Foreign language learning as global communicative practice

Claire Kramsch, University of California, Berkeley

Steven L Thorne, Pennsylvania State University

D. Block and D. Cameron (eds.) (forthcoming). Language Learning and Teaching in the Age of Globalization. London: Routledge.


The ease of access to foreign speakers and cultures provided by internet communication tools has been hailed as potentially transforming the learning of foreign languages from a decontextualized exercise into an engagement with authentic real-world contexts of language use (e.g., Blyth 1998, Warschauer 1999, Warschauer and Kern 2000). Some concerns have been voiced, however, that the type of communication students engage in over global networks might not fulfill the communicative goals traditionally associated with the learning of a foreign language. Whereas communicative language teaching was predicated on the authentic exchange of information and the development of mutual cross-cultural understanding (Breen and Candlin 1980, Savignon 1983), computer-mediated interaction seems to favor phatic contact and favorable presentation of self (Kramsch, A'Ness, Lam 2000, Thorne 1999). Indeed, as Kern points out: "[On the internet] students are certainly engaged in communication. But has the communication led to any new understanding?" (Kern 2000:255).

In this paper, we reflect on the implications of global communication technologies for teaching and using foreign languages. After a short review of the role of communication in language teaching and of the possibilities of global communication networks, we examine the use of synchronous and asynchronous communication between American learners of French in the United States and French learners of English in France. We interrogate the presumption that computer-mediated communication (hereafter CmC) naturally helps learners understand local conditions of language use and builds a global common ground for cross-cultural understanding.


1. Communicative language teaching: transmission of information vs. ritual of engagement

The concept of 'negotiation of meaning' has been at the heart of foreign language teaching since the 70's. Communicative competence, first defined by Savignon (1972) and Breen and Candlin (1980) as the ability to "share and negotiate meanings and conventions" (Breen &Candlin 1980:92), became popular through Canale and Swain’s (1980) analysis of its grammatical, sociolinguistic, and strategic components, and Savignon's later definition of negotiation as "a process whereby a participant in a speech event uses various sources of information - prior experience, the context, another participant - to achieve understanding." (1983:307). The concept of negotiation became operationalized in American second language acquisition research and practice in terms defined by Pica, i.e., as "those interactions in which learners and their interlocutors adjust their speech phonologically, lexically, and morphosyntactically to resolve difficulties in mutual understanding that impede the course of their communication." (1995:200). By associating meaning with information, and understanding with the linguistic dimensions of speech, American foreign language (FL) pedagogy grounded its notion of communicative competence in the Utilitarian discourse system prevalent in many sectors of American public life (Scollon and Scollon 1995:94).

Indeed, following an historical belief in the power of science and technology, communication in the US has been seen mostly as the transmission of information, an activity that reduces distances between interlocutors in the same way as the pioneers conquered space by 'going West', or the Pacific Railroad connected people across vast distances (Carey 1988). This view of communication hinges on the belief that cultural Others can be known through an enlightened discourse of truth (Foucault 1971:19) that is based on a common rationality and communicative purpose (Habermas 1970; see Hymes’s critique of Habermas in Hymes 1987:225).

But there exists at the same time another view of communication, one based on the need to identify with and belong to a community of discursive practice. This is a view of communication as a ritual of engagement, referred to also as involvement and solidarity (Tannen 1984), where trust takes precedence over objective truth. Computer-mediated communication, that brings together individual speaking sensibilities in an a-historical cyberspace can replace the traditional messy encounter of historical speakers with their baggage of national allegiances and cultural practices. It can bring about the resolution of problems caused for example by national or cultural stereotypes. Sociologist James Carey describes this kind of communication as follows: "A ritual view of communication sees language as an instrument of dramatic action, of thought as essentially situational and social, and symbolism as fundamentally fiduciary." (1988:35). It focuses on the sharing of experience, ideas, values and sentiments. Here, the modern view of communication as the discourse of truth gives way to a post-modern view of communication as the discourse of trust; it is more important that you are personally engaged than that you get to the bottom of the 'truth'. In official FL pedagogy, the notion of communicative competence has not, up to now, included communication as ritual except in its more codified forms of social etiquette, although the symbolic or ritual uses of the foreign language have been shown to be alive and well in learners’ unofficial uses of the language (Kramsch 1997, Rampton 1999).

At the beginning of the 21st century, the teaching of foreign languages at educational institutions in the US is being challenged by new global communication technologies. Cyberspace is perceived as a utopian middle landscape, where native speakers and non-native speakers can have access to one another as linguistic entities on a screen, unfettered by historical, geographical, national or institutional identities. The anonymity, the multiple audiences, the speed, and the ubiquity of the medium have been hailed as liberating (Lanham 1994, Turkle 1995, Jones 1995, Herring 1996) and as creating global opportunities for FL use. But to what extent does the medium itself change the parameters of communication and the nature of language use (Latour 1999)? And what kind of discourse is being promoted there: a discourse of truth or a discourse of trust?


