Literacy in the Facebook Era:
A Pedagogical Approach to Internet English and Filipino
| Background to the Study
| Analysis and Findings
by Mark Fullmer
[originally written for PAGSUBAY, the graduate journal of the Eastern Visayas State University; download the pdf]
The face that graced Time Magazine's "2010 Person of the Year" issue has not been, until recently, widely recognizable. The phenomenon that earned his likeness on the magazine cover, however, is so ubiquitous as to hardly need introduction.
The person: Mark Zuckerberg. The phenomenon: Facebook, the social networking website at the center of the so-called Web 2.0
movement which is reshaping our sense of community, identity, discourse, and the line between public and private life.
As New York Times
writer Clive Thompson
puts it, communicating through Facebook is a new kind of social interaction, "like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does -- body language, sighs, stray comments -- out of the corner of your eye."
In 2010, Facebook membership continues to grow worldwide, but this year the Philippines is one of the countries experiencing the most growth
, alongside Portugal, Indonesia, Thailand, Poland and Bulgaria. 19 million Filipinos now have accounts (putting membership at 6th in the world, behind only the United States, Indonesia, the United Kingdom, Turkey and France). The average user visits the site 20 times in a month and spends an average of 28 minutes per visit
It is therefore no surprise that sociologists and anthropologists are paying close attention to the sociocultural repercussions of the Facebook Era.
But given that 44 percent
of Pinoy users are in the 18-24 age bracket--college students and recent graduates--it behooves Filipino educators to pay attention as well. How is the advent of Facebook changing how our students read, learn, and think? How is it changing how they conceptualize their world?
For many teachers, our immediate response to these questions is pessimistic: we have decided that students no longer read anything substantive, but instead waste their time texting their BFF messages like:
heheheh ur D bEsT thx
4 cMiNg 2 d pArTy 2nite!!! :)
Texting and internet English, we conclude, have stripped all dignity from formal, standard English. Our students don't know how to spell, how to conjugate verbs, how to construct grammatical sentences. Their vocabularies have shrunk to stone age-era hieroglyphics of smilies and emoticons.
Washington Post journalist Gene Weingarten
typifies this feeling in his recent article, opining that the English language is now officially dead: "It succumbed last month at the age of 1,617 after a long illness. It is survived by an ignominiously diminished form of itself."
As a writer and lover of literature, I share Weingarten's dismay. But I'm an also optimist. I am not yet convinced English is dead or our students hopelessly illiterate, and this belief stems from my own experience with Facebook.
Like many Facebook users, I began using the site while a student. I was in graduate school at Boston College and the year was 2005. At first the site was a fun way to get to know classmates (i.e., goggle over candid pictures), to reconnect with childhood friends (a.k.a. internet stalk), to schedule get-togethers and to share all manner of information. As a result I found myself being more in touch with global news and local events. I felt closer to my community.
However, it was also evident that the way I was reading and writing was changing--and perhaps most interesting, no one was instructing me to change. The fundamental differences between printed text and hypertext were causing me to adapt to the new medium.
Language is always evolving, but the internet and text messaging are doing more to shape language, particularly English, and at a more accelerated rate, than ever before. Besides the statistics above, anecdotal evidence supports Facebook's impact on English language the Philippines: walk into any of the dozen internet cafes crammed on Salazar Street in Tacloban City, just blocks away from the Eastern Visayas State University. You will invariably find a bevy of students checking Facebook (well, that, or playing the latest first-person shooter game). Peek over a student's shoulder; you might see him typing something like this: (Example 1)
nag daog kamo kakulop han basketball? :)
nanlakat kami dayon kay late na geap.
Or you might see her reading this: (Example 2)
A good friend is someone we can count on, as well as being so much more. A friend is someone with whom we can relax and just hang out, have fun and share our innermost thoughts, deep dark secrets, lofty and noble goals, or our hopes, joys, and fears
Educators need to be aware not only of the changes in our students' lifestyles, but of their new reading and writing practices, and to adapt our teaching of what some call "academic English" in the era of what I'll label "internet English." The following three questions drive my research:
1. What are the linguistic characteristics of the English texts students read and write outside of the classroom?
2. How does this affect, positively or negatively, students' ability to comprehend and produce standard English?
3. How should teachers adapt in response to this fundamental change?
II. Background to the Study
Before making any conclusions about the impact of these new reading and writing practices, where exactly does spoken and written English stand in 2010 in the Philippines?
