space, e.g. in the same room. Copresence creates the possibility of mutual monitoring, i.e. a social situation “in which an individual will find himself accessible to the naked senses of all others who are ‘present,’ and similarly find them accessible to him” (Goffman “The Neglected Situation” 135). Furthermore, a meeting is construed as a social encounter when the attention of all participants is targeted at “a single focus of cognitive and visual attention—what is sensed as a single mutual activity” (Goffman “Behavior” 89). However, online interaction is quite different with respect to these three dimensions. First, copresence is not realized, or transposed to a virtual space whose nature we will explain in more detail below. Second, mutual monitoring is of a different nature during online interaction. As Jones notes, “what makes communicating with new technologies different from face-to-face communication is (...) the different sets of ‘mutual monitoring possibilities’ that these technologies make available” (Jones 23). With the possibility to adjust or turn off even momentarily the camera and the microphone, users are provided “new ways to control and manipulate their participation statuses with others and new ways to control the ways others monitor their presence” (Jones 30). In other words, participants in a virtual interaction have a much higher degree of control over how their actions are perceived by others than they would in a face-to-face encounter. They can easily use “involvement shields”, that is,

barriers to perception (…) behind which individuals can safely do the kind of things that ordinarily result in negative sanctions (...) involvement can be shielded by blocking perception of either bodily signs of involvement or objects of involvement, or both. (Goffman “Behavior” 39)

6One extreme case of involvement shielding is described by Kern in his analyses of the Berkeley/Lyon university teletandem data: one instance involved a pair of Berkeley students who launched a video during their videoconferencing session. While they watched the video, which covered their Skype screen, their French tutors tried to interact with them without success. Since the Berkeley students could not see or hear their French partners but seemed to look at them normally, the French wrongly concluded that there was a technical problem. One of the most significant limitations of videoconferencing for Kern is hence that webcams can create the illusion of contact, when in fact there is none. Third, online interactions are characterized by “polyfocality” (Jones), i.e. multitasking, rather than centrality of focus. Learners can engage in several simultaneous activities during the teletandem, e.g. instant message their friends, listen to music, watch TV, read. As Jones notes, polyfocality, in which several engagements are all equally important, fundamentally challenges Goffman’s assumption that social encounters always have a “primary involvement,” with all other engagements being “subordinate” (Jones 27; Goffman “Behavior” 43-63).

7Technologically mediated interactivity is in many respects quite different from the interactivity of face-to-face encounters (Kappas and Krämer, Wasson inter alia). Although online interactions constitute the closest approximation to face-to-face conversation, the two cannot be considered as interchangeable. Indeed, as Lewis and O’Dowd note,

online cultural encounters [are] qualitatively different from what might occur within the compass of, say, a study abroad programme. This involves recognition that online environments have cultures of their own and that the frequenters of these may feel a stronger affiliation to their virtual worlds than to their offline cultures of origin. (Lewis and O’Dowd 56)

8For Dooly, who studied a year-long telecollaborative exchange amongst trainee teachers at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and students in an MA TESOL course at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the virtual environments inhabited by learners seem to constitute a kind of a-cultural or post-cultural ‘third space’ beyond, and distinct from, the participants’ respective cultural spaces. Transcript evidence in Dooly’s data suggests that when collaborating in immersive environments, participants tend to reconstruct identities for themselves as ‘teachers in an online virtual community’ rather than in terms of their offline cultural affiliations. Online learners can come to co-create a single hybrid ‘third space’ – a notion borrowed from postcolonial theory (Bhabha) and transposed to intercultural exchange (Kramsch “Language”). In line with such analyses, Kern notes that in the Berkeley/Lyon university teletandem data he studies, the technological mediation might contribute to a “flattened sense of difference” (Kern 350), and that participants most often describe their interactions as happening in a personalized, but neutral space, that could correspond to a version of the post-cultural third space described by Kramsch (“Language”) and Dooly.

