Practices, Beliefs and Perceptions of Japanese EFL Self-access Learners toward Internet-based Language Learning

This research was carried out in order to describe the practices, beliefs, and perceptions of Japanese self-access EFL independent learners toward the use of the Internet for their English study. Open-ended e-mail questionnaires were distributed to potential subjects: individual e-mail account holders, as well as to mailing lists, message boards, and a newsgroup where other potential subjects could be located. Thirty responses were received and telephone or e-mail interviews were conducted with 11 of the respondents for further investigation. While it was found that the participants make use of a great variety of tools found on the Internet for their study, different beliefs were identified behind their practices. Two major approaches toward the use and understanding of English-language material (content-focuse versus language-focuse) were analyzed. The importance of experts, tutors, and a sense of community were identified through analysis of how the participants use Japanese written content on the Internet. Furthermore, their perceptions toward Internet-based language learning were analyzed with an emphasis on motivating factors.

Introduction

a) Internet and Language Learning

Since its appearance, the Internet has been an ideal tool for EFL (English as a Foreign Language) learners because it can provide authentic learning resources without the learners having to physically travel to the English-speaking country. The popularity of the Internet has also been supported by the development of ESL pedagogy. In the 1960's and 1970's, the SLA (Second Language Acquisition) theories valued linear repetition as represented by audiolingualism. In contrast, the new ESL pedagogies of the 1980's and 1990's, which were built upon Hymes's notion of Communicative Competence (Hymes, 1974), declared that language learning involves not only linguistic competence but also sociolinguistic competence (Canale and Swan, 1980). From this point of view, the Internet is seen as an aid, enabling learners to enter into situations of authentic social discourse.

The recent developments in Internet technology also support diversity in learning methods: multimedia technology is especially useful for visual and auditory-oriented learners. Socially oriented learners can learn through interaction with others via programs such as chat rooms and mailing lists. The vast amount of information linked by hypertext on the World Wide Web is excellent for learners with inductive learning styles. Internet technology now makes it increasingly feasible to individualize and personalize the learning process, resulting in self-empowerment and autonomy in learning (Warschauer et al, 1996, Murray, 1999).

b) New Direction of CALL-related Research

The Internet has emerged as a dynamic new social phenomenon that has the ability to change every aspect of the learning process. Because of this the Internet should not be seen merely as another new language learning tool and should not be evaluated merely by focusing on the learners' end results (Warschauer, 1998). Rather, in order to understand the impact the Internet can have on language learning, the learners' experience in the process of internet-aided language learning should be examined. For this reason, this study does not aim to establish a generalizable result. Rather, it aims to provide a thorough understanding of how language learning is evolving along with this new social phenomenon by providing empirical data.

The subjects of this study were Japanese EFL learners who access the Internet mainly from their home for the purpose of their own English study. In this sense it can be said that the subjects were all independent learners because they had decided to use the Internet without being prompted to do so by others and they used the Internet independently, without belonging to any formal institutes. The study revealed what activities these independent learners carried out via the Internet, why they did what they did, and how they perceived the Internet from a learner's point of view.

Until now most CALL-related research has been limited to the study of CALL in the classroom. However, independent learners who access the Internet from their homes are benefiting more from internet-based learning, which places fewer limitations on time and space in comparison to the classroom. In addition, since they are not supervised or directed by an instructor, they are free to try out any activities they believe will work to improve their English proficiency. Because independent learners are at the forefront of Internet-based language learning their experiences and styles of learning should be studied.

Definitions

Since independent learners, the notion of self-access, and internet-based language learning are relatively new concepts, the research on these subjects is very limited. However, a review of earlier relevant research will help to clarify the terms used in the study.

a) Independent Learners

Autonomy and independence are used more or less synonymously in language teaching, although the majority of the literature prefers using the term autonomous to independent. However, in this study independent will be used to describe the subjects, who are located throughout Japan and who access the Internet from their home and do not study English as a compulsory school subject.

