Scholarly article on topic 'Utilising Technology for Intercultural Communication in Virtual Environments and the Role of English'

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Abstract of research paper on Law, author of scientific article — Levent Uzun

Abstract The present paper provides a review related to online communication, cultural dimensions, and the role of English in intercultural communication that takes place in virtual environments facilitated by technological artefacts. The study aims at displaying a picture of the virtual environments and engagements that trigger intercultural communication. The study explores the differences in the pragmatic systems and linguistic tendencies of Eastern and Western cultures within the scope of the ‘high-context’ and ‘low-context’ framework proposed by Hall (1976), and the impact of online communication on these cultures. The study also discusses the pedagogical possibilities that the digital world offers in support of foreign language learning and teaching, in the light of innovative educational philosophies and approaches to foreign language education. The paper concludes that there is a basic need for societies to adopt a postmodern view in order to improve global tolerance and communication.

Academic research paper on topic "Utilising Technology for Intercultural Communication in Virtual Environments and the Role of English"

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Social and Behavioral Sciences

Procedía - Social and Behavioral Sciences 116 (2014) 2407 - 2411

5th World Conference on Educational Sciences - WCES 2013

Utilising technology for intercultural communication in virtual environments and the role of English

Levent Uzun *

Uludag University, Gorükle, Bursa 16059, Turkey

Abstract

The present paper provides a review related to online communication, cultural dimensions, and the role of English in intercultural communication that takes place in virtual environments facilitated by technological artefacts. The study aims at displaying a picture of the virtual environments and engagements that trigger intercultural communication. The study explores the differences in the pragmatic systems and linguistic tendencies of Eastern and Western cultures within the scope of the 'high-context' and 'low-context' framework proposed by Hall (1976), and the impact of online communication on these cultures. The study also discusses the pedagogical possibilities that the digital world offers in support of foreign language learning and teaching, in the light of innovative educational philosophies and approaches to foreign language education. The paper concludes that there is a basic need for societies to adopt a postmodern view in order to improve global tolerance and communication.

© 2013 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd.

Selection and/or peer-review under responsibility of Academic World Education and Research Center.

Keywords: Online communication, intercultural communication, virtual environments, technology, cultural dimensions, English

1. Introduction

Intercultural communication (IC), which has been a hot issue for a considerable time, has gained importance recently, and is stressed in almost every international meeting as a call for global dialogue, respect, and tolerance. Additionally, improvements in technology, that is to say, the new artefacts of information and communication technology (ICT) such as smart phones, tablet computers, related software, etc., and the fact that the Internet has become significantly more widespread in the world, have created opportunities for people to become accustomed to different cultures and languages, and environments where people of various social, cultural, and educational levels meet, share information, and/or become involved in bilateral projects, activities, discussions, etc. While this is encouraged and desired by the authorities that rule or govern cities or countries, there is also a risk that serious conflicts or even deliberate hatred for foreigners might appear and spread through the communities. This possibility cannot be ignored, and thus should be investigated in detail, so that the friendly call for global dialogue will not cultivate undesired results, or results that do not match or meet the purpose.

The present study aims at reviewing the literature related to online communication, cultural dimensions, and the role of English in IC that takes place in virtual environments enhanced by ICTs. The study also aims at delving into the differences in the pragmatic systems and linguistic tendencies of Eastern and Western cultures within the scope of the 'high-context' (HC) and 'low-context' (LC) framework proposed by Hall (1976), and the impact of online

* Corresponding name:Levent Uzun. Tel.: +90-224-294-2260 E-mail address: ulevent@uludag.edu.tr

1877-0428 © 2013 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd.

Selection and/or peer-review under responsibility of Academic World Education and Research Center. doi: 10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.01.583

means on these cultures. The study also discusses the pedagogical possibilities that the digital world offers in support of foreign language (FL) learning and teaching, in the light of innovative educational philosophies and approaches to foreign language education.