9As Kern notes, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that what one sees on one’s computer screen is a highly mediated, filtered, and designed version of the world. Mediation has “agency” (Kern 342): the mediation of the computer does not just facilitate processes, it fundamentally transforms them. The medium itself can give participants new ideas, shaping their expressions in its own terms. For Johnson, the software interface that allows us to use computers is synthetic in two senses of the word: “it is a forgery of sorts, a fake landscape that passes for the real thing, and— perhaps most important—it is a form that works in the interest of synthesis, bringing disparate elements together into a cohesive whole” (Johnson 238). For Kern, a fundamental mission of language educators in the digital age is thus to heighten learners’ critical and contextual awareness of their online communicative behavior. Kern thus warns language educators against the many biases of videoconference mediation, alongside Kramsch (“The Multilingual Subject”), for whom “the more real-world communication takes place in the virtual world of networked computers, the more crucial it becomes for instructional environments not to emulate the computer, but to offer precisely what the computer cannot do, namely, reflect critically on its own symbolic and virtual realities” (Kramsch “The Multilingual Subject” 194; see also Malinowski and Kramsch for an equally cautionary perspective).

3.2. Computer-mediated perceptions of distance

10Kern first explains how the positioning of participants’ bodies is highly constrained by the in-build webcams, which cannot be repositioned. Participants are forced to remain rather still if they wish to be visible to their partners. The webcam imposes constraints when two participants encounter a tutor: they have to move close together in order to be both included in the webcam’s frame. This introduces ambiguity in the interpretation of physical proximity: in that specific setting, it wasn’t clear for American partners whether the French participants were good friends, whether all French people sit close together, or whether it was simply because of the webcam. In comparison, face-to-face interactions are potentially far less constrained. Although the material conditions of interaction situations always contribute to shaping up the interaction itself (Streeck et al.), participants in face-to-face conversation have more freedom to adjust (to) their interactional setting, e.g. move furniture, sit elsewhere, move away from a noisy environment.

11As Kern further notes, the webcam also exaggerates the perception of distance. While a short-range view creates a sense of immediacy and intimacy akin to cinematic close-up, a distance of just three feet makes one appear quite distant. The impression of excessive intimacy has a direct effect of language use. As Parkinson and Lea explain, when people interact with persons they don’t know well, they sometimes compensate for relatively intimate visual contact by talking about less personal topics, so as to increase social distance. They write:

Paradoxically, one consequence may be that [videoconferencing] produces less intimacy than text-based or audio-only communication, because, in the latter cases, interactants may seek to increase rather than decrease the emotional relevance of the conversation itself when fewer alternative cues are available. (Parkinson and Lea 103)

12Default interactional distance with intimates or acquaintances during face-to-face interaction vary from one culture to the other, and have long been studied under the banner of cultural proxemics (Hall). A comfortable compromise in terms of cross-cultural interactional distance is probably easier to find during face-to-face interaction, since the possibility of mutual monitoring encourages the development of trust and closeness, allowing participants to look out for, or at least take guesses at, signs of awkwardness on the part of their partner.

3.3. Computer mediation affects gaze and gestures

13One major difference between teletandems and face-to-face tandems lies in the use of eye-contact. Gaze has long been identified as a key component of human interaction, since it plays a crucial role in the initiation and maintenance of human encounter (Goffman “The Neglected Situation”). Mutual monitoring is done through gaze, with participants’ intermittent mutual gazes expressing their continued commitment to the unfolding interaction. Gaze helps participants consider kinesic information that provide clues as to the interpretation of the speaker’s talk (Goodwin). Changes in gaze direction plays monitoring, but also regulatory and expressive functions (Kendon 1967). Typical conversational behavior includes gazing away from the interlocutor during a long turn, and then back on them when the turn comes to an end: gaze-direction fulfils a “floor-appointment” function (Kendon “Functions of Gaze Direction” 56), facilitating the coordination of subsequent turns-at-talk. Gaze-direction also fulfils expressive functions:

