A critical review on “Digital affordances on WeChat: learning Chinese as a second language”

Aishowarza Manik

Abstract

This present paper has reviewed the study conducted by Li Jin and revisited her significant findings on the educational affordances of using WeChat in Chinese learning. Jin’s study has a great potential in the field of second language acquisition with particular focus on mobile assisted language learning. The integration of technology for second language learning is nowadays considered as an emerging field, which has motivated her to adopt a qualitative approach to investigate the advantages of using WeChat in language learning. She collected all data from weekly survey, participatory observations and semi-structured interviews, and the data analysis was conducted by following the framework of grounded theory. Four educational affordances of using WeChat in Chinese learning have been emerged from the results. The present review critically focuses on Jin’s new ideas of technological integration and tries to evaluate its impact on Chinese as second language learning. 

Keywords: Chinese as second language, WeChat, Affordance, Mobile assisted language learning 

Introduction   

This article review presents a critical overview of Li Jin’s research entitled “Digital affordances on WeChat: learning Chinese as a second language”. Dr. Li Jin is an associate professor and Chinese studies program director in the Department of Modern Languages at DePaul University, Chicago. The article was published in the Computer Assisted Language Learning journal in 2017.  

At the beginning of the paper, the author draws attention to the prominent features of social media for language learning. This paper includes the use of social networking sites (henceforth, SNSs) in the second language (L2) context in order to improve the interconnections between learners and the social world. Integrating technology for pedagogical improvements widens the array of opportunities for learners to become active participants. Several studies (Blattner & Fiori, 2011; Reinhardt & Zander, 2011) have stressed that L2 learners’ linguistic and social competence can be improved by using social networking platforms. However, most of the research focuses on English language learners while using the English language dominated social networking application, such as Facebook (Jin, 2017). Unfortunately, researches on the learners of other languages and the use of SNSs for teaching L2 except English are very few in numbers (Diao, 2014; Wang & Vasquez, 2012). Studies suggest that 700 million of internet users in China are active users of Chinese social media and different SNSs become a part of daily life (China Internet Network Information Center, 2016, cited in Jin, 2017). However, researches on the benefits of using multiple SNSs for Chinese as second language (CSL) learners are very few in numbers. Therefore, this study aims to address the gap and to focus on the use of WeChat, a Chinese language based application, as a tool for learning Chinese. The outcome of the paper emphasises on the affordances of WeChat for Chinese language learners.      

An overview of the reviewed literature

The reviewed paper outlines the digital affordances of WeChat in Chinese language learning. WeChat is one of the most popular and free Chinese language based social networking application used in China and in other countries. This instant messaging software shares common features with other similar applications, such as sending text messages, audio-video calling, and sharing content. It also offers an interactive platform for formal and casual communication among Chinese learners. The linguistic and semiotic resources of this application assist practising in and improving Chinese language skills for all level language learners.  

Revisiting research design and outcome

A qualitative methodological design was applied in the paper. All data were collected from a weekly survey, observation and two semi-structured interviews from a 7-week summer intensive language study abroad programme for a group of American college learners of Chinese language at a university setting in China. Since the concept of affordance is basically learner specific as well as it correlates specific features of the concerned linguistic environment, therefore observing affordance requires detail investigation. As a result, the researcher purposefully focused on two participants among seven students who had participated in the study abroad programme: a beginner and an advanced level learner respectively. The participants were chosen on the basis of their target language skills and their active participation in WeChat communication. 

Moreover, for data analysis two phases of grounded theory approach was followed. The first phase was a combination of a theoretically informed and deductive process to classify language use patterns and their attitude in WeChat communication. In addition, the second phase of the data analysis presents opportunities and challenges they each faced on WeChat.

Results revealed that compared to other social networking applications, WeChat possesses distinct affordances for Chinese learners. The affordances of the WeChat tool allow learners to keep contact with friends and make new Chinese friends. It also offers a casual environment to practise Chinese in a real-life context beyond the classroom setting. Learners mention that their WeChat learning experience made the Chinese language learning more enjoyable, interactive and engaging. The research identifies four types of affordances of using WeChat: a platform to communicate with native speakers of Chinese; meaning-focused communication; linguistic development and multiliteracies; and the construction of an identity as a competent Chinese language user despite their actual proficiency.

During interaction with native speakers, learners develop linguistic and semantic knowledge in a real-life environment beyond textbook conversations. For example, when one participant’s Chinese friend was complimenting him for using Chinese, the participant replied with a full sentence including quotes. Furthermore, through exposure to a new lexicon, learners can review words, write characters, and develop tones and sentence structures. For example, the advanced level learner mentioned that even though she usually did not participate in a group chat, she enjoyed reading other members’ replies because it helped her to learn new expressions and words. In addition to develop linguistic knowledge, learners can take advantages of multimodal resources afforded on WeChat by using memes, voice message, video clips, and moments sharing with others. The outcome of this study also supports that learners learn more effectively when they use WeChat because it provides an alternative environment besides the classroom to apply their Chinese knowledge.

