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Language and technology

Guest Andrew Moore

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I've just been looking through the contributions to this thread, and I'd like to go back to the difference between oral and written communication.

In 'Roots' Alex Hailey relates how he came across Kunta Kinte in the first place. He'd gone to Liberia (I think) and found a village where people thought that someone with that name might have come from. At a village meeting the 'history-teller' comes forward and starts reciting the story of every single person in that village, going back several hundred years. Kunta Kinte's story, in the 1700s, was part of that. So … we human beings definitely have the capacity to keep a lot of information in our heads!

I've recently been using a desktop video-conferencing system, which makes it very easy for people to link up, see each other and talk to each other, at a very low cost. The most interesting effect has been to see how much more lively and full of vitality the exchanges on that are, compared with written contributions on fora like this one.

OK, there are plenty of people like me who have the interest, and patience, to formulate our ideas, put them down whole in written words, and then wait days or weeks for responses … but we're the weirdos! Most people aren't like us!

I'm always telling IT-freaks that computers will really start making an impact when we can get rid of the keyboard, but the ability to put people into fairly instantaneous contact with each other, no matter where they happen to be, is a good start.

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I can't remember who said it and exactly how he formulated it but it was something like:

"The best database is your grandmother."

I seem to recall it being said by an American academic working in the UK during the 1980s.

I have been researching my own family tree. The best database has proved to be my 94-year-old aunt.

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Guest brinn

What a useful thread and many thanks for collecting recommendations together and spurring on other very helpful contributers, suzie. :) Nice to meet you on here (under my pseudonym :rolleyes: ).

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cheers, brinn - I think this forum will take off when a few more of us get into the habit of using it, and recommending it ...

I thought your little burka-esque icon was well chosen - that's enough IT skill for anyone, I'd say, the ability to choose the right smiley :rolleyes:

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harry from bede college suggests these websites, which he says will be a bit "media" focussed - but potentially useful:


1. Exploring Language The "Grammar" of Film and Television


2. Do we learn to ‘read’ television like a kind of ‘language’?


3. Language And Television


4. Television and language development in the early years: a review of the literature


5. Do we learn to ‘read’ television like a kind of ‘language’?


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here are more tips from Louise!

There is a comprehensive if partial history of weblogs @


and a discussion of /linkpage to excellent examples of the genre @


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Your starter for ten on this from the AQA support training yesterday (Manchester, 22nd June, 2004) seems to be that we need mainly (not exclusively) to focus on discourse, how the technology shapes the language use. So, as Andrew has said several times, not so much text books, as looking at the data and seeing what you see!

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  • 2 weeks later...
Guest Andrew Moore

David's comments deserve a response.

Our society has become over-dependent on writing. I have watched teachers use the game of so-called Chinese Whispers, to "prove" the fallibility of spoken transmission. But there are many parts of the world today where the message would pass around without any change, so long as the participants were able to leave out the few people whom they knew not to be reliable.

In Shakespeare's time, complex messages travelled by word of mouth - as the various messengers in various plays show us. Moreover, while the theatre companies did not keep many written copies of their plays, as there was no copyright to stop others from performing them, nonetheless people did manage to make bootleg copies. How? By attending the play repeatedly, then recalling what they had heard - which seems impossible to modern people who rely on written records.

This has several relevant implications. An Inspector comes to see me and asks to see my lesson plan. I reply that it's in my head - and necessarily so, as the possible responses of my students mean that I do not know which of various structured accounts I may have to call on before the lesson is out. The inspector may be so stupid as to suppose that a text is only real if it is written, but centuries of drama and a century of broadcasting say otherwise.

My students (there may be a gender difference at work here) try to make copious written notes for "revision". Eventually they amass hundreds of hand-written pages, that make no sense - and the ideas, such as they were, remain on the paper. Although the exams will require the students to write, the best ways for many of them to learn things is to say them or hear others saying them. Or it will be, if they can practise this approach. Instead of spending hours "revising" by staring at these pages of notes, while listening to music or TV in the mistaken belief that "it helps me concentrate", the student can spend half an hour, listening to or saying (or chanting) stuff that he or she needs to learn - a potted account of some language theory with a few examples, say. And then he or she can stop work, and listen to the music or watch TV properly. Advertisers know this works - which is why they fire their slogans at us.

The speaking and listening approach can also give you back your life, as a student - make recordings, and then you can play them while getting ready to go out, in the bath, the car. That may seem swotty, but is the opposite if it means you can get to the pub, play football, ride your horse (I live in a county where the pupils still do this), or do whatever else it is that exams want to steal from you.

I would urge David to try Instant Messaging - this allows instant real-time communication across any distance. It's more intimate than speech, and you have a record at the end, should you wish to keep it - for personal or academic reasons... But the general point - that users want an immediate response - I wholly endorse.

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Interesting comments, Andrew. As a language teacher I've long known the absolute necessity of using a variety of ways of taking something in, if the student is going 'own' the language I'm trying to teach. I have a lovely quote in Danish from a leading educationalist there which translates as "knowledge is something which each individual creates within herself". I.e. we can teach and teach until we're blue in the face, but someone else's learning is something we have very little control over.

Dr Dunn and her team's research into learning styles (http://www.learningstyles.net/) also has interesting things to say about the limitations of text-only ways of taking in new information. I was at a conference about learning styles in Sweden a couple of years ago which was addressed by Dr Dunn. One of her comments in particular made a great impression on me. She said that although we all have certain learning styles which we tend to adopt, the point of education is to help people to become more proficient in the learning styles which don't come naturally to us. If she's right, then it doesn't mean that we have to swing the pendulum away from text-based learning styles over to something else, or to spend hours trying to create diversified lessons dedicated to all the different learning styles our pupils happen to have.

