Teenagers from England, France, Senegal and Canada are communicating in English and French, thanks to a language project run from Cambridge University. Tic-Talk (TIC is French for ICT) gets young people aged 14-17 chatting online in a foreign language, discussing things they would not normally address in a classroom.
The project, now in its third year, is the brainchild of Michael Evans, a senior education lecturer specialising in modern languages at Cambridge. It makes use of the university's license to use WebBoard, the internet-based bulletin board, for education.
Dr Evans starts a thread of conversation by posting articles on the bulletin board about once a week. Past topics have included the use of animals in scientific research, whether money is well spent on exploring space, should the monarchy be abolished in England and reintroduced in France, and whether the devil exists - apparently a popular topic among pupils.
Often, Dr Evans posts French and English articles expressing opposing views on the same topic. Or he may post a picture or a link to a web page to provoke discussion. This gives some focus to the "chatting", although pupils are also free to "chat" on any topic they choose, often discussing their lives and teen culture in a kind of interactive journal. Dr Evans observes that they are less inhibited than in a classroom environment.
This year, three UK schools - Archbishop Michael Ramsey technology college in Camberwell, south London; Presdales girls' school in Ware, Hertfordshire, a specialist language school; and Hills Road sixth form college in Cambridge, have teamed up with lycees in Coutance in France; in Dakar, Senegal; and in Quebec city, Canada, communicating on a regular basis under the watchful eyes of Dr Evans and his colleagues.
Some teachers take pupils to the computer room during language lessons and can prompt them when they get stuck. Other students access the password-protected site in their free time or at home.
"The language of the internet bulletin board is a hybrid, a mix of the written and spoken forms of the language; it's not formal written expression, which many pupils find difficult," Dr Evans says.
"It's a way to enliven and broaden pupils' language learning. Pupils'
language is often limited by the confines of the syllabus and by exams."
The system works better than ordinary internet chat rooms because it does not take place in "real" time. Pupils can read at leisure the topic posted by Dr Evans and other messages that refer to the topic, and are able to spend time composing their response without worrying that the other side is waiting to hear from them.
The benefit is that they are not just reading one message, but the whole thread of others' comments on a topic before they compose their responses.
The bilingual-Canadian pupils often take the lead in starting a discussion in either language and this raises the standard for those who follow on in the thread.
Pupils pick up new words and borrow phrases from their correspondents. They even copy the form of the language. For example, if someone makes a joke, others do the same. They distinguish between formal and less formal, and imitate the registers according to what went before. Pupils quickly learn idiomatic phrases, which enlivens their writing. They frequently switch between languages, for instance by writing about themselves in their own language and asking questions in another, and spend about half their time using the foreign language.
There are some concerns among teachers that English pupils' spelling mistakes and text message-type abbreviations might instil "bad habits" in their French-speaking web-mates, and vice versa. But Dr Evans says the the main gain is one of motivation. Pupils are willing to write because they have the freedom to say what they want. "No one is telling them what to write. They are not afraid of making mistakes," he says. "You can improve writing not just by teaching writing skills, but by giving pupils something to say. If you are engaged in reading in the target language, writing will improve too."
Young people involved in the project responded to a recent questionnaire prepared by Dr Evans and his colleagues. They said they particularly liked sharing their feelings with people from around the world and finding out that they are not that different after all. Many made more effort to read the topic articles so they had a better understanding of the responses from their peers.
When the project started in 2001, pupils wanted to talk to each other about the terrorist attacks of September 11 that year, and later about the Iraq war. "It's a far cry from ordering a cup of coffee in the language," says Dr Evans.
With the national curriculum now specifying real communication with native speakers of the language, Dr Evans is seeking funding from the EU to expand the range of languages used to Spanish and German.
Teachers interested in taking part in Tic-Talk can contact Dr Evans at email@example.comFree conferencing facilities are also available at www.eun.org