Synchronous communication

Interaction and On-Line Synchronous Communication in English Language Learning

S. Kathleen Kitao, Doshisha Women's College, Kyoto

With the spread of the Internet, there are increasing opportunities to study English using a wide variety of Internet resources. Among many other resources, there are lists where students can discuss various topics with other students; places where students can find keypals (penpals who communicate with a keyboard, i.e., by e-mail); On-Line Writing Labs (OWLs), where students can practice writing and get advice; reading materials; word games; and grammar lessons. (For a more complete discussion of on-line resources, as well as information on accessing these resources, see Kitao and Kitao [1995].) For English language students in countries where English is a foreign language -- that is, where English is not used in everyday life -- these resources are particularly important, because they greatly increase the opportunities for using English.

One type of Internet activity which has a great deal of potential for English language students is "chatting," that is, communicating in real time by typing a message into a computer, so that it can immediately be read on other computer screens, even computer screens in another part of the world. Communication that takes place in real time is referred to as "synchronous communication," while communication that does not take place in real time, such as e-mail, is called "asynchronous communication." While there are many different places to chat on the Internet, some of these are specifically intended for non-native English speakers. They provide opportunities for non- native English speakers to communicate in English.

In this paper, I will discuss the role that communication in general and synchronous communication in particular plays in language learning and how students can be introduced to it at two Internet sites, SchMOOze University and Dave's ESL Cafe Chat Central. I will also report the results of a survey of students (for the purposes of this paper, "students" refers to any non-native English speaker who uses synchronous communication sites for, at least in part, the purpose of improving his/her English proficiency, even if the person is not currently involved in formal English courses).

The Role of Interaction and Communication in Language Learning


While Krashen (1981) believed that comprehensible input was the necessary and sufficient condition for the acquisition of language, Ellis (1985, p. 161) concluded, based on an analysis of various studies and theoretical treatments of the subject, that both input and interaction influence second language acquisition. He lists eight characteristics of input and interaction which seem to facilitate rapid acquisition, based on this analysis. They are:

1. A high quantity of input directed at the learner.
2. The learner's perceived need to communicate in the L2.
3. Independent control of the propositional content by the learner (e.g., control over the topic choice).
4. Adherence to the "here and now" principle, at least initially.
5. The performance of a range of speech acts by both the native speaker/teacher and the learner (i.e., the learner needs the opportunity to listen to and to produce language used to perform different language functions).
6. Exposure to a high quantity of directives.
7. Exposure to a high quantity of "extending" utterances, (e.g., requests for clarification and confirmation, paraphrases and expansions).
8. Opportunities for uninhibited "practice" (which may provide opportunities to experiment using "new" forms).

Of these eight, most are either facilitated by interaction or necessitate interaction, as opposed to input alone. Interaction can be used to elicit input, increasing its quantity. Making friends through interaction is one perceived need for communication. Interaction helps the learner control the propositional content. Interaction can involve a range of speech acts, a high quantity of directives and extending utterances, and opportunities to practice.

Using Interaction to Learn Language

The opportunity to use language in interaction is an important part of language learning. Klein (1986, pp. 146-167) points out that the more the learner interacts, the more language he/she has an opportunity to learn, and the more language he/she learns, the more input he/she can solicit in order to learn more language. (Klein does not explicitly define interaction, but, based on the context, he seems to be referring mainly to spoken interaction.) At first, the learner uses whatever non-verbal means and small amount of verbal language he/she already knows. This elicits language, which the learner can use to confirm or disconfirm his/her hypotheses about the language.

According to Klein, learning language through communication is spontaneous (as opposed to guided) learning. The prototypical example of a spontaneous language learner is one who goes to another country to live and work or study. The learner carries out two separate but interconnected tasks -- to use his/her limited knowledge of the language to express him/herself to and understand others, and also to elicit input which helps in language learning. In spontaneous language learning, the focus is not on the language itself; it is on the content expressed by the language (Klein 1986; p. 15).

However, many language students do not have the opportunity to use English extensively outside of the classroom. They live in countries where English is not used in daily life, and where there are few English speakers to communicate with. This is referred to as a "foreign language" situation (as opposed to a "second language" situation, in which students live in a country where they use the target language in their daily lives).

In addition, language learners in a foreign language situation may have difficulty seeing English as a means of communication. In Japan, for example, English is generally necessary for college entrance exams, and students may think of English mainly as something that they learn about in order to take a test. The purpose of the language that they produce is mainly for the teacher to evaluate, not for the purpose of expressing their ideas.