IM hasn't really taken off in Sweden, as such. It's a bit unnecessary in a country with the kind of mobile phone coverage that Sweden has. 3G phones are the big fashion accessory here at the moment. We're at the stage where the companies are giving them away free if you sign a 2 year contract (at about £17 per month).

Here's a paragraph from an article I'm writing for a US publication at the moment:

"Text-based communication definitely has its uses. However, I am not yet convinced of the advent of homo digitalis – digital people – who have evolved away from spoken communication. Synchronous text demands very highly-developed typing skills, if you are going to participate fully, whilst asynchronous text requires you to be able to formulate your ideas precisely … in just the same way that we don’t when we speak. In other words, what if our current dependence on text-based communication is a temporary phenomenon, brought about by the limitations of the medium, on a par with the telegraphese which developed in the 19th century to limit the expense of a communication medium where you paid by the word? (ASAP – as soon as possible – is one of the remnants of telegraphese.) If this is the case, then what I am calling the preferred method of most human beings will reassert itself as soon as technology permits – just as speech came back into its own as the telegraph was superseded by the telephone. And that is just what technology is on the verge of permitting."

Edited by David Richardson
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Interesting comments, Andrew. As a language teacher I've long known the absolute necessity of using a variety of ways of taking something in, if the student is going 'own' the language I'm trying to teach. I have a lovely quote in Danish from a leading educationalist there which translates as "knowledge is something which each individual creates within herself". I.e. we can teach and teach until we're blue in the face, but someone else's learning is something we have very little control over. [David Richardson, Jul 6 2004]

A few quotations that might help us understand this process.

“Education is what remains when we have forgotten all that we have been taught.” George Halifax

“One does not actually learn anything new. What we call learning is really nothing but recollecting true knowledge that we already have within us.” Socrates

“We learn what we do.” John Dewey

“Knowledge is not “to know” but to schematise – to impose upon chaos as much regularity and form as suffices for our practical requirements.” Nietzsche

However, all this was written before the arrival of the web. We can now develop what Pierre Levy, has called “collective intelligence”. Levy claims we are in the early moments of an historical paradigm shift of the magnitude of the Renaissance. In his book Collective Intelligence: Mankind's Emerging World in Cyberspace (1994), Levy argues that the “unfettered exchange of ideas in cyberspace has the potential to liberate us from the social and political hierarchies that have stood in the way of mankind's advancement”.



Others, including Tom Atlee, prefer the term “community intelligence” to describe this process.


It was this idea of collective or community intelligence that inspired Tim Berners Lee to create the “World Wide Web”. In 1980 Berners-Lee joined the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN). His main role was to support CERN’s community of physicists in the retrieval and handling of information. CERN is a vast organisation doing research of unimaginable complexity. The physicists were based in several different countries. Berners-Lee’s task was to create a system which CERN could consolidate its organisational knowledge. He set out to create a system that would allow individual scientists to access data being created by other members of the CERN team.


Although scientists were the first to benefit from the web. It soon became clear that this new system had to offer other subject areas. Historians are now for example use forums to make good use of “collective intelligence”. This process also has also the potential to change the way all students learn.

I believe that texting and instant messaging do not have the same potential as forums. What is more, forums rely on sophisticated communication skills and traditional forms of education will be necessary if its full potential is to be achieved.

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Guest Andrew Moore

Hi, John,

You are, I think, quite right about txting - even the most ingenious of us can do little with 160 characters.

I think that you may not be so right about Instant Messaging. In typical use, it can be as rambling as the mindless stuff we see on some chat forums. But, like conversation, its potential is as great as the capacity of the users. I cannot show you exchanges in which I have been one of the participants, for obvious reasons of the privacy of my friends and colleagues - but I have often found after a time of conversation that the transcript has an eloquence rarely found in live speech, and more akin to the kind of thoughtful interaction that playwrights invent for their characters.

I think, though, in sympathy with your assertion, that it may be less good for dispassionate or cool academic discussion than the message-board, as it is more revealing and intimate. It's a bit like being able to leave your front door open, not knowing who may come in, but knowing that only people you want to meet will do so. It's also a great means of seeing the effect of different time-zones, so that you simultaneously think in terms of the one where you are and the one where someone else is. (Which seems to me more complex than merely advancing or retarding one's watch on arrival somewhere.)

Strictly speaking, there is nothing that I can do here, that I cannot do in either Instant Messaging or a Net Meeting. But there are some things (to do with spontaneity and immediacy) which I can do there, and cannot do here. In fact there are some kinds of sophistication that are quite appropriate there (because I know my partner in the interaction) that would be out of place here. (For example, to move between two, or among several, languages that we share.) To use such methods here would be cryptic or look like showing-off, and, thus, discourteous. In private, one can be sillier - but that is not necessarily less sophisticated...

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See Patrick Kiernan & Kazumi Aizawa (2004) Cell phones in task-based learning. Are cell phones useful language learning tools? ReCALL 16, 1.

ReCALL is a refereed journal, the mouthpiece of EUROCALL, and published by Cambridge University Press. The above article is based on a paper presented at the EUROCALL 2003 conference in Limerick, Ireland.


EUROCALL is an established professional association that aims to provide a European focus for the promulgation of innovative research, development and practice relating to the use of technologies for language learning:


This year's EUROCALL conference will take place in Vienna, 1-4 September.

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  • 2 months later...

nice link jennifer ....

and on a lang / gender issue - aint it just the truth that men ramble on more than women!

*sits back and waits for lengthy flak*


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