2. Language learning and technology in a global context

Globalization, a highly contested term (Jameson and Miyoshi, 1999; Giddens, 2000; Harvey, 2000), is often described using the analogy of a network (e.g., Castells, 1996). A "many to many" network enables, distributes, and arguably makes cosmopolitan all sorts of symbolic and material goods at the level of economic trade and its artifacts, and the exchange of cultural practices and images such as music, dance, film, and language. Recently available communication technologies, particularly those associated with the Internet but also cell phones, pagers, and increasingly personal digital assistants, are displacing conventional modalities such as the memo, note, and letter writing. In addition to its ubiquitous material forms, the discourse around communication technology is globally visible and can be found in the Technology section of any national and most local papers, in reports on televised news programs, and of course, on the thousands of web sites that speak, indirectly, about the means of their own conveyance. In this sense, global communication networks, globalization, and the discourses of the two, are bound up together.

Global communication networks present a paradox. They encourage alienation by reducing face-to-face contact, yet this same technology, from an opposing point of view, provides a nexus of connectivity, social interaction, and community building, albeit in novel formations. Undeniably, CmC has become a habituated and everyday dimension of social, academic, and professional communicative activity and American students are reported to find it highly engaging (e.g., Beauvois, 1998; Kern, 1995; Lee, 1998). As internet communication of both synchronous and asynchronous varieties is increasingly used to supplement or even replace face-to-face teaching methods in various formal educational settings in the U.S., there is a need to look at these digital spaces as social places. Castells terms this the "culture of real virtuality" -- a social-material space that enables individualism and community, but where social inequalities may also powerfully manifest themselves (1996:356).

The pedagogical impetus (and assumption) behind FL educational uses of CmC is directly linked to the popularity of communicative language teaching, that advocates language development through social interaction. Language use over networks can provide various benefits, many of which are not readily available in foreign language classrooms (Cononelos & Oliva, 1993; Warshauer, 1996), e.g., regular interaction with spatially dispersed interlocutors, access to expert speakers of the language of study, increased peer-peer interaction, the development of on-line discourse communities (Warshauer, 1998), and often an overall increase in the total production of language by students (Kern, 1995). Putting students in direct written contact with one another has been argued to elevate thinking and writing in the classroom to a legitimate and co-constructed form of knowledge (Faigley, 1992; Day & Batson, 1995; Bruce, Peyton, & Batson 1993). In this sense, network technologies have helped to initiate a significant pedagogical shift, moving many language arts educators from cognitivist assumptions about knowledge and learning as a brain phenomenon, to contextual, collaborative, and social-interactive approaches to language development and activity (Ferrara, Brunner, and Whittemore, 1991, Hawisher, 1994; Noblitt, 1995; Ortega, 1997; Kern, 1998, 2000; Thorne, 2000).

CmC use spans synchronous and asynchronous interaction. Synchronous CmC requires that interactants are simultaneously on-line and involves tools such as Internet Relay Chat, ICQ ("I seek you"), assorted web-based environments, and MOOs (Multi-user domain Object Oriented environments). Unlike synchronous CmC, where the interactional and linguistic dimensions of communication often show a medium effect (see Thorne, 2000), asynchronous communication tools such as email and threaded discussion continue to elicit the use of traditional epistolary conventions (openings, closings, and explicit references to prior texts, see Herring, 1996, for a discussion of the "basic electronic message schema"). New epistolary conventions have also accompanied the adoption of email, such as the inclusion of parts or the whole of a prior email message (or messages) in one’s response, a coherence strategy which co-evolved with the medium to help users cope with the massive increase in textual communication that email afforded. Of relevance here is that expectations of language register tied to recognizable social conventions become blurred in both synchronous and asynchronous CmC. Asynchronous communication, for example, can show an extreme range of written and spoken registers, from formal letters, memos, and essays, which ape their conventionally mediated or "paper" counterparts, to virtual transcriptions of oral conversation emphasizing phatic communion. Most American students participating in this study reported using CmC more than two hours a day, largely for social and/or phatic purposes.

We turn now to specific instances of the use of internet communication tools in foreign language education. Our examples are taken from an ongoing foreign language project using the internet to link together lycée students in France and college students in the US, between 18 and 20 years of age. We begin by examining an early semester brainstorming activity, conducted in March 1997, in which three American students of French are using a synchronous form of CmC or "chat" to consider possible issues and questions for their upcoming email interactions with students from the lycée Fernand-Léger in Ivry.


3. Synchronous CmC among Americans: Seeking common ground.

The stated goals of this intermediate-level French course were to increase intra-class interaction through the use of email and chat, to engage in a critical dialogue with French students from a suburb of Paris (email); and to culminate with web projects based on collaborative popular culture research carried out in tandem with the French students. The excerpt below is an example of the first effort by the American students, working in small groups, a few weeks after the start of their semester. The software used, a MOO server coupled with the MacMOOse client, automatically tags user messages with their names (Eric says, "…"; Matt says, "…"), and does not allow for the use of accent marks. None of the orthography or grammar has been altered, though deletions have been made due to space limitations. For ease of reference, we have divided this exchange into three sections. The course instructor has provided a brief description of the Ivry students as primarily of North African descent or recently immigrated to France. The American students have also been told that a number of the Ivry students live in HLM, or subsidized public housing.