Looking away during listening indicated dissatisfaction with and qualifications of alter's speech. Looking away during speaking indicated uncertainty with statement or a modification of it. Looking at during listening indicated agreement or sheer attention. Looking at during speaking indicated interest in seeing the effect of the remark, and certainty. (Nielsen 155)

14However, as Kern rightfully remarks, real eye contact does not exist online, due to the fixed position of the webcam at the top of the screen. When interlocutors actually look at each other, they seem to be looking downward. Should they want to create the illusion of looking into their interlocutor’s eyes, they would need to look directly at the webcam, but then paradoxically they could not see their partner at all. Participants of videoconferencing usually adjust quickly to its specific gaze dynamics. Nevertheless, the fundamental difference in the use of gaze during online interaction remains a constant embodied reminder of the impossibility, and mere illusion, of copresence during teletandem interaction.

15Webcams mediate gestures as well. Gesture use, and even more so gesture perception, are highly constrained by the use of videoconference tools, creating a paradoxical dialectic of speaker involvement: while gesture use and physical proximity both constitute signs of commitment to the interaction, the two cannot be done simultaneously during videoconferencing. As Kern notes,

when gestures occur outside the webcam’s field of view they are invisible to online partners (…). Ironically, the closer a speaker is to the webcam (e.g., students leaning in toward the computer, signalling a high level of involvement), the less likely it is that their gestures will be captured by the webcam. On the other hand, the greater the distance from the webcam (suggestive of social distance in face-to-face interaction) the greater the likelihood that gestures will be picked up by the webcam. However, even if a gesture is captured within the webcam field of view, it can still sometimes be hidden from the interlocutor’s view behind the automatically overlain monitor window in Skype. (Kern 346)

16Since the face is the most visible part of the body online, participants will tend to mobilize it more, perhaps in an attempt to compensate for the webcam’s limited visual field that often hides body gestures. In face-to-face interactions, facial displays fulfill a large array of functions, beyond the sole expression of emotions. They function as “visible acts of meanings” (Bavelas and Chovil “Visible Acts of Meaning”) that have been described as conversational signals, socially oriented facial displays (Kraut and Johnston) or gestures with linguistic, communicational or pragmatic functions (Birdwhistell; Bavelas and Chovil; Ruusuvuori and Peräkylä, “Pragmatic”). For instance, raised eyebrows or frowning can relate to the expression of epistemic-evidential meanings, i.e. the marking of information as old/expected or new/unexpected (Chovil). Expressing emotion is very different online (Kappas and Krämer), and participants will hence mobilize their faces differently. As Kern remarks, participants tend to heighten their facial expressiveness as they speak during videoconferencing. The effect of such exaggeration is generally to create a sense of liveliness and can be perceived as a way of attending to rapport (Grahe and Bernieri), and will lead to profound differences in the expression of interpersonal attitudes online and offline.

17Audio mediation also has a crucial influence. Participants might modulate their voice to create more contrast, so as to compensate for invisible kinesic information. More broadly, lag and desynchronization of the audio and video signals can affect communication, creating an awkward rhythm that might in turn cause interactional awkwardness.

4. From self-consciousness to retrospective reflection

18Shifts in kinesic attitudes are directly connected with the fact that videoconferencing interfaces continuously present participants with an online image of themselves. The synchronous visualization of one’s self-image fosters self-consciousness, and constitutes another fundamental difference between online and face-to-face interaction. Seeing oneself talking can be quite an unsettling or even unpleasant experience, and can deeply affect one’s way of behaving online. Guichon notes how speakers’ self-monitor their communication by readjusting their gesture space to the webcam’s frame, so that a specific gesture can be seen. The visualization of one’s online self-image also participates in the polyfocality typical of online interaction: even if one’s attention is only dedicated to the exchange, it is always already at least divided between the image of the self and that of the other.

