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Learning Languages with Instant Messaging

by Heather Dean

You know the situation—you hopped on the computer to check your e-mail and do a few other odds and ends, when all of a sudden an instant message from a friend pops up on your screen. You get engrossed in a conversation with your pal, and a while later, you glance at the clock. With shock, you discover that two hours has gone by. Yet again, instant messaging has stolen away two hours of your time, and you have nothing to show for it. Does anybody ever gain anything valuable from instant messaging? If so, what is it?

Even though instant messaging seems often to be a waste of time, it is one of the numerous communication genres on the Internet taking the form of a learning tool in ways many of us would never have anticipated. Not only do we have information sources like article archives, e-books, and online dictionaries available to us via the Internet, we have a tool that allows us to contact people we would never have the opportunity to speak with in real life through instant messaging.

While e-mail and discussion groups are other popular communication genres on the Internet, instant messaging is the most conducive to learning languages because of its synchronous nature. There are many ways to communicate over the Internet, but instant messaging is unique, because it almost simulates a face-to-face conversation. Unlike e-mail and discussion groups, users are not simply leaving messages to be read later. Users are both present, holding a live conversation. Although some of the subtle features of conversation are lost (such as facial expressions or tone of voice), instant messaging makes up for these disadvantages by being so widely accessible to so many people across the world.

Through my use of instant messaging, I have met a few people from every inhabited continent in the world. One important thing that I have noticed while chatting for leisure, is that many of the people I have spoken to from non-English speaking countries are still polishing their English skills. Either consciously or unconsciously, many of them use instant messaging as a tool to help refine their English. In this way, language learners are able to improve their skills at home, in their leisure time.

Instant messaging doesn’t have to come in handy only for people independently learning languages, however—it can be used in an academic setting. For example, I recently discovered that instant messaging is now being used as a learning tool by instructors teaching upper-level language classes. Michael Dean, a student who attends University of Alaska, Fairbanks, informed me that he was asked by his Spanish instructor to locate a Spanish-speaking online buddy, as a requirement for the course. Michael told me that it was somewhat difficult to find an online buddy who was interested in helping him out, but when he did, “it was a relaxing and enjoyable way to study Spanish outside of the classroom” (Dean, 2003).

While instant messaging can be an entertaining leisure activity (or a thorough waste of time, depending on one’s point of view), it can also be a valuable learning tool for language learners. Through instant messaging, language learners can take their own conversational English “class” just by having fun and chatting with friends. Instant messaging has become an interesting, easily-accessible, and enjoyable way to pass time, make friends, and amazingly, learn new languages.


Dean, Michael, telephone conversation with the author, 26 October 2003.