Section One: Brainstorming topics

  1. Eric says, "j'ai un idea...le diversity ethnic du Ivry, en comparison avec Berkeley...d'ou les immigres viens, en quelle quantite..." [Yes, But I have an idea … a comparison of the ethnic diversity between Ivry and Berkeley … where do the immigrants come from, in what quantity …]
  2. Ken says, "voila une question... est-ce les bandelieus sont comme une exile, ou on ne peut pas partir?" [There’s a question: are the suburbs like an exile, where one cannot leave?]
  3. Eric says, ""c'est bon aussi....est-ce que les persones dans les banlieus...est-que les parents aussi habitaient dans l'HLM..." [this is good also … is the people in the suburbs … do their parents also live in the HLM?]
  4. Matt says, "probablement" [probably]
  5. Eric says, "aussi...l’ existe depuis quand?" [also … the HLM … how long has it existed?]
  6. Eric says, "ils l’ont fait quand? Pour quelle raison?" [when was it made? For what reason?]
  7. Matt says, "c'est une bonne question" [this is a good question]
  8. Ken says, "mais ca n'est pas une question qui commence une discussion..." [but that is not a question which begins a discussion]
  9. Matt says, "non, mais c'est quelquechose que je veux savoir" [no, but it’s something that I want to know]
  10. Eric says, ""ce ne doit pas etre un discussion, un project du recherche..." [it doesn’t have to be a discussion, a research project]
  11. Ken says, "ce serait plus facile si le sujet est quelque chose qui commence une discussion..." [this would be easier if the subject is something which begins a discussion …]

    In this initial brainstorming session, the American students disagree on the primary function of the planned email exchange with the French. Eric tentatively asserts that the goal is to carry out a research project (turn 10), while Ken and Matt stress the importance of topics that will catalyze discussion and engagement (turns 8 and 11).

    These two goals correspond to the two divergent parameters of the assignment. On the one hand they have been given an institutionally mandated goal (to carry out research as class project), on the other hand they have their own personally motivated goals (to communicate with French students, and learn about their lives). Because they are able to use personal computers and e-mail accounts to communicate with the French, outside of class, and without the instructor as an intermediary, they tend to blur the boundaries between institutional and personal, between public and private. This blurring of institutional and personal domains conceals from them the fact that ‘conversation’, ‘academic discussion’ and ‘research project’ are different genres, that are rooted in different local educational cultures and that put different constraints on the kind of knowledge the students are likely to gain from the upcoming exchange.


    Section Two: "je veux nous mettre au meme niveau"

  12. Ken says, "alors, est-ce qu'il y a quelque chose que nous voulons savoir de les gens qui habit a Ivry?" [so, is there something that we want to know about the people who live in Ivry?]
  13. Matt says, "Je voudrais savoir leur opinions de la vie" [I would like to know their opinions about life]
  14. Eric says, "" leurs chances dans l'avenir"" [yes … their chances for the future]
  15. Matt says, "S'ils pensent qu'ils veut aller a l'universite" [If they think they want to go to university]
  16. Eric says, ""mais tout ces sujets est...tellement..negatife." [but all these subjects is … so … negative]
  17. Matt says, "Oui, mais je veux savoir s'ils pensent comme nous" [Yes, but I want to know if they think like us]
  18. Ken says, "EST comme nous ou PENSE comme nous...?" [IS like us or THINK like us …?]
  19. Matt says, "si ils pensent comme nous pensons" [if they think like we think]
  20. Eric says, "vous ne pensez pas que si nous allions au Oakland, et demander au les etudiants le plus pauvre..."est'que vous pensez a l'University", il n'y a pas un problem avec ca?" [you don’t think that if we were to go to Oakland, and ask the poorest students … "do you think about University", there isn’t a problem with that?]
  21. Eric says, "je veux nous mettre au meme niveau" [I want to put us at the same level]

    While wanting to put themselves "at the same level" as their French interlocutors, the three American students seem clearly aware of the social class differential as they construct the other as the counterimage of themselves. They picture the Ivry students to be: poor, unlikely to attend university, and (therefore?) with uncertain futures. Their own implied oppositional identity of affluence and opportunity accounts for their belief that they not only have the responsibility but also the power to level the playing field, even as the unevenness of that field is precisely the reality they say they want to explore. One could interpret this paradox in two ways, which we illustrate below in form of a dialogue between the two authors of this paper.

    Steve: While it is clear that the Americans construct the French through negative homologies (e.g., "poorest students in Oakland") and that social class permeates each contribution to this discussion, I should like to state that this analysis is not meant to condemn the participants in any way. Stated optimistically, they reflectively doubt the appropriateness of questions like intentions for university or the future and determine these to be insensitive and "tellement …negatife" based on the information that they have about Ivry. I suggest that this illustrates an effort to understand matters from the (admittedly projected) vantage point of the Ivry students, hinting that this activity has the potential to displace norms of cultural and class reference for the Americans (the stated goal of the interaction).