The study of independent learners in the language learning/teaching area has progressed although it is still relatively new. According to a recent study, the definition of an independent learner involves two concepts. Dickson (1987) defines these as the concepts of self-direction and self-instruction. Self-direction is an attitude toward the autonomous learning process while self-instruction is a mode of learning. Self-direction is “a particular attitude toward the learning task, where the learner accepts responsibility for all the decisions concerned with his learning but does not necessarily undertake the implementation of those decisions” (Dickson, 1987:11). Holec sees these two aspects as capacity (defining their own goals) and practice (creating their own learning opportunities) (Holec, 1988). Littlewood furthers this argument, suggesting that an autonomous person is one with the capacity to make and carry out the choices that govern her/his actions (Littlewood, 1996). For Littlewood, an autonomous person is one who has the ability (knowledge and skills) and willingness (motivation and confidence) to act independently and decisively.

As pointed out in the literature, independence is not an all-or-nothing concept, but rather a matter of degree; the learners range from partially- to fully-independent learners. For example, fully independent learners can direct and instruct (Dickson, 1987) their own study, creating their own goals and learning with self-study resources such as textbooks and dictionaries. Partially independent learners, on the other hand, have the willingness to study but may not necessarily have the ability to achieve their goal without assistance.

Applying the recent research on learner autonomy, independent learners in this study are those who take responsibility over what, how and when to use the Internet for EFL study, although there may exist different degrees in their willingness and ability to achieve their goals.

b) Self-access

Self-access learning found in the literature usually refers to direct access to learning resources within a school system, without the supervision of the teacher (Dickson, 1987). Within a school system self-access centers are usually set up to enable free and direct access to learning resources such as ESL software, audio material, as well as the Internet, and learners may use these resources to work towards individual objectives. In this study, when the subjects access the internet directly from their homes at times that are convenient to them in order to work towards individual objects, these learners are said to be self-accessing the internet.

c) Internet-based Language Learning

Several terms can be found relating language learning with the use of the Internet such as Internet-assisted language learning (Kimball, 1998), Internet-based language acquisition (Fox, 1997), and Web-based language learning (Godwin-Jones, 2000). Since the term, “Internet-based language learning” does not appear to have been used in the literature to this date it will be useful to define here what concepts are involved in Internet-based language learning. Because most subjects have been students in the classroom and because instructors have used the Internet as an aid or an assistant towards the main pedagogical goal, it is understandable why words such as “assisted” and “aided” have often been used. However, the subjects of this study use the Internet as a main resource for learning English and thus “Internet-based” will be used in order to appropriately illustrate these subjects' attitudes towards the Internet.

The word “web based” is not used because the range of activities the subjects perform and the tools the subjects utilize are not confined to the World Wide Web, which mainly represents the information aspects of the Internet (in contrast to e-mail, which represents human-to-human communication). This study focuses on both the communication and information aspects of the Internet, making it proper to use the word “Internet-based”.

The definition of Network-based language teaching (NBLT) can be found in the literature. NBLT is defined as “language teaching that involves the use of computers connected to one another in either local or global networks” (Warschauer and Kern, 2000:1). Since this study focuses on the Internet through the learners' perspective, “internet-based language learning” will be defined as “language learning that involves the use of computers connected to the Internet.” In summary, in this study “the Internet” refers to all acts that are made possible through an Internet connection - including, but not limited to, the world wide web, mailing lists, news groups, message boards, e-mail, chat, Internet telephony and video conferencing. When learners believe that they are learning English through the use of one or more of these Internet tools, it can be said that Internet-based language learning is occurring.