Even non-native English speakers who live in an English-speaking country may wish for more opportunity to use English through chatting on the Internet. In their daily life, for whatever reason, they may not be required to use English very much, or they may find communicating face-to-face in English stressful.

For language students who wish to be able to communicate in English on line, the Internet provides an important opportunity to learn English. As Fritzler (1995) pointed out,

In general, to use the Internet is to communicate
(Anderson, 1995). The main purpose of the Internet is
to connect people all over the world to share
information, experiences, and opinions. Because the
Internet is a natural resource (i.e. not a textbook
created for the purpose of teaching a language), it
contains real language. As students navigate their way
around the primarily text-based Internet, they must
read and write in English, which helps them acquire the

On-Line Interaction for English Language Students

A number of different on-line resources give students an opportunity to use English, as mentioned above. However, synchronous communication in a MOO or chat room offers opportunities for interaction. Davies, Shield, and Weininger (1998, pp. 17-18) asserted that

There is a real possibility to interact "naturally"
with native speakers--comMOOnication is real,
despite the virtual interlocutors,
whereas the target language interaction in the classroom
is quite often unreal, despite the real
interlocutors. Perhaps most importantly, though, is
that the target language switches focus within any
MOOing activity: language is
no longer a goal but an instrument to pursue
other (real) goals; integrating
into the MOO's Community is socializing in the
target language, one of the highest ranking activities in
foreign language learning.

As Michael Guest pointed out in an interview with Elin Melchior (Melchior 1997, p. 14), although MOOs involve reading and writing, their structure is like conversation, and they have the advantage for students that because they are not face-to-face conversation, and though the conversations take place in real time, there is not as much time pressure or stress as with face-to-face conversations.

Two Internet Sites for Synchronous Communication

Descriptions of the Sites

SchMOOze University. One site intended for non-native English speakers which allows synchronous communication is SchMOOze University. (See Appendix A for a handout to orient students to SchMOOze University.) A MOO is a text-based virtual world, which means that as a user moves around, he/she will see written descriptions of places in the MOO, including descriptions of rooms, furniture, open spaces, and exits into other places. (In contrast, in graphics-based virtual worlds users see pictures of the place where they are on the screen.) SchMOOze University is a virtual college campus, with a dormitory, offices, classrooms, malls, and an off-campus bar.

SchMOOze University can be accessed through telnet or through a dedicated program which can be downloaded from the World Wide Web ( for PCs).

SchMOOze University is specifically intended for non-native English speakers to practice their English as well as for native English speakers interested in intercultural communication. A total of approximately 550 people are registered at SchMOOze University, and guests can log on as well. Users are divided into four levels -- players, builders, programmers, and wizards. Wizards are the administrators of the site, and there are ten of them. The vast majority of the users of the site are players, who can chat, play games, and sign up for and decorate a dormitory room. Builders and programmers are allowed to do increasingly more programming of various structures in the MOO.

SchMOOze University, like any other MOO, requires participants to communicate with others, in order to find out how to do something they want to be able to do, and to figure out how to use the commands (Rosenberg, 1992).

Some teachers may be hesitant to allow students to use the Internet due to stories of sexual harassment or other inappropriate behavior. Such incidents are rare at SchMOOze University (personal communication, Yoshimasu Awaji, April 1998), and if a problem is reported to the wizards (there is almost always a wizard logged on), the wizard can speak to the person causing the problem, and if necessary, ban the person from the site. (In many hours spent at SchMOOze University, I have never encountered anything inappropriate.)

Dave's ESL Cafe Chat Central. Dave's ESL Cafe ( is a World Wide Web site that has various resources for English language learners. Among these is Chat Central (, which is a web page where users can chat. Users go to the Chat Central page, where they log in. (The first time, it is necessary to register, by choosing a name and a password and providing an e-mail address to confirm the registration.) After entering Chat Central, the user can enter messages in one box and see a list of their own and others' messages. Chat Central has several "rooms," and messages can either be directed to the entire room or to any individual at Chat Central. (Messages directed to a particular individual appear in red and can only be seen by the person they are directed to.)

There has been some problem with inappropriate language and sexual harassment in Chat Central. Two respondents to my survey mentioned it, and one time when I was at Chat Central, someone began using obscene language. Some of the other users rebuked the user, and he or she signed off.

Analyzing the Use of SchMOOze University and Dave's Chat Central

Galloway and O'Brian (1998, pp. 8-9) proposed a series of questions to evaluate the usefulness of computer activities. These are intended to help the teacher find potential problems with computer-mediated communication activities. The questions are:

1. How much technical support is needed?
2. How reliable is network access?
3. How much computer experience is needed?
4. Is the activity communicative?
5. Is it task-oriented?
6. Is it integrated into the curriculum?
7. Is it appropriate for the students?
8. Are results easily monitored?

