On a recent trip to Zurich my hosts were speculating that Swiss schools will increasingly teach in English, the “language of the Internet.” This set me thinking. Will the Internet drive out minority languages, regional difference, and cultural diversity?
“Exactly, the opposite” I concluded. Perhaps for the next decade there will be more English, more standardization, less difference. In the long run, however, we know that the Internet enables more sub-communities to connect and sustain themselves. Scattered widely, people with exotic and special interests can find and support each other. Many of the activities previously sustained by geographic ghettos of language and culture, so much a part of the 18th and 19th centuries, can newly be supported by listservs, clusters of web pages, and group email. People of diverse ethnicity and heritage will live on the same street and work side-by-side; yet, they will sustain their commitment to difference via Internet communities. In the long run, the prospect for multiple cultures and many languages is quite bright. The Internet enables diversity.
The greatest transformation of university instruction is likely to be in the “teaching of non-native languages and literature.” Often when we think of computer-enhanced-instruction, we think of the sciences. In practice, some of the biggest servers are needed by the fine arts where sound and video images require immense files. Some of the largest shifts in pedagogy are occurring in the social sciences where interactivity with contemporary culture is so important. But these transformations pale in comparison with the potential for cross cultural studies and language instruction.
Suddenly, American professors of French and Spanish can overcome inadequate campus library collections of works written in French and Spanish because students have access to research materials in France, Spain, and elsewhere. Students can read today’s newspaper in the language of the course. Even more important is the real time interaction students and professors can have with native speakers.
The Internet efficiently enables the drill and recitation pedagogies of traditional language instruction. Students can advance at different speeds. Previews, reviews, and repetitions are convenient. Self-graded tests can provide immediate feedback. Text and sound may be linked, and exchanged among learners. Language teachers no longer need to lament one and two-day intervals between class meetings, and can instead promote “continuous communication” and use of the language.
Illustrative of the rich opportunities for language instruction is the work of Gilberte Furstenberg at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). To emphasize how the same words take on different meanings in different cultures, 30 MIT students in the U.S. analyze the same film segments as 30 INT (Institut National des Telecommunications) students in France. Interpretations are compared and contrasted. Discussion groups and email exchanges add a personal dimension, and clarification.
Language Learning and Technology: A Refereed Journal for Second and Foreign Language Educators (http://llt.msu.edu/) chronicles numerous ways the Internet is being used to enrich language instruction.
Unfounded is the fear that an English-dominated Internet and increasingly sophisticated translation programs will drive language diversity from our culture and language instruction from our curricula. Instead, we can expect an explosion of interest in the literatures and traditions of other cultures.
All scholars in all disciplines are benefiting from increased international communication among colleagues, from more comprehensive indexing, and from truly intercultural research teaming. Beyond these universal impacts, because of their need for access to materials and people housed at great distances, teachers and learners in the language arts are likely to realize the greatest Internet-induced changes. The world will be a better place as more people can more easily know and understand cultural differences.