Research

a) Research Questions

This study was carried out in order to describe and analyze the internet-based language learning experience through some of the Japanese self-access EFL independent learners using a survey and interview. The intention was to fully describe the practices, beliefs, and perceptions of Japanese self-access EFL independent learners toward the use of the Internet, including communication tools such as e-mail, for their English study. The research questions consisted of the following (although it was expected that the questions would likely be elaborated on and reorganized during the course of the research, as discoveries were made:

  • How do Japanese self-access EFL independent learners use the Internet for their English study?
  • Why do they use the Internet for this purpose?
  • How do they perceive Internet-based learning?

b) Data Collection

Because the subjects were Japanese and the researcher's first language was Japanese as well, the data collection, carried out in May and June of 2000, was done in Japanese. The data collection consisted of two stages: open-ended questionnaires and telephone interviews.

i) Open-ended questionnaires and their results

An open-ended questionnaire was distributed to the possible subjects in order to gain insights into their use of internet tools for their English study. The questionnaires were sent to ninety-five individual learners' e-mail accounts, which were randomly obtained from two major web sites created for EFL learners. Those learners left their e-mail addresses either on an electronic guest book or a keypal (penpal) wanted list. The same open-ended questionnaires were posted to two EFL learners' mailing lists, one EFL learners' newsgroup and two message boards maintained for EFL learners. Within two weeks a total of thirty responses were received. A list of EFL web sites where learners' e-mail accounts were obtained, and the mailing lists, newsgroups, and message boards used can be found in Appendix A.

The results of the questionnaires revealed that participants make use of a variety of tools available on the Internet for their English study. Activities are done both in English and Japanese. Among the participants, popular activities include reading, listening to or watching content in English or Japanese on the world wide web, exchanging e-mail with native or non-native English speakers, subscribing to mailing lists consisting of other Japanese EFL learners, subscribing to electronic news letters, and participating in chat rooms with other native speakers or other Japanese EFL learners. Table 1 displays summarized data from the questionnaires, focusing on the practical aspects of their internet-based language learning. Listed are the kinds of the activities carried out as well as the number of participants claiming to do that activity on a regular basis. Examples of web sites used by the participants can be found in Appendix B.

Table 1 : Activities of EFL learners
ActivitiesNumber of subjects
Exchanging e-mail with native Enlgish keypal.8
Exchanging e-mail with non native English keypal in English.9
Exchanging e-mail with Japanese keypal in Englsih.1
Exchanging e-mail with Japnese keypal in Japanese.1
Subscribing to mailing list for English speaking people on a topic of interest (E.g. Programing, gardening.)3
Subscribing to mailing list for Japanese EFL learners exchanged in Japanese. 8
Subscribing to mailing list for Japanese EFL learners exchanged in English.3
Subscribing to news group for Japanese EFL learners exchanged in Japanese.2
Subscribing to elctronic newsletter on the topic of interest (E.g. Quiz, probverbs.)13
Accessing English-written web site for English speaking people on a topic on interest.(E.g. News digest, stock market information, science magazine, online shopping.)13
Accessing English-written web site for ESL/EFL learners.2
Accessing Japanese-written web site for Japanese EFL learners.3
Participating in chat for English speaking people in English.3
Participating in chat for Japanese EFL learners in English.1
Utilizing online dictionary.2
Utilizing online Enthycopedia.1
Participating in online game for English speaking people.1
Utilising Net phone.1

ii) Telephone interview

Of the thirty subjects who respond to the open-ended questionnaires, the researcher chose 14 people who regularly use the Internet for their English study and asked for their participation in telephone interviews. Nine people (4 females and 5 males) agreed to participate in a telephone interview and two people (two males) replied that they would participate only in e-mail interviews. Three people did not respond. The purpose of the telephone and e-mail interview was to gain deeper insight and understand their perceptions and beliefs behind the practices. The interview was semi-structured with relatively few questions prepared, based on the answers of each participant's e-mail survey. The length of the telephone interviews ranged from twenty minutes to one hour. The interviews were all tape-recorded, with the permission of the participants. The transcripts were then interpreted and analyzed by the researcher. The results of the e-mail interviews were also examined and interpreted by the researcher.