    Claire: I don’t think anyone would "condemn" the American students. In the absence of further knowledge, they are clearly projecting their vision of Harlem or East Oakland onto the Parisian banlieue and their conception of America’s inner city poor onto Ivry’s milieux ouvriers. They are sensitive to difference, yes, but, rather than trying to understand this difference, they seek beyond difference to reach a common ground. So what do they mean when they claim they want to understand how the French think? What do they want to understand if all they do later is come to the conclusion that their lives are similar, after all, and that violence and racial conflict can be found everywhere?

    Steve: But perhaps this tendency for finding and affirming perceived similarity is a necessary step before they can go about exploring difference?


    Section Three: The great equalizer - global youth culture

  22. Ken says, "je veux savoir comment on habite a Ivry, je sais comment un parisien vivre, mais je ne sais pas comment les etudients d'Ivry vivre." [I want to know how one lives in Ivry, I know how parisians live, but I don’t know how students in Ivry live]
  23. Eric says, ""comment ils vivent? Leur vie qouitedenment?" [how they live? Their everyday lives?]
  24. Ken says, "oui" [yes]
  25. Ken says, "qu'est ce que c'est les chose qui les inquetes?" [what are the things they worry about?]
  26. Ken says, "les parents, les drogues, la sexe? le SIDA, les politiques" [parents, drugs, sex? AIDS, politics]
  27. Eric says, "oui oui oui!!!!" [yes yes yes!!!!]

Claire: So in order to find a safe common ground for discussion, they resort to familiar topics like family, drugs, sex, AIDS, and politics that they feel are universal in their conversational appeal. But in the absence of information about France, these are topics that are of primary interest to Berkeley college students, not necessarily to French lycéens from Ivry.

Steve: In my view, the American suggestion to discuss the quotidian preoccupations of youth culture marks a desire to engage within a mutually shared horizon of social, cultural, and experiential knowledge. Through the deployment of youth culture themes, where participants can situate themselves along a personal/specific-to-objective/global continuum, the Americans are attempting to engineer a future interaction based on fairness, mutuality, and hope, where relationships might be built, understanding might occur, and insights might be gleaned.

Claire: These "might" are full of good intentions and idealism, but how is that idealistic communicative agenda ever to be realized without a knowledge of basic facts and an understanding of the different social and cultural conventions under which each party is operating? This idealism, I am afraid, is not based on knowledge and information about the Other, but on some vague attempts at establishing trust based on a supposedly shared youth culture.


4. Asynchronous CmC between American and French students: Clashing frames of expectation.

The following excerpts are a follow-up on synchronous exchanges like the one discussed above. They were collected also in March 1997 between another group of Berkeley undergraduates in 2d year French and French students, this time from the lycée Frédéric Mistral in Fresnes (1). The initial contact was made by the French teacher in the U.S. with the English teacher in France (Contrepois 1999). Both the French and the American students had watched the feature film La Haine, made in 1995 by Mathieu Kassovitz, that depicts the experiences of three boys living in the housing projects of a Parisian banlieue. The film deals with racism, violence, gang culture, and the influence of American culture. The students’ discussion of this film is the beginning of an on-going exchange with the French students on a variety of topics during the semester. The American students wrote in French, their French partners responded in English. All postings are written by the students themselves, without any input from their teachers; however the American students posted their messages from their own individual terminals, whereas the French students gave their postings to their teacher who then sent them from her computer. The exchange started with this posting by the American students.

A qui de droit:

Je vous ecrire de la part de la classe francais 13, instruire par Julie Sauvage, a UC Berkeley. Recemment, nous avons regarde le film "Le Haine" en classe. Le contenue de ce film nous a choque car il y avait des images de France que nous ne voyons pas d’habitude ici aux Etats-Unis. Alors ce film etait un peu deroutant pour nous. J’espere que vous ou votre class peut nous aider avec notre confusion. Voici une liste de questions sur "Le Haine" que nous avons prepare:

  1. Est-ce qu’il y a des ressemblances entre la situation a la banlieue de Paris dans la film et la vraie situation?
  2. Est-ce qu’il y a beaucoup de problems entre les jeunes francais et la police?
  3. Est-ce qu’il y a des emeutes a la banlieue de Paris?
  4. Est-ce que c’est difficile a obtenir un arme a feu en France?
  5. Est-ce que c’est difficile a obtenir des drougues (comme marijuana) en France?
  6. Pourquoi est-ce que vous pensez que les jeunes americains ignorent des problems sociaux en France?
  7. Est-ce que vous pensez que la situation a la banlieue de Paris est en plus mauvais etat que les ghettos des Etats-Unis?

Signed: Nat Chadwick.

[To whom it may concern:

I am writing you on behalf of French 13, taught by Julie Sauvage, at UC Berkeley. Recently we saw the film "La Haine" in class. The content of the film shocked us since there were images of France that we don’t normally see here in the U.S. So this film was a bit unsettling for us. I hope that you or your class can help us with our confusion. Here’s a list of questions on "La Haine" that we’ve prepared:

  1. Are there similarities between the situation in the suburbs of Paris in the film and the real situation?
  2. Are there many problems between young French people and the police?
  3. Are there riots in the suburbs of Paris?
  4. Is it hard to obtain firearms in France?
  5. Is it hard to get drugs (like marijuana) in France?
  6. Why do you think that young Americans are not aware of social problems in France?
  7. Do you think the situation in the Paris suburbs is worse than in the ghettos of the U.S.?