The country represents a unique case study: from Grade 3 through college, English is the medium of instruction
in most courses. In addition, due to the wide amount of English media and in public and professional settings, this 'foreign' language saturates the culture.
On the one hand, the statistics appear positive: the generally accepted English literacy rate is well above 90%. On the other hand, the general consensus seems to be that there has been a qualitative erosion of English since the so-called golden era of English in the 1950s and 60s. Writes Don (2008):
The knowledge of English among Filipinos has been on a steady decline. The second language is now a very far second especially among graduates. Consider the following instances. A study showed that only 3 percent of those who apply at call centers pass the English proficiency test. Recently, a big bank in Makati wanted to hire a new batch of candidates for their Information Technology Department. The starting pay was high; the potential for growth is great. But it took quite a while to have the needed minimum number. One of the reasons for rejection of many applicants: poor English. (Bernardo, 2009, p. 17-18).
Is English fluency really declining? The answer is more complicated than a simple yes or no. First, in my experience teaching at the Eastern Visayas State University, language competence varies greatly from student to student. Some possess better English than my students in the United States; others lack either the confidence or skill to speak anything more than halting words and phrases.
This is supported by the Heyneman-Loxley Effect
(1983), a theory that states that socioeconomic background and school-level factors have a greater effect on students' performance than their intelligence or aptitude.
Second, outside of professional situations, in practice what is spoken is a mixture of English, Tagalog and the local mother tongue. For example, the Tagalog for "Have you finished your homework?" is transformed from "Natapos mo na ba yung takdang-aralin mo?" to "Finish na ba yung homework mo?" As this example demonstrates, L1 (Tagalog) grammar is preserved while vocabulary is replaced by L2 (English). Is this hybridization a good thing? Will speaking Taglish
socially help or hinder our students from speaking English professionally?
Third--and here is the topic of my research--the English that students are exposed to currently is fundamentally different from English in the Philippines a generation ago. The substance of school textbooks has not changed much: Roger Thompson
(2003) notes that one sample textbook of 400 pages contains 42 pages of authentic texts (want ads, editorials, sample telephone conversations) and 37 pages of literature (mostly 3-4 page selections by Filipino authors), the rest composed of exercises and quizzes. Thus, according to Thompson, all the English language readings for four years of high school education could be read aloud in 12 hours. But outside the Filipino classroom, the English language has changed drastically.
The Controversy over Texting/Jejemon
Depending on your viewpoint, the fact that the Philippines sends more text messages
, per capita, than any other country, is cause for either pride or lament. Couple this with the already cited fact about Pinoy membership on Facebook and you have a substantial source of English language reading and writing outside the classroom.
But what are the characteristics of internet English? Usability expert Jakob Nielsen points out that we read and write in a fundamentally different manner
online. In eye tracking studies conducted in 2003, Nielsen concluded that when we read online, we scan in a nonlinear fashion: our eyes focus on only 20% of the words on a given page. To this I add the obvious: any writing that users do on Facebook or through texting is very short: not more than a sentence or two at most.
Exploring the cognitive impact of this, author Nicholas Carr (2010) concludes that our brains are being retrained by these reading practices. He believes we are losing the ability think as deeply
about subjects as we would if we were reading a printed book (which we read in a traditional linear fashion, with more thought and reflection). Furthermore, Carr thinks that the ready availability of information on the internet means our brains don't need to remember as much, and thus our memory capacity is atrophying.
That is not all. Texting and internet English is more than just a byte-size version of traditional writing. The advent of text messaging and internet writing has brought with it new variety in orthography and spelling, as well as neologisms, countless acronyms, and ever-evolving symbols.
In the Philippines the tendency for texters and Facebookers to stray from standard English is referred to as jejemon
. The Urban Dictionary's definition reveals that most people consider these linguistic innovations a bad thing: "a jejemon is someone who has managed to subvert the English language to the point of incomprehensibility." A representative example:
Filipino: "Hello po, kamusta na?