The subjects, ranging in age from 18 to 67, varied in the quality of their Internet environment (e.g. computer processor speed, connection speed) as well as their computer literacy, their English proficiency, educational level and personal background. However, the subjects are all similar in that they have decided to access the Internet independently in order to learn English on their own.

Findings

a) Content-Focus vs. Language-Focus

The research revealed that two different approaches were at work when learners reviewed content presented in English on the Internet: content-focus versus language-focus. Content-focus-learners utilize the Internet tools to access content presented in English. Some learners regularly visit the same English-written web sites for their English study and/or subscribe to a mailing list on a topic that interests them. These web sites and mailing lists were not created specifically for English learning. The learners are interested in the “content” delivered to them by whatever tools, such as web sites, mailing lists or electronic newsletters, rather than things such as grammar lessons. Although they assume that their English skills (especially reading) will improve by making use of these tools, their principal purpose is not to improve their English skills but to access the information that the Internet provides.

Language-focus learners, on the other hand, carry out similar activities but their main objective in this case is to improve their English language skills rather than focusing on the enjoyment of the content itself. For example, one participant said that she prints out the web pages she finds interesting and studies those pages by looking up the unknown vocabulary or checking the grammar structures. Another participant visits a particular news web site to view the latest Japanese news in English. He listens to the news in English and then reads the English subtitles to confirm that what he heard was understood correctly. His focus is primarily on improving his listening skills rather than the content itself since he could acquire the same information more easily by listening to news on Japanese radio or television.

These two perspectives show how the internet is used in different ways by language students. For content-focus learners the Internet provides the most up-to-date information as well as a rich source of past archival information. The richness and variety of information allows users to find valuable information on nearly any topic. From a content-focus perspective, the Internet is an endless source of new and interesting information.

From the language-focus perspective the World Wide Web is often a difficult place for learners to find the information they need. Complaints include “it is difficult to find a web site that suits my level” and “It's a good web site, but it's too complex - too difficult to understand”. These types of problems usually do not emerge when learners are using web sites with a content-focused approach.

b) E-mail Exchange

Some participants found their keypals on lists provided by EFL web sites while others exchange e-mail messages with English-speaking friends they met when they went abroad. All of them agree that exchanging e-mail messages is a good opportunity to use English for real communication purposes. Here again, there exist two different perspectives: content vs. language. From the content-focus perspective, e-mail exchange is an opportunity to reach beyond Japan's borders and expand ties with the people of other nations. The focus is to create and maintain new relationships. In contrast, from a language-focus perspective e-mail exchange is an opportunity to record one's English knowledge in written form and in this way improve one's English language skills. One learner who focused on this perspective explained how in his first message he explicitly stated that his purpose was to improve his writing skills and that he wanted the keypal to correct his mistakes, as he was willing to correct his keypal's mistakes in return. Content focus and language focus are not mutually exclusive concepts, however, as can be seen in the following interview:

  • interviewer : When was the first time you felt that you had really communicated in English?
  • interviewee : When I exchanged e-mail in English. I was worried that maybe my English wasn't good enough to make myself understood but it was! The correspondent said my English wasn't too bad, although it might have been just a compliment ... I want to write English e-mail messages in a shorter period of time. Especially when writing about everyday things, I want to write without having to check a dictionary. Right now it takes half a day just to write one e-mail message.

The above example shows how both perspectives can be at work simultaneously in the same activity.

c) Working with Other Japanese EFL Learners

The research showed how some participants utilize web sites, mailing lists and newsgroups, which are created, maintained, and written in Japanese particularly for Japanese EFL learners. The appeal of these sites is their resident experts, tutors and sense of community.