The following are analyses of the use of SchMOOze University and Dave's ESL Cafe Chat Central, based on Galloway and O'Brien's questions.

SchMOOze University. 1. How much technical support is needed? Before taking students to SchMOOze University, it is useful to teach them basic commands so that they know how to communicate with others, how to move around, how to get help, etc. One of the problems with SchMOOze University is that learning to use it is more complicated than, for example, a web page. However, as Michael Guest points out, asking for help and negotiating the meaning can be part of the communicative experience (Melchior, 1997, p. 13). In addition, the more complicated format allows a variety of language-related activites in addition to chatting, including decorating dormitory rooms, playing word games, and moving around the site.

2. How reliable is network access? When using SchMOOze University, as with any other on-line activity, there is always the possibility of slow connections or of the site being down. It is a good idea to have a back-up activity in case of serious problems.

3. How much computer experience is needed? A knowledge of the commands used at SchMOOze University is necessary. When I introduce classes of students to SchMOOze University, I spend part of a class period going over commands before even going to the computer lab, using the handout in Appendix A.

Ability to type is helpful. Because few students seem to be able to type well, this is sometimes frustrating for them.

4. Is the activity communicative? At SchMOOze University, users can chat with other users, so it is communicative. There are also word games which users can play, and they can decorate their own dorm rooms and write descriptions of themselves as players and build other structures as builders or programmers.

5. Is it task-oriented? It can be made task oriented. Group or pair activities normally used face-to-face in class can be adapted to use at SchMOOze University. Students can be assigned to get certain information from other users. For example, they can be assigned to chat with a certain number of people and report on who they chatted with and what they learned. In addition, Michael Guest (Melchior, 1997, pp. 11-12) has suggested a series of activities which require students to visit different parts of the MOO, try out different activities, and answer questions about what they have done.

6. Is it integrated into the curriculum? It can be. For example, in an oral English course, students can be assigned to practice expressions or functions they have learned. For instance, after covering a chapter about discussing likes and dislikes, students might be assigned to go to SchMOOze University and find out about the likes and dislikes of people they chat with there.

7. Is it appropriate for the students? Since Japanese students often want to use English to communicate, it is appropriate for them. It also has some games which are geared for students.

8. Are results easily monitored? Students are not allowed to log conversations from SchMOOze University. However, the teacher can have students report on their conversations, copy and paste descriptions from the MOO to show that they have been certain places, give their opinions about certain aspects, etc.

Dave's ESL Cafe Chat Central. 1. How much technical support is needed? All that is necessary to use Chat Central is a web browser, and it is very easy for new users to learn to use it.

2. How reliable is network access? Same as SchMOOze University. If network access is slow, the messages may reload very slowly.

3. How much computer experience is needed? Typing is helpful, but few computer skills other than that.

4. Is the activity communicative? The activity consists mostly of chatting.

5. Is it task-oriented? Some group or pair tasks could be adapted to use at Chat Central. However, Chat Central does not have games or a virtual environment which can be used for the tasks.

6. Is it integrated into the curriculum? Same as SchMOOze University.

7. Is it appropriate for the students? It allows students to communicate with others in English.

8. Are results easily monitored? Students can report on or answer questions about what they have talked about with others.



In order to find out how non-native English speakers who use SchMOOze University and Dave's ESL Cafe Chat Central view their experiences there, I surveyed users at these two sites.

The Questionnaire

The questionnaire that I used is found in Appendix B. (For users of Dave's ESL Cafe, the name of that site was substituted for SchMOOze University.)


I sent surveys by e-mail to and received replies from 48 students. Twenty of the participants were from SchMOOze University and twenty-eight from Dave's ESL Cafe Chat Central. I solicited these participants by chatting with users at the two sites. If I found that the person I was chatting with was a non-native speaker of English, I asked him or her to participate in the study by sending an e-mail address so I could send the survey. Only one refused, indicating that she did not want to give her e-mail address to a stranger.

Participants were non-native speakers of English from Japan, South Korea, Russia, United Arab Emirates, China, Mexico, Venezuela, Malaysia, Sweden, Thailand, and Sweden. Most lived in their native countries, but a few live in the United States and Canada.

The survey did not include questions about what the participants were doing now, but in chatting with them, I found that only a few were currently students in formal English language education. Some were college students majoring in other subjects, and others were employed in unrelated fields.

The amount of time the participants spent at the site varied greatly, ranging from an hour per week to six to eight hours a day.