2. The virtual environments and engagements that trigger communication

While talking about virtual environments, one should necessarily imply and/or infer that regardless of the physical characteristics of an environment, the dominant artefact by the help of which activities or communication will be enabled should be the Internet. Therefore, the importance of the Internet should be stressed as the vital element in any kind of communication that will occur on the digital platforms. Uzun et al. (2012) suggested that the Internet is the fuel of the ICTs, that it has not only accelerated the use of ICTs in general but has also created and made virtual environments so popular. Internet-mediated communication and/or learning (IMC/L) is probably the most popular tendency of the present age, and also undoubtedly means much more than computer based or assisted learning and/or communication. Noticing the quick improvement in the mobile technologies, one might even suggest that the hot term CALL (computer assisted language learning) is doomed to be replaced with IALL (Internet assisted language learning). Today, although we have some students who do not own a personal computer (PC), it is almost impossible to observe a student who does not possess a mobile phone. The practicality of the mobile devices and the fact that they are easy to acquire seems to shift the tendencies and habits of people in such a way that digital environments will have to be adapted to this shift. Many important companies have already renovated their websites to adapt to the emerging tendencies in using the Internet. Nowadays, we can do almost everything on our mobiles that we could do on our computers, and what is more we have begun to prefer our mobiles to our PCs. Being aware of this fact should help us keep up with the tricks of the digital world and arrange our courses of action accordingly and more precisely.

In summary of the above, whether a PC, but most probably a mobile device, or any other product of technology is used, the virtual environments will be based on the Internet, and the depth or quality as well as the quantity of the communication will depend on the coverage and speed of the Internet. Assuming that the technological equipment and the Internet services meet the minimum requirements for IC to initiate and keep alive, the essential part of the matter, that is the administering of virtual worlds and governing of digital societies, will have to be seriously and meticulously attended to. The platforms where individuals from diverse backgrounds and with different qualities might meet usually include options with primarily 'chatting' and/or 'gaming' purposes. These platforms are essential as they provide opportunities for 'synchronous' IC, which is similar to the face-to-face relationships of the physical world. Both of these activities (chatting and gaming) are potentially risky as they involve opposition and competition by nature. Moreover, persons that belong to different cultures, religions, educational backgrounds, and genders, etc. might themselves be the cause of opposition or conflict. Kaluza and Golik (2008) investigated IC in "internet societies" that took place in massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). They observed that although traditional face-to-face communication was successfully replaced by computer-mediated communication (CMC), some specific cultural motives defined by traditional sociology still remained, and these tended to have a strong influence not only on the actions of the players but also on their behaviours and group organisation. In other words, whether individuals meet physically or virtually, they bring their culture and grand narratives (Lyotard, 1984) as well as personal experiences and prejudices together with them. Therefore, although the digitalised reality might have its own culture and rules, the traditions and habits of the physical reality still seem to be the leading force that determine and arrange relationships in the virtual environments. Because of this, whether the purpose of communication is to enjoy oneself, to learn and practise a FL, or to establish and strengthen different types of connections, etc., Lu et al., (2004) showed that there is a need for common pragmatic and communicative awareness, besides the need for a common language, to ensure mutual tolerance and respect.