Jin’s paper: a critical summary  

The reviewed paper adds essential literature on the ecological and sociocultural perspective of second language learning, affordances, and the role of social networking applications in L2. Most of the research on SLA either focuses on the sociocultural aspect, or the ecological perspective in L2 learning, and the uniqueness of this research conducted by Jin is to amalgamate both approaches together. In this study, the ecological and sociocultural approaches complement each other by fostering learners’ relationships with native speakers, in developing their agency and creating new identities in the target language. In addition, this research contributes to addressing the gap in the area of mobile-assisted language learning and provides a pertinent example of the integration of technology and L2 learning. The in-class and out-of-class blended learning activities by using WeChat offers a more realistic Chinese language experience to learners. Even though this study identifies different types of affordances, there is still a lot to investigate regarding the affordances of using WeChat for Chinese language learning. In terms of incorporating WeChat in Chinese learning, the author can consider including contemporary research on pedagogical practices that utilise WeChat as a learning tool. Moreover, the author has considered the qualitative approach as the core methodological concern of this study. Although the small sample size is not a significant concern for conducting qualitative research, data from more participants might have strengthened the research design to improve the standard of research.

The findings of this study support that WeChat communication is beneficial to both beginner and advanced level Chinese learners. However, the purpose of using WeChat among participants seems different for everyone. For example, although the beginning level learner had a little vocabulary in Chinese, he was highly motivated to get engaged more in online learning activities. On the other hand, the advanced level learner considered WeChat collaboration as a meaning-focused communication platform, which she used as a medium of exchanging information regarding course notices and contacting a language partner. While the focus is generally on the affordances of WeChat for learning Chinese, the different level of learner’s interaction is also an essential aspect to consider. However, the outcomes of this paper have significant pedagogical implications for Chinese language development. Further studies can be carried out to explore the dynamic nature of WeChat affordances for learning and practising Chinese not only in study abroad programme but also in another Chinese learning context. By focusing on the issues of WeChat affordances for learning Chinese, the results support multiple factors such as accessibility, adaptability and enhancing knowledge. It helps to transform the traditional practice of learning and teaching that ultimately improves learner’s experience.

In addition, at the end of this paper, the author adds a detailed discussion section that presents a clear summary of the research. It helps the reader to understand how the study has been developed from the beginning, implementing research design and a summary of the findings in a concise manner. This reviewed paper offers profound insights into the vital areas of mobile-assisted language learning for other practitioners and adds new aspects for future research. 

Conclusion

The reviewed article contributes to the digital affordances of WeChat for Chinese learning from various perspectives, such as to create authentic meaning-focused communication, to stay in touch and develop friendship with people, to review and learn outside of the classroom. Using WeChat in second language learning, especially for the Chinese language, still requires more investigation. The lack of relevant studies provides an opportunity to explore how WeChat can support improving Chinese language skills and the applications of this tool for formal and informal learning.      

References

Blattner, G., & Fiori, M. (2011). Virtual social network communities: An investigation of language learners’ development of sociopragmatic awareness and multiliteracy skills. CALICO Journal, 29(1), 24–43.

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Diao, W. (2014). (Dis)engagement in Internet linguistic practices among sojourners in China. In S. Li & P. Swanson (Eds.), Engaging language learners through technology integration: Theory, applications, and outcomes (pp.162–180). Hershey, PA: IGI-Global.

Gibson, E.J. (1991). An odyssey in learning and perception. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Jin, L. (2017). Digital affordances on WeChat: Learning Chinese as a second language. Computer Assisted Language Learning43(1), 1–26. 

Lantolf, J., & Thorne, S.L. (2006). Sociocultural theory and the genesis of second language development. Oxford University Press.

Mills, N. (2011). Situated learning through social networking communities: The development of joint enterprise, mutual engagement, and a shared repertoire. CALICO Journal, 28(2), 345–368.

Reinhardt, J., & Zander, V. (2011). Social networking in an intensive English program classroom: A language socialization perspective. CALICO Journal, 28(2), 326–344.

van Lier, L. (2000). From input to affordance: Social-interactive learning through an ecological perspective. In J.P. Lantolf (Ed.), Sociocultural theory and second language learning (155–177). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

van Lier, L. (2004). The ecology and semiotics of language learning: A sociocultural perspective. Boston, MA: Kluwer Academic.

Wang, S. & Vasquez, C. (2012). Web 2.0 and second language learning: What does the research tell us? CALICO Journal, 29(3), 412–430.

About the author

Aishowarza Manik is a PhD student at Dublin City University, Dublin, Ireland. Her PhD project aims to promote learner autonomy by using mobile technology for Chinese as second language learners in Bangladesh.

Click here to download the pdf version of the write-up by Aishowarza Manik.

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