Jejemon: "3ow ph0w, mUsZtAh nA?"
Clearly the jejemon phenomenon does no good for teachers trying to help students learn standard spelling, capitalization, or grammar. In fact, the Department of Education earlier this year made a statement strongly discouraging
students from using jejemon for texting.
But there is another side to the debate. Others feel that the types of reading and writing we do online are actually posing new cognitive challenges that force our brains to become better at reading comprehension. Cognitively speaking, a person's ability to produce standard spelling is a different skillet than the ability to comprehend a text or compose a passage. Spelling is pure memorization; comprehension is an interpretive skill and requires facility at phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, and fluency (Bernardo, p.7).
One researcher who sees internet English positively is David Crystal
(2008) who argues that "texting improves people's literacy as it provides more opportunity to engage with the language through reading and writing." In other words, given that this style of writing is much more varied, it requires the reader to have broader and more diverse reading comprehension abilities.
Crystal's research also tries to correct some of the notions we have about the nature of internet English. He asserts the following:
* Abbreviations are not a new thing: they have always been part of written and spoken language.
* On average, only 10 percent of words are abbreviated in text messages.
* Texting does not cause bad spelling because people need to know how to spell before they can text.
I would add that texting is not a "dumbed down" version of English. Emoticons and other textual devices carry a complex array of linguistic nuances and connotations, and abbreviations require texters to be inventive and creative. As a texter myself, I am well aware of the meaning an extra exclamation point or :) will carry.
These observations serve to make us as teachers recalibrate ourselves to the discourse students are using outside of the classroom: as distasteful as the ideas is to educators, linguists will remind us that internet English is not inferior to standard English, but simply another dialect with its own complexities. (That said, I acknowledge that students need to learn standard English to be globally competitive).
In short, we have to correct our belief that students' English skills are worsening. Roger Thompson reports a study conducted in 1993 which aimed to gauge Filipinos' fluency with the English language. There was a clear correlation between age and literacy: the older the respondent, the lower the ability to use English. Of those in the 17-24 age group, 77 percent read English, 68 percent write English, 82 percent understand spoken English, 63 percent speak English, and 54 percent think in English. The result, he writes, "contradicts the current perception that the golden age of English proficiency was somewhere in the past and that young people today do not know English" (p. 73).
This is such an unpalatable statistic for many of us to digest that it perhaps requires exploration. I think the reason is simple: students today are exposed to vastly greater quantities of English: movies, music, videoke, television, and perhaps most significant, the internet. All this inundates Pinoy culture with English words. It accounts for the increasing prevalence of Tagalish, too, but more importantly it serves to remind us of Stanley Fish's (1980) theorization about understanding language through interpretive communities
Fish argues that we learn how to learn and interpret based on the interpretive strategies we are exposed to. If our interpretive community is small, our interpretive skills will be narrow; if our interpretive community is large, our interpretive skills will be broad. Says Fish, "The ability to interpret is not acquired; it is constitutive of being human. What is acquired are the ways of interpreting" (172-3).
In the Facebook Era, I suggest that our interpretive communities are only growing larger, which means that our ways of interpreting are also growing more diverse. Thus, we teachers have reason to hope, to be excited for our students' ability to learn, in large part due to Facebook. The question, then, is this: what precisely are our students reading and writing outside of class, and how can this knowledge empower us, as teachers of English, to improve students' fluency?
Research and Data
Given this contextual background, I turn to a qualititative case
study: I teach at the Eastern Visayas State University (EVSU), located in Tacloban, a Highly Urbanized City with a population of over 200,000. EVSU's enrollment for SY 2009-2010 was 9,320. Many students come from neighboring areas of Samar and Leyte, which is generally ranked as one of the most rural areas in the country; average poverty incidence of the region's 6 provinces is very high at 47.6 in 2006.