2.1. The virtual platforms and differences in high-context and low-context cultures

It is possible to categorise the virtual platforms as 1) Web 2.0 environments such as blogs, websites, wikis, file sharing sites, etc. that allow users to interact or collaborate with one another but where people are mostly passive viewers since only partial contribution and/or modification to the content is allowed; 2) Web 3.0 platforms in which the content is to a great extent user-generated such as Facebook and other flexible social media environments that can be embedded in mobile applications; and 3) software-based platforms such as Second Life and IMVU where people can play game(s) and chat, etc. The quantity and quality of the IC that occurs on these platforms seem to be affected by the characteristics of the users and their cultures, which might be divided into two groups, namely high-context cultures (HCC) and low-context cultures (LCC). Würtz (2005) pointed out that the websites in HCC and LCC differ in a variety of ways, just as the communication strategies and styles differ. The HC and LC frameworks were proposed by Edward T. Hall (1914-2009) and have been widely used for cross-cultural research, but also criticized within the domain of CMC (Ess and Dudweeks, 2005). According to Hall (1976) in a HCC, the utterances and messages are usually deeper and more complicated than they might seem. Moreover, while some messages can convey a great deal for a particular group, they might be less meaningful for the people that are outside that group. On the other hand, in a LCC, the interlocutors need and prefer to use explicit messages, in which the value of a single word is less important. Hall (1984) states that people in LCC are analytical, linear, and action-oriented, and tend to stress clearly articulated spoken or written messages. In other words, while a HC (implicit transmission of information) communication is one in which most of the meaning is in the context itself or within the individuals, and very little is in the coded, transmitted, and literal parts of the message; a LC (explicit transmission of information) communication is an unmistakable and specific one that leaves less room for individual interpretation. This might be further explained with the cliché that a woman would mean more than No or Yes when she says 'yes' or 'no' etc., while a man would mean exactly Yes or No when he says 'yes' or 'no', thus making women HC persons, and men LC persons. Research has concluded that HCC comprise most Eastern and Southern civilizations such as Japan, China, Mediterranean countries, Arab countries, Latin America, etc., and LCC include most Western and Northern societies such as English, Swiss, German, North American, Scandinavian, etc (e.g. Gudykunst and Kim, 1992; McDaniel and Andersen, 1998; Remland, 2000). Andersen (2010, p.298) commented that although most languages are explicit LC communication systems, in China even the language is an implicit, HC system. Therefore, people need to be aware of these kinds of matters to feel willing to endure any potential misunderstanding or disagreement. See Gibson (2002, p. 89), Andersen (2010, pp. 298-299), and Lustig and Koester (2010, p.112) for further explanation and summary of the characteristics of LC and HC approaches.

2.2. What type of communication occurs on the digital world

Some evidence from the literature suggests that the communication that occurs through digital artefacts is usually insufficient and inappropriate as it lacks both quantity and quality, even though these artefacts possess the potential to facilitate communication (e.g. Thorne, 2003; Thorne and Payne, 2005; Bretag, 2006; Allwood and Schroeder, 2000). Nevertheless, it is not very clear if this is caused by the shortcomings of the artefacts or the shortcomings of interlocutors' general abilities and knowledge. Thorne (2003) reported the observations based on three case studies, explaining that the use of ICT tools as well as the communicative genre, pragmatic characteristics, and contexts differed interculturally. He further observed that IC resulted in pragmatic and linguistic improvement, but that the widespread tool, e-mail, failed to mediate the relationships among people. He concluded that individual and collective experiences influence the ways people engage in IMC/L, which affects the processes, aims, and results of language development. Likewise, Bretag (2006) examined the e-mails exchanged between international English language learners and their instructor at a university. The study showed that e-mail communication facilitated the relationships among the students and with the teacher, but revealed that although politeness did not disappear, there was some kind of tendency towards informal language as indicator of a quest for common ground and for sharing intimate information, which would not be observable in formal face-to-face conditions. Similarly, Thorne and Payne (2005) stated that IMC/L demonstrates an aesthetic that creates new and widespread genres of language use. They indicated that intelligent online environments hold the potential to transform FL learning and/or teaching applications and the roles of students and learners, and that these should be restructured to keep up with the emerging conditions of the era. In another study, Allwood and Schroeder (2000) explored the IMC/L environments

to find out the features of communication such as 'length of contributions', 'languages used', 'types of introductions', etc. The researchers concluded that 1) English language was dominant in multilingual and cultural settings; 2) only a few contributions were made to extend participation and communication after introductions; 3) the contributions were relatively short with most content belonging to salutation or introducing oneself, and 4) conversations lacked the orderliness of those that occur in the physical world. The authors remarked that those who do not speak English or have difficulties in using English will be at a certain disadvantage.

