At CATESOL this past weekend, @blythe_musteric gave a great presentation about how teachers could use Twitter. Later, there was the very first CATESOL tweetup (a meeting of Twitter-users, often at an event), featuring @blythe_musteric, @pearsonlongman, @rogerdupuy, @joemcveigh, @leejeylee, @compellingtalks, @ohsanderella, @talkclouds (me), and possibly other people I’m forgetting.
During @blythe_musteric’s session and later during the tweetup, I mentioned that, particularly in Japan and Korea, English-language learners are using Twitter as a self-study tool. I have another Twitter account, @readable, which is for ELLs. I use it to post relatively simple tweets on topics of interest to English learners, links to news posts, and links to self-study tools. Eventually, I started seeing posts from my readers using the hashtags #twinglish (Twitter+English), #eigodewa (“as for English…?”), #engtwit (English+Twitter), and #kor_eng (Korean+English). Putting a hashmark (#) in front of a word makes it clickable; when you click on it you see everyone’s tweets using that hashtag, I was impressed by how many users there were experimenting with English and chatting with each other in a second language.
Some of my followers’ (connected users) responses about why they are using Twitter in English (minor mistakes corrected for one user by request; others exactly as written):
@[anonymous]: 1) Expect to meet people from all over the world and share ideas or talk with freely 2) Need to practice English regularly
@oxwinter: That’s because… I learned English at school, but few opportunities to use it here, Japan. Twitter gives us that opportunity.
@akaSEANJUNG: in ma case.. it’s just 4 fun. tryin to not to forget how 2 use…too.
@noelsora: It’s a good tool for driving me to to think in English.
As I mentioned at the conference, I also discovered some Japanese ELT professionals, including teachers and publishers. In particular, @MakotoIshiwata and @mayumi_ishihara do a good job using Twitter with ELLs. @Makoto_Ishiwata is actually Mr. Makoto Ishiwata, the president of Kaplan Japan. He’s written a great short post about how Japanese learners of English can benefit from using Twitter: “Suggestion: three easy steps for the Japanese to start tweeting in English.” He writes about the difference it made for him years ago when he began to think in English, and feels that Twitter can help Japanese English learners, who study English at school in an artificial way, start really thinking and communicating in English. He says that “Twitter is easy to use. The limit of 140 words is a great plus for English learners too because they don’t have to think too seriously before typing. Above all, we can share what we tweet. We can start communicating with each other. We can make new friends, including people from abroad, when we tweet in English.” (Actually, a lot of that goes for teachers, too…) Check out his post.
@mayumi_ishihara is Ms. Mayumi Ishihara, an English teacher and author. I’ve seen one of her previous books, 『英語で日記を書いてみる』Try Writing a Diary in English!, at my local Kinokuniya. She has a new book coming out in May, 『Twitterで英語をつぶやいてみる』Try Tweeting in English on Twitter! (Oh, Japanese book prices…it’s only ¥735–about $7.80 US–and it’s 200 pages!).
Both of them regularly interact with their followers in English, and their/our followers interact with each other, too. I don’t think Twitter is perfect for learning English–for one thing, there are certain grammatical structures that I just don’t even use because they take up too much room. I’m not sure if @mayumi_ishihara will address this in her book, but I hope so. [EDIT: Another drawback is that many of the English-teaching accounts that post vocabulary and so on are regularly sharing information that is archaic, useless, or downright incorrect or ungrammatical.] You also have to deal with learning abbreviations such as w/o, b/c, wknd, and so on. There are also some differences in Twitter culture between most of the fluent English-using Twittersphere and the English-learning Twittersphere: #twinglish users usually use RT in replies, not just retweets (like forwards), leaving a truncated piece of the original tweet at the end of their reply; they’re generally not familiar with things like Follow Friday/#FF; they often send a reply to thank people not just for following them but even for responding to them; and so on.
I don’t think the differences between other modes or registers of English and Twitter constitute a deal-breaker. Every mode and medium is different, and I’ve noticed that many ELL twitterers use it to share other recommendations for input, such as TV shows, books, and websites. No one is trying to learn English solely from Twitter that I’ve heard of. [EDIT: And the problem with the useless, archaic, and ungrammatical/incorrect teaching accounts is also quite true for many textbooks and commercial texts sold overseas and in the US, as well. It's not just an online problem.] Learners in countries such as Korea often feel starved for spontaneous, unstructured English input, and Twitter provides that, even if it’s not perfect. It may require access to a phone or computer, which is a time-and-money barrier that makes it somewhat less useful for the average ELL in the USA, but for East Asian learners with extensive access to sophisticated cell phones, it’s a cheaper and more flexible alternative or supplement to expensive English lessons.
I’ve had some great conversations with my followers. We’ve discovered cultural misconceptions about beer and weather, made jokes with each other, commiserated about everything from procrastination to language study, and helped each other with grammar and vocabulary (since I’m studying Japanese myself).
[EDIT: Overall, I think Twitter is a useful additional tool for English learners, particularly EFL learners and others with limited access to spontaneous English interaction, authentic English input, and an English-understanding audience. It contributes to learner autonomy, lowers the affective barrier, and promotes the idea of English as a tool for communication rather than an abstract object of study--goals that many teachers struggle with even partially achieving.]
What do you think?