Thus, even though most colleges in the university have computer labs and internet cafes are abundant off campus, there is a wide divergence of internet usage between students. Therefore, to get a sense this population's online lifestyle, I administered a survey to 77 first-year college students. For context, the results are compared with a 2007 survey of 200 students conducted at Kansas State University in the United States.
|What is the average number of students in your classes?|| 41|| 115|
|How many hours do you attend class per week?|| 39|| 15|
|How many hours do you study outside of class per week?|| 8.4|| 21|
|How many hours are you employed per week?|| 14.6|| 12.5|
|How many hours do you use the internet per week?|| 3.7|| 17.5|
|How many books do you read per year?|| 34|| 8|
|How many movies do you watch per year?|| 111|| n/a|
|How many text messages do you send per month?|| 1,799|| n/a|
|What percentage of assigned class readings do you complete?|| 66%|| 49%|
|What percentage of readings do you find useful and/or relevant?|| 84%|| 26%|
|What percentage of teachers know your name?|| 38%|| 18%|
Before drawing conclusions about what these numbers show, I first provide examples of what students actually write and read on Facebook. Along with the Examples 1 and 2 above, here are three more:
A student posted this on her Facebook profile, in the form of a chain letter. The origin is unknown.
Change your facebook profile picture to a cartoon from your childhood and invite your friends to do the same. Until Monday, there should be no human faces on facebook, but an invasion of memories. This is forviolence against children..
A conversation between 2 students:
A: anu it assignment ha english??
B: rai sarabutan. Haha
A: hehe nangalimot ak
B: haha. amu ito.
A: taim!! hehe
Responses posted to a picture, posted on a profile.
Haha. Thanks han like Wins :D
* Haha. Malipong man bebe :D
* amo la talaga ito. haha exercise :)))))
* Haha. Napa Stress ><
* Para ito ha mga adeek. XD
* TSEK! hahaha xD
* Hahaha. Pareus aa eu! :P
* hahaha! upod ka na banni banini >:P
* Ohoy dire na noh. Bagong buhay na ako! :P Kamu la ito mga
adeek Ding Bang & Lowla
III. Analysis and Findings
With the repeated caveat that internet usage among Filipinos is quite varied, and therefore any assumptions may or may not apply to a given individual, I offer four main observations:
1. Mastery of standard English is not improved by the reading and writing people do on Facebook.
Grammatical English, such as Examples 2, 3, and 5 are probably too few to make a significant learning opportunity. The real question regards what linguists call "language interference": will exposure to nonstandard English weaken an individual's cognitive ability in grammar, spelling, or mechanics of standard English?
This is difficult to know for certain, but we would not, for example, expect a Waray-speaker's exposure to Tagalog to weaken fluency in their native tongue. And as a writer myself, I find I use many dialects of English ranging from academic discourse to texting, and I personally do not feel that reading or writing text messages makes me a lesser scholar. In fact, as I will propose below, understanding the idiosyncrasies of one dialect can improve one's sensitivity to another. By making students more aware of the differences between internet English and standard English, teachers can empower students to be more discerning practitioners of the language.
2. Facebook may improve reading comprehension skills due to the textual and cognitive challenges posed by internet English.
Kenneth Goodman (1967) writes,
Reading is a psycholinguistic guessing game. It involves interaction between thought and language. Efficient reading does not result from precise perception and identification of all elements, but from skill in selecting the fewest, most productive cues necessary to produce guesses which are right the first time. (Bernardo, 2009, p.2)
We use known phonic patterns to decipher the most probable meaning of unknowns: our brains translate "mUsZtAh nA" into "Kamusta na?" We fill in knowledge gaps by constructing the most likely answer. Try completing, for example, this scenario: "I went to the ________ but forgot my _______ so I had to __________." We then refine our guesses based on other context clues (imagine if the first blank above now held the word "store," "beach," or "university" -- how would the other blanks follow?). The telegraphic nature of communication on Facebook likewise forces our students to decipher, to fill in the gaps, thus becoming better predictors of meaning. We can use this knowledge to teach reading comprehension in the classroom.
3. English vocabulary is expanding given increased exposure to words.
According to the above survey, the average EVSU Facebook user spends an average of 9.3 hours on the site per month. Contrast this to Thompson's statement that all English language texts for four years of high school can be read in 12 hours. And though the grammatical content and subject matter of Facebook reading is far inferior to the texts students read in books, the potential for students' exposure to new vocabulary is far superior.