For this reason, it might be advised that more people should learn more languages for more quantitative and qualitative communication to occur. To put it another way, IC is a bilateral action which should necessitate that the task of learning a FL, the culture of others, or their pragmatic systems should not be left on the shoulders of just one side but that all corresponding parties should put in some effort as well, even though English language might mediate as the lingua franca. Otherwise, this delicate matter might create a feeling of superiority or arrogance in favour of the technically and socially dominant or linguistically advantaged interlocutors, certainly an attitude that would contribute neither to linguistic nor to global progress. In fact, the findings of Kaluza and Golik (2008) might be evidence of this. The researchers observed significant conflict between Europeans and Asians in their study where the European players of MMORPGs showed a variety of forms of racism and hatred towards the Asian players. This suggests that "Westerners" have some kind of feeling of superiority that triggers their instinct for humiliation or for looking down on "Easterners". These kinds of findings urge that each society needs a universal education and postmodern view to comprehend that every culture, every nation, every thought, every feeling, and everything that does not humiliate or harm others, is actually valuable. Individuals need to be educated in such a way that they will be aware of and understand the differences in the linguistic, pragmatic, and traditional habits of others. The digital world and all the technological artefacts actually facilitate this more than ever before by bringing the world closer together and making it possible for all individuals to meet on virtual platforms.

3. The pedagogical possibilities that the digital world offers in support of FL learning

Though it is hard to suggest that what we have in hand today is state of the art technology, the current solutions provided by educational technologies (ETs) certainly offer ease and fun for FL learners and teachers. Uzun et al. (2012) postulated as follows:

"... although the development of ETs has been triggered by the invention of the computer and chips, and improved by software, it was the Internet that accelerated the use of technology and spread it across the globe. It is the magic of the Internet that creates the Web and makes it so popular."

To this end, the assistance of the Web for autonomous and lifelong FL learning is hard to ignore as it offers learners access to up-to-date and easily-modified materials, activities, resources, etc. (Kukulska-Hulme and Shield, 2004). The virtual platforms described before provide numerous opportunities to acquire and practise languages. Students might find plenty of written, visual, and audio files as well as real people with whom they can share information, and so teach one another or learn from one another. Therefore, the current educational systems need to provide solutions for learners to allow individual, liberal, and lifelong learning, which will necessitate that evaluation and assessment types in education be revised. In order to benefit from the pedagogical opportunities provided by the digital world, there is a need to redefine what the successful FL learner will be: the one who scores high in tests prepared by his/her teacher, or the one who successfully completes and obtains high scores from some specific tests that are prepared by different teachers, and which can be found on the Web. In other words, would it be the person who can communicate with the globe, or the person who has a lot of theoretical knowledge but can hardly use it?

Ess and Dudweeks (2005) proposed that online classrooms and collaborative workgroups might be useful in order to improve the number of FL speaking individuals and to embrace the complexities of culture online. Nevertheless, Wang and Coleman (2009) revealed that textbooks remain the predominant authority, and that Internet tools are mostly seen as sources of information rather than a means of communication or platforms of education, and criticized the fact that national policies, educational traditions, etc. do not allow optimal use of IMC/L. Notwithstanding the present state of educational approaches, postmodern educational philosophies would certainly encourage unconventional applications to promote dialogue between learners and instructors or others, the FL

knowledge of individuals for IC, and the methodologies, materials, and techniques employed by individuals in an attempt to improve self awareness and learning.

4. Conclusions

In sum, it seems that virtual platforms provide rich opportunities for FL learning, and therefore for IC, but that people need to recognise the cultural and linguistic differences as well as the pragmatic systems of the communities, and English language seems to be the lingua franca, which provides significant advantages for those who speak it and serious disadvantages for those who do not know it.

In conclusion, it is possible to contend that four vital elements constitute the essential part of successful and consistent IC. First, the Internet and technological equipment and artefacts as well as the ETs; second, linguistic knowledge that seems to be English as the lingua franca; third, knowledge of cultures and pragmatic systems; and last but not least, the postmodern view, which might contribute to global tolerance and communication through universal understanding and respect. Freire's (1970, p.53) understanding of "dialogue" emphasises that solution of the contradictions is a must, and that this should be achieved via a humanitarian approach that would build on virtues such as love, humility, and equity. In agreement with this, it is possible to point out that for a harmonious IC human beings need to know not only the physical languages of the existing physical societies but also the philosophical language(s) of the mind, the psychological language of feelings, and the cultural language(s) of communities.

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