    Signed: Nat Chadwick]

The group’s itemized list of questions, with their specific requests for information and for personal judgments, shows evidence of a view of communication as the transmission of objective, valid, verifiable facts from authentic sources. At the same time, the American students’ admission of personal weakness (confusion), their request for help and their sharing of personal sentiments, gives a ritual flavor to this exchange that is meant to display goodwill and to elicit trust. The students evidently consider the French students to be legitimate and qualified informants, even on such sensitive issues as 6 and 7. The written format of the medium and the asynchronous nature of the exchange impose a formality to this list of ‘interview’ questions that jars with the discourse of personal perplexity expressed in the opening paragraph. This stylistic dissonance is also due to the use of French ‘false friends’ such as choqué (E.shocked= surprised; Fr.choqué= scandalized) or confusion (E.confusion=perplexity; Fr.confusion=embarrassment). These and other rhetorical dissonances (e.g. the legal phrase à qui de droit sounds too formal in a friendly exchange), while possibly not impeding the transmission of information, might negatively affect the emotional tone of the communicative ritual. The linguistic ambiguity often found in unedited e-mail exchanges further impairs credibility. For example, from the way the third sentence is constructed, it is not clear whether the reason given for the American students’ "shock" is that the film gives a picture of France which is different from the pictures they are used to seeing, or that this type of violence is not seen in the U.S. Such dissonances and ambiguities are inherent in global exchanges on the Internet, when Internet users, sitting at their local computers, attempt to understand each other through variously valued requests for information and differently weighted expressions of trustworthiness. Moreover, these requests for information set up the French partners as ambiguous "teachers"/ "informants"/ "interviewees"/ "conversational partners". For example, in France such a barrage of questions would be markedly impolite in an informal chat (note that the French don’t ask a single question of the Americans). The ambiguity in tone is the result of the Americans’ desire to be considerate and to avoid confrontation (Cameron 2000). However, the French cannot but take this list of questions as a class assignment, or as a kind of formal interview, despite the breaks in register noted above. They respond in kind with a formal report. In both cases, the chosen discourse style backfires as we shall see below.

Five days after their initial posting, the American students receive the following message from three French students, who are anxious to transmit comparative, accurate and reliable information.

Dear Nat,

You shouldn’t generalize, because there are three sorts of suburbs at least. For example, Sandrine lives in a very good suburb, in which all is quiet; Sophie lives in an area where violence is rising and Delphine lives in a suburb where violence is widespread: a bookseller was killed without any reason four months ago. However the situation in France is certainly better than the situation in America. As a matter of fact, delinquents have more difficulty getting arms than in the USA. Moreover, areas resembling the American ghettos don’t exist in France. If you go to France, you will never see an area like Harlem, where violence is great. . . . So we can confirm that the suburbs you saw in "La Haine" are not like this in reality.

Signed: Sandrine, Delphine and Sophie.

The rational rhetorical progression of this posting, punctuated by clear logical connectors (For example, However, But) and the tripartite organization of the Parisian suburbs, illustrates a kind of logic that is typical of academic print literacy and that the French students are transferring to the electronic medium. Their electronic posting on the computer resembles an official letter that inspires trust through its institutional warrant. Here, the native speakers ‘speak’ with the authority of the French educational institution and with the legitimation of those who know the local conditions and can vouch for their validity. The French rhetoric of their English sentences is meant to convey all the more credibility as their English grammar is flawless. However, the French students don’t have the expertise to give their American partners a larger sociopolitical picture of the situation of immigrants in France. Despite its academic rhetorical structure, their response remains anecdotal, personal, circumstantial, and thus vulnerable to misunderstandings. Moreover, the impersonal French expression "il ne faut pas généraliser", translated by the French students into English as "you shouldn’t generalize", transforms what might have been intended only as an objective statement into a personal accusation through the use of the ambiguous 2dP pronoun

And indeed, two weeks later, Nat and Eric protest vehemently:

Chere Sandrine, Delphine, et Sophie,

La premiere chose que vous ecrivez dans votre lettre etait: "You shouldn’t generalize", ou en francais, "vous ne devriez pas generaliser" — ca, c’est incroyable. Innocemment, ma class de francais vous a pose des questions pour mieux comprendre la verite de la situation a la banlieue francaise. Tout que nous recevions de vous etaient des reactions nationalistes! Vous ne disiez rien sauf des choses comme: "The situation in France is certainly better than the situation in America", et "If you go to France, you will never see an area like Harlem where violence is great."