i) Experts

The experts provide information on how best to study English, which textbooks to use, and which web sites they find most valuable. This information is appreciated not only because it is based on real experience but also because it increases the users' motivation to continue. One participant noted this, saying, “Just knowing how much effort the person made in his study of English really motivated me.” These experts' opinions are sometimes presented by the expert herself/himself on a web site they have created, or on EFL-related message boards or mailing lists created by a third party where people exchange opinions on English study. The experts' opinions are often rich in quantity as well as quality. This is because several experts exchange opinions on the topic of English study and continually add fresh insights to the original piece, resulting in a more galvanized group knowledge base, something the participants greatly appreciate.

ii) Tutors

Often, independent learners refer to dictionaries and grammar books when they have problems. However, some of the participants complained that there were times that solutions could not be found this way. To deal with this kind of problem, they utilize message boards or mailing lists where they can post questions and receive answers promptly. Thus the mailing lists, message boards, and news groups for Japanese EFL learners often act as tutors. The tutor answers posted questions about linguistic problems almost immediately or corrects mistakes made by other learners. The role of the tutor can be played by any participant, including the formerly mentioned experts.

iii) Sense of Community

Japanese-written Internet sites, mailing lists, and newsgroups for Japanese EFL learners also foster a sense of community by having the users share information and goals. This sense of community reduces feelings of isolation and increases learners' motivation to continue studying English. One participant involved in a mailing list professed that his enjoyment of English had increased greatly now that he was able to communicate with others about issues related to the study of English. He told of how studying English in high school left him feeling lonely and isolated because there was nobody to discuss English issues with that were interesting to him.

For some participants, this sense of community was very important. By sharing common interests and goals and debating issues related to their studies they are able to decrease feelings of isolation, while at the same time increase their motivation to continue studying English.

d) Optimal Output vs. Optimal Input

The participants of the study utilize two types of English chat: one designed for native English speakers and another designed for Japanese EFL learners. The former is believed to provide authentic spoken language input in written form and is appreciated by those who rarely have the chance to view and study authentic spoken English. The recording function, which allows the learner to record and review what was written, appeals to learners since they can study the conversation again at their leisure to review words and expressions that need further analysis.

Chat rooms that have been designed for Japanese EFL learners are valued as an optimum environment for participants to use what they have studied. They learn English off the Internet, by going to English conversation schools, or purchasing English textbooks, but opportunities to use what they have learned are difficult to come by. For these learners, chat rooms made up of Japanese EFL learners provide a relaxing atmosphere because the rest of the participants are Japanese EFL learners who often make mistakes as well. Although some participants fear they may acquire inappropriate English usage through the use of Internet chat, the opportunity to see other Japanese learners making mistakes assures them that mistakes are acceptable. The learners who visit the same chat room regularly form a bond with each other since they recognize other regular visitors whom they share similar problems, goals, interests, and other personal information with. In this sense chat rooms for Japanese EFL learners also foster a sense of community. Along with lessened anxiety towards making mistakes this sense of community also allows them to be more aggressive (less apprehensive) in their English communication. A mailing list consisting of Japanese EFL learners that allows participants to write only in English was discovered as well. This mailing list functions as an asynchronous chat room for Japanese EFL learners.

In summary the participants of the study tend to place more value on the opportunities for output (e.g. typing messages) rather than on input (e.g. reading what others are typing) when they participate in English chat rooms made up of Japanese learners. However, they place more value on the opportunity for input when they participate in chat rooms made up of native English speakers.

e) Regularity and Brevity

Electronic newsletters, which Japanese refer to as “mail magazines” (meiru magajinu in Japanese), have been utilized by some of the participants for their English study. In contrast to mailing lists, the subscribers of email magazines cannot contribute by posting messages. Subscribers merely receive the newsletter and read it. It is, therefore, a one-to-many, one-way form of communication.

