By Dr. Linh Phung
With the global status of English as a lingua franca, improving oral communication is undeniably an important goal of many English learners (Graves, 2008; Jenkins, 2009). However, speaking has been recognized as anxiety-provoking and difficult to master, and more importantly, students, especially those in target-removed contexts, often lack opportunities to practice speaking (Woodrow, 2006). Recognizing the need for more talking time and the increased readiness to communicate virtually during Covid-19, I started a project in February 2021 to bring English learners and speakers from different countries together for weekly conversations in small groups on Discord. This article will describe the project in terms of its model, technology used, materials, and outcomes.
In the field of international education, virtual exchange has been defined as technology-enabled, sustained, people-to-people education programs, which are often offered by schools or universities to connect students transnationally to work on a course project (O’Dowd, 2021). Outside academia, language learners have turned to social media and third-party providers, such as Livemocha, iTalki, or Conversifi, to seek opportunities to use the target language with native speakers or in lingua franca contexts (Lin et al., 2006). My project is unique in that it was sustained for a period of 14 weeks, but participation was voluntary and not attached to any coursework. It can serve as a different model for teachers wanting to organize similar opportunities for their students.
Regarding technology, I used Discord as a platform for participants to join a community; access the topics, questions, and tasks designed for each of the 14 weekly live sessions; and have real-time conversations with other English speakers. When participants joined, they had access to different text channels and voice rooms. I used several text channels to post community rules as well as topics and questions for participants. I created a common voice lounge for participants to join as a big group and different voice rooms with the limit of three participants per room. Participants were told to join the common lounge and then choose a small room to enter every Monday at 9am US Eastern Time to talk live with others.
The questions that I developed for each live session were organized into three to four parts. Part 1 has personal questions that allow participants to talk about their everyday life and experiences. Part 2 has a prompt that asks participants to talk for 1-2 minutes each. Part 3 has more abstract questions for more in-depth discussion about a particular topic. Part 4 has “fun questions” that are similar to Table Topics questions commonly designed to encourage reflection, imagination, or humor. Sometimes, I replaced these fun questions with a decision-making task, such as one that asked participants to agree on three best English learning resources, or a People Bingo game in which they had to jump from one room to another to meet people with certain characteristics or experiences. I aimed to develop questions and tasks that have the potential to engage them cognitively and affectively by creating a genuine need to communicate.
Over the period of 14 weeks, I attracted over 100 participants from five countries to the group. In every live session, there were 10-20 participants talking with one another for usually an hour although they were told that they could leave after 30 minutes. Through a feedback form shared with participants after each session and a longer form at the end of week 10, participants mentioned their joy of simply talking in English with others, appreciation for the opportunity to talk, increased speaking confidence, and increased knowledge about English and the world. One participant said, “Talking with others made my day today.” Another shared the same feeling as she said, “That is my happy time today. I’m looking forward to participating next week.” This, to me, suggests the power of speaking opportunities like this to bring people together, talking, sharing, and finding joy in social connections.
There were, however, several challenges including some initial difficulty with the platform, untalkative participants causing frustration to their partners, and a heavy workload for myself as an organizer. All things considered, it was a worthwhile endeavor to create more speaking opportunities for language learners. Teachers who would like to organize a similar project may start with a committed group of learners from the beginning instead of letting new participants join every week to reduce the workload and facilitate community building. It is also beneficial to collaborate with colleagues to recruit diverse participants. As O’Dowd (2021) suggests, virtual exchange will play a more important role in international education and language education, and I hope this article will encourage more projects in this area.
Graves, K. (2008) The language curriculum: A social contextual perspective. Language Teaching 41(2), 147-181.
Jenkins, J. (2009). English as a Lingua Franca: interpretations and attitudes. World Englishes, 28, 200-207.
Lin, C. H., Warschauer, M. & Blake, R. (2016). Language learning through social networks: Perceptions and reality. Language Learning & Technology, 20(1), 124-147.
O’Dowd, R. (2021). Virtual exchange: Moving forward into the next decade. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 34(3), 209-224.
Woodrow, L. (2006). Anxiety and speaking English as a second language. Communication, Media Studies, Language & Linguistics. 37(3).
Dr. Linh Phung is Founder and CEO of Eduling, a Pittsburgh-based company offering online English instruction and materials to students from any location, including an innovative app Eduling Speak to connect learners to talk in pairs during tasks. She has been teaching English in the US and other countries for 20 years. Apart from teaching, she does research and writes academically and creatively. Her profile can be found at https://www.eduling.org/drlinhphung.
NOTE: This article was first published by TESOL's Bi-Multilingual Education Interest Section Newsletter: B-MEIS Newsletter - February 2022 (commpartners.com). A recent analysis (October 2023) of the Eduling Speak app usage illustrates how users are embracing the power of authentic communication and collaborative learning experiences.