Avez-vous visite Harlem? Pouvez-vous dire franchement que vous connaissez bien les problemes sociaux des Etats-Unis? Avez-vous habite a Harlem ou Brooklyn, ou "the Bronx", ou Oakland, ou Richmond, ou Compton, ou Long Beach, ou ici a …? Commest est-ce que c’est possible que vous connaissez la situation des ghettos des Etats-Unis quand vous n’avez jamais habite ici? D’ou avez-vous obtenu votre information — Des films americains? Si je ne me trompe, vous etes coupable de faire des generalizations, pas nous. Et ca, c’est un peu hypocrite.

En plus, C., une autre etudiante qui nous a ecrit, a dit que "La Haine" etait d’aider les gens du monde a comprendre la realite de la banlieue de Paris. Alors, qui a raison?

Signed: Nat and Eric.

[Dear Sandrine, Delphine, and Sophie,

The first thing you wrote in your letter was :"you shouldn’t generalize", or in French, "Vous ne devriez pas généraliser" — that is incredible. Innocently, my French class asked you some questions in order to better understand the truth of the situation in the French suburbs. All that we got back from you were nationalistic reactions! You didn’t say anything except for things like: "The situation in France is certainly better than the situation in America", and , "If you go to France, you will never see an area like Harlem where violence is great."

Have you visited Harlem? Can you frankly say that you know the U.S.’s social problems well? Have you lived in Harlem or Brooklyn, or ‘the Bronx’, or Oakland, or Richmond, or Compton, or Long Beach, or here in Berkeley? How is it possible that you know the situation of U.S. ghettos when you’ve never lived here? Where have you gotten your information — from American films? If I’m not mistaken, you are guilty of making generalizations, not us. And that is a little hypocritical.

What’s more, Christelle, another student who wrote us, said that "La Haine" was to help the people of the world to understand the reality of the Paris suburbs. So who’s right?]

Signed: Nat and Eric

Forgetting that they themselves had asked the French students to compare French banlieues and American ghettos (see list of questions above), Nat and Eric vent their anger. What they had posted as a list of information-seeking questions in French, now seems offensive to them when it comes back in the form of answers in English, their own native language. For, the French write in perfectly correct English, but without the social legitimation nor the trustworthiness of fellow native speakers of English. What happens is not a case of linguistic misunderstanding but a clash of cultural frames caused by the different resonances of the two languages for each group of speakers and their different understanding of appropriate genres. The French academic discourse expressed through the English language is perceived by the Americans not as having the ring of scientific truth, but as being unduly aggressive by displaying "nationalist reactions". The American ingratiating personal discourse expressed through the French language is not perceived by the French as enhancing the trustworthiness of their authors, but as lacking scientific rigor ("You shouldn’t generalize"). While the French students write (in English) in the genre appropriate to their institutional status, the Americans write (in French) as autonomous individuals contacting other individuals. The Americans Nat and Eric attack the facts advanced by the French, not by placing them into their larger sociopolitical context, but by attacking the legitimacy of the authors themselves, their lack of personal experience ("how can you say anything about Harlem if you have not lived in Harlem?"). Despite the objective appearance of the first five interview questions above, it is subjective experience that seems to be, for the American students, a guarantee of trust, not larger explanatory discourse systems, like, for example, the prohibition to bear arms in France vs. its legality in the US.

Nat and Eric’s ultimate attack draws on the negative resonances in American English of the word "nationalist" which they map onto the French word nationaliste. They seem to adhere to the myth of the internet as a person-to-person mode of communication, free from national and institutional constraints and ideologies, legitimized solely through human experience. Their sudden realization that the French students are not just individuals who happen to be talking French, but are actually enacting both an institutional identity as lycéens, and a French national identity which distinguishes them from the American students qua Americans, seems to fuel Nat and Eric’s anger and disappointment.

A week later, Delphine responds. She attempts to return to a dispassionate exchange of ideas by redirecting the illocutionary force of Nat and Eric’s rhetorical questions and making them into genuine requests for information.

Dear Nat and Eric,

I want to answer your letter which surprised me. To my mind, you didn’t understand what we wrote. Now, to answer your questions, I have never been to America and all what I know is taken from books and films. The films we see, show us a bad image of the States. In American films, we always see violent actions and in the books we see photos such as I explained to you in my letter of … And to my mind, we are not ‘hypocritical’ like you wrote: we only wrote what we thought. I’m waiting for an answer from you to know what you think about my last letter.

Signed: Delphine

In her response, Delphine does not seek to smooth out differences; instead she counters the Americans’ accusations, verbalizes differences, and restates her position. But she does not go back to the list of questions asked by the American students in order to question the expectations raised by that list. Nor does she attempt to understand what put Nat and Eric so much on the defensive.

The last message in this series of exchanges, sent by the Americans, is as follows.

Chere Emilie, Isabelle et Sabrina,

Selon vous, y a-t-il d’autres films qui presentent la France mieux que "La Haine"?. Pourquoi pensez-vous que la violence americaine a cause la violence en France? Nous pensons que vous avez tort parce que la violence et les conflicts raciaux sont partout. . . Nous ne savons pas quel films americains vous avez vu, mais nous pensons que les films avec beaucoup de violence ne montrent pas tous les exemples de la vie aux Etats-Unis. Quels films americains avez-vous vu qui selon vous sont des bons exemples de la violence americaine? Nous n’avons pas beaucoup d’information sur la situation en France. Alors, nous ne savons pas quel pays a la meilleure situation. Est-ce qu’il y a d’autres sujets auquels vous interessez?