On Facebook, readers do not learn English vocabulary by way of dictionary definitions. Instead, as in Examples 1, 2, and 5 students learn meaning of an unknown word based on known words adjacent to it. For this reason I conclude that Taglish or Waranglish can improve standard English vocabulary. We might use similar techniques to teach vocabulary in the classroom.
4. Higher Order Thinking Skills may or may not improve due to Facebook communication.
As Nicholas Carr's research suggests, the brevity of Facebook communication (Examples 1, 4, 5) may counteract deep thinking. Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) such as Remembering, Analysing, and Evaluating may atrophy as the Facebook user zips from one post to the next.
For instance, the responses in Example 5 show students understanding to the clever sideways text, but demonstrate no real exploration or analysis. Despite this, we might note that, according to Bloom's Taxonomy, "Creating" is the highest of the HOTS, and Facebook's architecture emphasizes active creation: students shape their personal profiles, refine their online identities, apply information they have found in one post to something they are sharing in another. It therefore is possible for teachers to use the Facebook platform to develop students' HOTS.
How should teachers adapt given these fundamental changes? As my fellow EVSU instructor Mary Jessica Tiozon-Alalid points out to me, teachers can do little to change the reading and writing practices of our students outside the classroom. We cannot require students to text message in grammatical English. We cannot require them to evaluate and analyse Facebook posts. But we can apply feminist scholar Elizabeth Flynn's (1988, p. 432) theory about gendered texts to the current issue of nonstandard English.
Just as Flynn would make students more aware of the problematics of gender privileging in texts by making it part of class discussion, we can make students more conscious of the differences between standard and nonstandard English. This will not directly teach them better grammar. It will not immediately teach them proper spelling. However, we can build a foundation for them to be more discerning about their use of English. Below, I provide two sample lesson plans.
Lesson Plan 1 (Reading Comprehension)
Objective: Students will understand how "reading is a psycholinguistic guessing game," and apply this concept to deciphering unfamiliar vocabulary/typography. Students will learn to transfer this skill to future reading situations.
- 5 text messages or Facebook posts written in "internet English" (see below)
- 2 excerpts of Shakespearean English with nonstandard spelling (see below)
In groups, students review their cell phone inbox and choose 2-3 text messages that include abbreviations, emoticons, Taglish, and other "jejemon" features. Each group then chooses one and tries to "translate" this text message into standard English. The teacher writes an example on the board ("Gud eve Bodz? muZtah nA? Diri kita magi2mUlaY bsktbll?" ? Good evening, Bodoy! How are you doing? Will we not play basketball tonight?) After students complete this exercise, teacher asks students how they were able to translate this, seeking to answers about phonemic awareness, phonics, and predictive guessing.
Teacher introduces idea of reading as a "psycholinguistic guessing game." Research resource here
1) Teacher writes: "I went to the _____ but forgot my _____ so I ___________.
2) Students volunteer to fill in the blanks, then explain how they made their choices.
3) Teacher then supplies a "title" to this sentence, such as "Beach Day Disaster"
4) Student volunteers then refine the choices, adjusting their comprehension to the new information
Teacher provides sample Facebook post written in internet English and asks students to translate into standard English.
1) hahAha,.saba teL,.xmpre kanai pat msupo,.xmpre ha mga ate na melodies,. :D tangdo nla!
?2) @mary:pag.xur ui,.d man q gwapa,.aqng new yr's resolution bya kai mgpa.gwapa ko,.hahAha,.
Teacher provides sample excerpt from Shakespearean English and asks students to "decode" the meaning.
And now princely Sonne Hamlet
, Exit.What meanes these sad and melancholy moodes?
For your intent going to Wittenberg, Wee hold it most vnmeet and vnconuenient,
Being the Ioy and halfe heart of your mother. Therefore let mee intreat you stay in Court.
Teacher elicits students to discuss what they have learned. Teacher should ultimately help students see that these different dialects of English, even if they carry the same meaning, have different connotations.
Application: As homework, students visit Facebook (or if they have no account, use their cell phone inbox). Students will identify 3 examples of each of the following elements: Nonstandard spelling, nonstandard capitalization/punctuation, abbreviations, emoticons/smilies, Taglish.