19One important aspect of teletandem projects is to include retrospective reflection sessions, during which participants review recordings of their exolingual interactions (Kern; Rivière and Guichon; Vidal). Retrospective reflection is a crucial means for learners to develop an awareness of their own productions as part of the learning process (Schmidt). Indeed, recorded videoconferencing interactions provide students with opportunities to study their own performance and if needed, to reinterpret words and actions as they unfold for a second time (Guth and Helm). As Kern explains, reviewing recordings of the teletandem interaction provides the participant with, first,

available cognitive space to attend to details and can perceive things that went unnoticed the first time around. Second, having directly experienced the event, he can anticipate moments of uncertainty or misunderstanding and pay special attention to these points. Third, the comparison of his memory of the interaction with the objective data of the video recording leads to a sense of greater self-awareness. Finally, likening the process to revising an essay, the student has an opportunity to self-assess and to think about alternative words or actions that could have been used, potentially enlarging his repertoire for future interactions. (Kern 349)

20Along the same lines, Belz advocates for an “alternation of Internet-mediated intercultural sessions with face-to-face intracultural sessions” (Belz 214).

21Reviewing recordings allows participants to assess linguistic-pragmatic strengths and weaknesses, to analyze and trace back the origin of ambiguities, misunderstandings and communication breakdowns, and become more aware of the specificities of nonverbal online communication. Having students view the recordings of their interactions helps them to be more aware of their gestures’ visibility. Kern (2014) recalls the example of a student who had been gesturing with his left hand to avoid invading the space of the partner seated at his right, and who actually began to gesture with his right hand once he realized that his gestures were occurring out-of-frame anyway. This, Kern concludes, “speaks to the point that videoconferencing, like any other technologically mediated form of communication, is not an innate ability or natural act, but is a skill that develops over time” (Kern 347).

22Retrospective reflection sessions could also benefit face-to-face tandem interactions, provided that some of the sessions can be filmed. Face-to-face tandem projects like SITAF (Horgues and Scheuer), in which two interaction sessions were filmed at an interval of three months during the recording period in 2014, exemplify the potential for transposing the benefits of retrospective reviewing to face-to-face tandem interactions.

5. Conclusion

23In conclusion, this paper has aimed to show that teletandems are not just the online transposition of face-to-face tandem interactions. Although both online and offline tandems share similarities (reciprocity, autonomy, peer interaction), they constitute different types of interactions, because offline and online interactions are of a fundamentally different nature. Face-to-face interactions are characterized by copresence, mutual monitoring, centrality of focus (although today things are changing with smartphones increasingly pervading our everyday lives as competing attention foci), as well as by specific gaze and gesture dynamics. Mutual monitoring through gaze is a crucial element of face-to-face interaction, that lays the basis for closeness and possibly, for trust. Conversely, online interactions are characterized by physical distance, restrictions in the access to and in the display of involvement cues and by the possibility of shielding involvement. Another major feature of online interaction is inherent polyfocality, since the participant’s attention is split between at least online images of oneself and of the interlocutor. Kinesic dynamics are radically different during online interaction: mutual gaze is impossible, gesture use and perception is highly constrained, physical distance or proximity is exaggerated and facial expressions are put to the fore. Yet these striking differences do not mean that one form of tandem is better or worse than the other. On the contrary, on top of both developing intercultural pragmatic competence, they allow participants to acquire different, but complementary skills: face-to-face tandems emphasize closeness and contact, while teletandems improve digital literacy, especially so as to succeed in navigating the post-cultural, digital “third space”. Both face-to-face and teletandems should be advocated as developing the intercultural and L2 interactional skills of students aiming to become full-fledged citizens of a multicultural, globalized world.

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Camille Debras, « Teletandems are not the Online Version of Face-to-Face Tandems; Here’s Why »Recherche et pratiques pédagogiques en langues de spécialité [En ligne], Vol. 39 N°1 | 2020, mis en ligne le 03 février 2020, consulté le 09 juin 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Camille Debras

Camille Debras est maître de conférences en linguistique anglaise à l’université Paris Nanterre. Ses recherches sur l’analyse multimodale des pratiques langagières développent une approche linguistique de la gestualité co-verbale, à travers l’étude de corpus variés : conversation ordinaire, interactions adulte-enfant, tandems exolingues, ou encore discours politique.

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