Signed: Enrico, Beth, Cassie, Priscilla.

[Dear Emilie, Isabelle and Sabrina,

Do you feel that there are other films that present France better than "La Haine"? Why do you think that American violence is the cause of violence in France? We think that you are wrong because violence and racial conflicts are everywhere…We don’t know which American films you have seen, but we believe that films with a lot of violence do not show all facets of life in the United States. Which American films have you seen that you feel are good examples of American violence? We don’t have much information on the situation in France. Are there other topics you are interested about?


Signed: Enrico, Beth, Cassie, Priscilla]

Here we see the four American students attempting to diffuse the conflict by resorting to such legalistic strategies as: 1) soliciting counter examples 2) requesting objective evidence for claims made 3) resorting to general philosophical truths 4) claiming their own lack of expertise 5) challenging the generalizability of the French claims 6) offering to change the subject. They don’t attempt to probe cultural differences by explaining the role played by Hollywood, the media or the entertainment industry in the image that America exports of itself. The tone is again on the defensive, as was that of the French students in their first reply. It is unclear how this exchange has in fact "dissipated confusion" and lead to a better mutual understanding, even if we consider the engagement itself as ultimately beneficial.

The American and French messages are characterized by different discourse styles that play themselves out on the national, institutional, and personal levels. Eric, who appears both in our synchronous and in our asynchronous data, had this to say retrospectively about the conflicting styles of the American and French students.

"email is kind of like not a written thing. … when you read email, you get conversation but in a written form so you can go back and look at them. That’s neat. I’ve had that experience where conversational constructions appear in an email form from a native speaker of French, which is really neat. Because it doesn’t fly by you and kind of "look at that"-- But in the [French] communications, it felt like they were writing essays and sending them to us rather than having an email conversation with us."

- "It seemed like you all would ask questions, right? Didn’t you get responses?"

- "Sometimes we’d get long ... ... but it’s true we didn’t get, it seems true that they weren’t doing the same thing we were. It seemed like, you know, we had a task. And they, it seemed like, I didn’t know what they were doing. [laughs]" (our emphases)

He went on to attribute the difficulties they encountered with the Ivry students to differences in social class, although it is not clear why he associates "socio-economic class" with the ability to interact and conduct a conversation.

"There was a clear socio-economic class difference between us and the French. We were doing different things so it was sort of an interaction, but it wasn’t a discussion or conversation. When we [Americans] were talking to each other, it was debate and agreement and process. But with the French, we’d ask a question and receive a statement. ...."


5. Discussion: Between global and local - genre

The exchanges above present a largely problematic scenario of the use of digital technologies for the learning of French in an American university context. Messages were sent back and forth, but is there evidence of "communication" in the sense that this term is used in foreign language education?

The juxtaposition of the intracultural synchronous exchange and the intercultural asynchronous exchange has brought to light the expectations with which the American students entered the e-mail encounters with the French. When faced with potentially divisive factors like social class, ethnicity, and economic status, the Americans searched for common ground in an ostensibly global youth culture (all the while wishing they could find out how the local French thought and lived). They considered the electronic medium to be classless, colorless, and economically neutral. But the medium only renders such differences less immediately visible, it does not make them disappear. In the intercultural exchanges above, what needed to be negotiated was not only the connotations of words (banlieue/suburb; confusion/confusion; choque/shocked) but the stylistic conventions of the genre (formal/informal, edited/unedited, literate/orate), and more importantly the whole discourse system to which that genre belonged (Scollon and Scollon 1995). However, we see very little explicit negotiation going on, neither in the American nor in the French postings, despite the asynchronous nature of the exchange. These exchanges are characterized by an enormous amount of goodwill, personal investment, and acknowledgment of limitations, but with very little understanding of the larger cultural framework within which each party is operating, and very little awareness that such an understanding is even necessary.

Communication seems defined here by varying degrees of information exchange and personal engagement across culturally different discourse genres. Most of the French interlocutors used factual, impersonal, dispassionate genres of writing. They were conscious of representing both their country and the French "native speaker", even when they wrote in English, and therefore of possessing a cultural capital that gave them additional symbolic authority in this linguistic market. They made differentiated judgments about the situation in France. Now and then they corrected the American students’ French, thus responding in a reliable manner to what the American students asked them explicitly to do. This pushed them into adopting the genre of the school report, even though their audience turned out to be the wrong audience for that genre. The French students believed their trustworthiness came from the objective truths of their statements and the transmission of those truths. But it is also possible that, faced by the prospect of being read by unknown recipients, who live in an unknown country and hold unknown views on them and what they represent, the French students only tried to use the ‘hypercorrect’ or ‘hypercautious’ style of delivery that characterizes exchanges across risky social and cultural boundaries (Bourdieu 1991).