Lesson Plan 2 (Higher Order Thinking Skills)
Students will exercise higher order thinking skills of creation, analysis, application, evaluation, interpretation through the Facebook platform. Secondarily, they will learn more about what their immediate community thinks about current issues.
Out of class access to a Facebook account. If not all students have accounts, the "Application" exercise can be adapted as a group project.
Teacher writes on board: "What is the greatest problem facing your generation today?" Teacher then leads a brainstorming exercise where students provide answers and evidence to support their response. For example, if a student says "laziness," the teacher should ask the student for an example and reasoning for why this is the greatest problem. If time permits, teacher asks students to define terms like "generation" and "greatest problem." The point: students begin to exercise higher order thinking skills.
Teacher introduces and explains components of higher order thinking, citing examples of each contained in the "motivation" exercise above.
- Agreeing/Disagreeing (opinion)
- Comparing/Contrasting (evaluation)
- Giving Examples (application)
- Problem Solving (solution)
Teacher gives a problem scenario to individual groups (example below). As a group, students discuss and form a solution, giving at least 2 examples to support their position, and comparing/contrasting to a similar situation.
A Barangay council has Php 100,000 to spend on community improvement. Some members in the community think it should be spent on repairing the road because 4 vehicle accidents have happened in the last 2 months. Others feel it should be used to provide food and clothing to the indigent population nearby. Others feel it should be spent on supplies for the barangay's elementary school. If you were on the barangay council, what would you propose, and why?
(A 2 week-long assignment)
1) Students choose and research a current issue in Filipino/World news.
2) Students post a 5-sentence statement and question on Facebook, with a link to a news article about the issue.
3) Students monitor responses posted by Facebook friends and catalogue the use of "agreeing/disagreeing," "comparing/contrasting," "giving examples" and "problem solving"
4) Finally, students present the result to the class, summarizing how their Facebook friends responded, and concluding with their opinion on the issue.
V. Clarifications and Ideas for Further Research
I realize educators' feelings about nonstandard English are mixed. Many of us would probably prefer Facebook and text messaging to vanish into cyberspace oblivion. But my goal here is not to promote use of nonstandard English; I am simply recognizing that it is a reality educators have to face, and I feel that bringing it into discussion in the classroom is better than trying to pretend it doesn't exist.
After all, although my analysis suggests that students' knowledge of formal language is not being improved, their capacities for linguistic acquisition, comprehension, production, and problem-solving are all being expanded.
But perhaps giving nonstandard English more attention is the wrong approach. I thus ask my fellow scholars for counterarguments: how might internet English be making our jobs more challenging? And how else should we adapt our methods to counteract this?
This article's scope is limited to identifying the features of the English students use outside the classroom, but there are many related tangents that should be explored. For example, what trends can we note about Tagalish based on its occurrences on Facebook? Which English vocabulary absorbed into this hybrid language, and why is grammar not influenced? Why, for instance, does the writer in Example 1 use the English "late" instead of the common "urhi" or less common "atrasado"?
Similarly, does jejemon represent an opportunity for individuals to express personality and or to foster a kind of group or communal collectivism? How does jejemon fit into the larger picture of Pinoy culture in the 21st century?
The internet, furthermore, may provide a fundamental cultural divide between Filipinos with internet access and those without. How might the various levels of internet access among Filipino students bring new challenges to the classroom? How should teachers adapt to a student population that is more heterogeneous in its knowledge and culture?
Should teachers be Facebook friends with their students? How does this destabilize the teacher-student relationship? How does a teacher sharing his/her identity outside the classroom positively or negatively affect the dynamics inside the classroom?
Obviously, this research presupposes that students have internet access, which is not true for a large portion of the rural population in the Philippines. That of course also means that perceived issues of internet English interfering with standard English are also not at issue. For these populations, the need remains as Roger Thompson described in 2003: "Electricity holds the key to the future of English and its spread among those who are not affected by the forces of urbanization and inter-island migration in search of work." With that said, it is my belief that the internet will do more to shape education in the Philippines in the coming years than any new policy or teaching method.
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