How Participants Learned about these Sites

The participants from SchMOOze University learned about it using search engines, at another MOO, from friends, or through a web page ( The participants from Dave's ESL Cafe Chat Central learned about it from teachers, friends, a magazine for students of English, a search engine, and from a book about the Internet.

What Participants Do and Their Purposes

SchMOOze University. The participants at SchMOOze University all chatted there. In addition, six of them (30.00%) play word games, four of them program or build there (13.33%), and one of them reads. Six of the participants (30.00%) considered improving their English the most important reason they came to SchMOOze University, and six (30.00%) considered chatting the most important reason. Five (25.00%) considered getting to know people or making friends the most important reason. Other activities mentioned as the most important purpose for coming to SchMOOze University were playing games, learning about programming, and "for fun." (Some participants listed more than one reason as the "most important.") Secondary reasons included improving English proficiency, learning about other cultures, playing games, getting to know people, and chatting.

Dave's ESL Cafe. All of the participants use Dave's ESL Cafe to chat. (Since participants were recruited at Chat Central, this is to be expected.) Their purposes include meeting people, learning about foreign cultures, making friends, practicing/improving English, having fun, getting tips about learning English, applying what they have learned about English.

Improvement in English Proficiency and Confidence

SchMOOze University. All of the participants believed that using SchMOOze University had helped them improve their English proficiency. Seven participants (35.00%) specifically mentioned that it helped them improve their vocabulary, especially slang or words that are commonly used in conversation, and four (20.00%) mentioned that it helped them learn to think in English.

In addition, all but one of the participants believed that it helped their confidence in their use of English (95.00%), and most of the participants considered this an important part of their experience at SchMOOze University. As a Malaysian participant in Malaysia wrote, "I realise my English gets better everyday." A Chinese participant in the US wrote "I think study English confidence is very important. You should believe you are improving, then you will get better." A Thai participant in Thailand wrote that she was no longer shy about speaking English, and that her experiences at SchMOOze University had also given her confidence in real life.

Dave's ESL Cafe. Like the participants at SchMOOze University, the participants at Chat Central all virtually agreed that chatting was helpful in the development of their English proficiency. Only one participant (3.57%) indicated that it did not help much. Six of the participants (21.43%) specifically mentioned learning new vocabulary, idioms, and/or expressions. One emphasized that being able to communicate in real time was important to developing proficiency. A Korean who had studied in Canada mentioned that it helped him maintain the English proficiency that he had developed there.

All the respondents except one (96.43%) also indicated that using Chat Central also helped them increase their confidence in their ability to communicate in English. A Korean in South Korea wrote "...through this ESL cafe, I find myself being more daring and brave than before about using English. I know it could be dangerous, but I'm glad about the change of my attitude. And hope I can do it better someday." A Chinese woman from Hong Kong wrote, "It helps the confidence of my English proficiency. I can speak to people in English more fluently. Chatting helps my communication skill." Another Korean in South Korea wrote, "For my case, there is no chance to communicate with native speaker. Chatting gives me these chance. EXPERIENCE! This is a treasure for learning foreign language."


Among the many uses of the Internet for English language students, synchronous communication in an activity with particular promise, because it allows students to interact with others in English in real time. This study involved participants at two such sites.

The users of both sites were very strongly positive about the sites' usefulness. Virtually all of them believed that chatting in English helped them improve both their English proficiency and their confidence in their English. Specifically, users thought that chatting helped them improve their vocabulary and their knowledge of idioms and expressions. All of the participants used the sites for chatting. Some of the participants also used SchMOOze University to play word games and to build or program.

Even users who live in English-speaking countries found chatting useful in improving their English proficiency and confidence. It may be that they find chatting on the Internet less threatening or less stressful than face-to-face communication.

In logging on to these sites for many hours before, during and after this study, I rarely encountered classes of English language students or students who are enrolled in formal English language courses. Based on my experiences introducing my students to SchMOOze University, and on the responses of users to this survey, I do feel that students in English language classes can benefit from being introduced to synchronous communication at SchMOOze University or Dave's ESL Cafe, both as part of class activities and as an activity that they can do individually.

Limitations of the Study

It is difficult to make broad generalizations from the results of this study -- for example, students who had tried the sites briefly and did not find them useful would not have been included in the study. Also, the study was based on the students own perceptions, not on measurements of changes in proficiency and confidence. However, the students' responses do indicate that they feel that they benefit from their practice of English, both in improvement of proficiency and in increased confidence.


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Copyright@S. Kathleen Kitao & CALL-EJ 1998-99