By contrast, most of the American students, who initiated this exchange in order to "improve their French and better understand the lives" of the French, viewed communication as a ritual of mutual trust building. They presented themselves as personally invested in the issues, and felt responsible for finding solutions; they adduced their own personal experience of violence, they voiced personal opinions, and they were frustrated when they sensed that their interlocutors spoke as members of institutional, educational, or national communities from which they as Americans were excluded. The oral style of their postings, full of questions and exclamation marks, suggests a high degree of affective involvement and emotional identification. It seems that the Americans, in their search for understanding the lives of the French, or for accessing "la vérité de la situation", expected truth to emerge from direct contact with the French interlocutors on the basis of shared personal experience. The illusion of proximity offered by the medium seemed to call for engagement rather than requests for objective information or even the negotiation of foreign meanings and beliefs.

A matter of differing styles? Bakhtin makes the difference between style, i.e., individual choice in discourse, and genre, i.e., the collective conventions of a discourse community, its "accumulated experience" ( Morson and Emerson 1990:292). A community’s stock of speech genres is the concrete repository of its common history, of the way it conceives of language, communication and interpersonal relations, and of the way it envisages its future (Kramsch 1998). For Bakhtin, a speech genre is "the residue of past behavior" (Morson and Emerson 1990:290), a "relatively stable type of utterance" (Bakhtin 1986:60) that implies "a set of values, a way of thinking about kinds of experience and an intuition about the appropriateness of applying the genres in any given context" (Morson and Emerson 1990:291). As Hanks wrote recently: "Genres can be defined as the historically specific conventions and ideals according to which authors compose discourse and audiences receive it" (Hanks 2000:135).

In that respect, the clash we witnessed in the data above is not between individuals choosing "right" or "wrong" styles of writing, more or less truth-based or trust-based, but between two local genres engaged in global confrontation. Because genre is bound up both with global communicative purpose (Swales 1990) and a local understanding of social relations, genre is the mediator between the global and the local. It is all the more pervasive as it is the invisible fabric of our speech. It should not be surprising, then, that at the end of our analysis we find genre to be the major source of misunderstanding in global communicative practice. Because we tend to take our genres for natural and universal (Fairclough 1992), we don’t realize the local flavor they bring to the global medium.

Of course, genre wars also occur in face-to-face interactions. But there, the multiplicity of semiotic channels serves to diffuse the conflict and to disambiguate the nature of the genre. In the rarefied context of cyberspace, the problem is exacerbated. The partners in the exchange above were not aware that the seemingly transparent medium of the internet might itself be the source of their frustrations. Each group mapped the communicative genres they were familiar with onto their FL communicative practices in cyberspace (Thorne 1999, 2000). But genres are part of the material, economic fabric of societies. There is a fear that those who own personal computers and e-mail accounts may unwittingly impose their genres globally onto others and thus enforce deinstitutionalized forms of discourse, based on personal experience and trust, at the expense of other, more literacy-based discourses of truth. The danger is that those whose lives are less centered around the computer may not so much loose their language, as they risk loosing the very genres that are the hallmark of their membership in their local social and cultural communities.

With regard to FL pedagogy, Kern (2000) has argued that, in foreign language uses of internet-mediated "key-pal" partnerships, the instructor plays a key role in facilitating critical reflection and cultural awareness after the activity. As Kern says: "The teacher’s crucial task is to lead follow-up discussions, so that the chains of texts that students produce can be examined, interpreted, and possibly re-interpreted in the light of class discussion or subsequent responses from native speakers." We agree that the teacher should use the rich material provided by these internet exchanges as "teachable moments" in face-to-face classroom discussions. But in light of the genre wars described above, what is teachable is far more complex than usually thought. The teacher has traditionally been the representative of an academic institution that gave him/her his authority, certified his knowledge, guaranteed his expertise, and sanctioned his pedagogic practice within the limits of a local educational system. The challenge is to prepare teachers to transfer the genres of their local educational systems into global learning environments, and to prepare students to deal with global communicative practices that require far more than local communicative competence.


6. Conclusion:

Global technologies offer a mode of communication that provides at first sight convenient, authentic, direct, and speedy access to native speakers and their cultures. For American foreign language learners, increasingly computer literate and avid users of internet communication tools, the use of the internet to learn French encourages a notion of communication that is less the rational negotiation of intended meanings, or even the transmission of information, but a trust-building ritual, that offers the prospect of a global interaction based on fairness, mutuality, and hope in a common global future. However, as we have seen above, this is not the way the French students used the medium. Neither the French nor the American students were aware that the global medium only exacerbated the discrepancies in social and cultural genres of communication. Without a knowledge and understanding of these genres, no "understanding of each other’s lives" and no reconfiguration of one’s own is possible.

Between the global and the local lies genre, the social and historical base of our speech and thought. An understanding of this neglected dimension of foreign language teaching may lead to a reassessment of what we mean by "communicative competence" in a global world and what the communicative contract will be, upon which trust is built.


  1. The following excerpt is taken in part from Kern 2000 (pp.252-54). We are most grateful to Rick Kern for giving us permission to reproduce it here.


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