The content of the email magazines that the participants utilize for their English study varies from business English, daily English conversation, and English grammar to TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), English proverbs, jokes and more. The participants who subscribe to mail magazines appreciate the fact that they are relatively short and are provided regularly and directly in their mailbox, free of charge. Brevity of the email magazines is appreciated so the readers do not experience the fatigue of reading long, drawn-out articles. In addition, the regularity of delivery is appealing, especially to independent learners who sometimes have difficulty maintaining regular study habits. This issue is expressed in the following interview with a study participant:

  • I can have at least the opportunity to deal with English if there is something sent to me regularly. Otherwise I have to take action myself - for example, by buying a newspaper. If it comes to my mailbox and is sitting there, I have to read it ... or at least glance at or skim over it.

f) The Internet as Motivator

Through the study it was found that the Internet is contributing in three major ways to learnersq«levels of motivation. For learners with a content-focus perspective, most of the information on the Internet just happens to be presented in English and understanding the English language is essential for that reason. This eagerness to understand the content can itself motivate people to learn English.

Another perspective sees the Internet as an environment that creates or fosters learners' motivation. One participant stated, “It would be wonderful if I could understand English novels, English movies, and English songs effortlessly, without any pain.” This statement at first appears to reflect a content-focus motivational influence. However, the focus of this participant is not the content but rather the language itself, and the Internet continually reinforces this feeling by providing new and interesting information in English. In this sense it can be said that this learner's motivation is fostered by the environment found on the Internet.

This perspective can take a negative form for some learners, who see the Internet as a threat. The negative perspective is represented clearly in one participant's statement: “I will be at a double disadvantage if I know neither English nor the Internet.” In this case, the existence of the Internet is creating a fear of being left behind as the rest of the world advances technologically, motivating people to learn English as a part of the process of “staying current”.

A further perception sees the Internet as merely another tool for English study, along with other high-tech tools such as walkmans, electronic dictionaries and cable TV. Although learners perceive the world wide web and communication tools on the Internet as very important tools for their English studies, their motivation does not come from the Internet - they are not motivated by the information the Internet provides nor is their motivation fostered by the existence of the Internet. One participant expressed this perspective by saying, “With the appearance of the Internet I now have more choices in how I study English. But I still have a problem maintaining my motivation.”

Conclusion

The transformation from a traditional to an information-based society is occurring rapidly throughout the world, causing everyone to be involved in one way or another, whether by individual choice or not. In this sense everyone is a part of, and involved in, the information revolution. We must discard the notion that teachers and educators are the only people making an effort to change EFL pedagogy or that computers are the only element causing this change. This study has aimed to illustrate what changes are taking place in the area of language learning, focusing on independent Japanese EFL learners, as the Internet becomes a more integral part of our lives. The study shows that learners are making dynamic changes in this new context - their learning processes, learning goals, attitudes toward learning, and their relationship with other learners are undergoing change.

This study was meant to be a first step in investigating Internet-based language learning among self-access independent EFL learners. Thirty survey responses and nine interviews do not provide enough data to make the results generalizable. However, the main objective of the study was to gain valuable insights and understanding toward this new type of learner (the self-access learner) and their learning style (internet-based language learning). In this sense, this study has contributed to the knowledge base of this new form of learning and it is believed that some of the emerging categories illustrated in this study, such as content-focus vs. language-focus, experts and tutors, and optimal output and input, are valuable for those who wish to investigate Internet-based language learning further.

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Author

Mayumi Hoshi is a Japanese language instructor and Ph.D. student at the University of Calgary, Canada. Her principal research interests are in Internet-based language learning, online discourse analysis and its evaluation.

Appendix A

The following web sites were first accessed in April 2000 and each URL was checked again for its availability in January 2002. For home pages that have moved, an updated URL is provided. For home pages no longer found on the Internet, the last date of access is provided.

(1) EFL web sites where learners' e-mail accounts were obtained.

(2) Mailing lists where the research e-mail questionnaire was posted.

(3) Newsgroups where the research e-mail questionnaire was posted.

  • japan.lang.english.communication. Available16, January, 2002.

(4) Message boards where the research e-mail questionnaire was posted.

Apendix B

The following websites were given as examples by the participants in May, 2000 and the availability of each URL was verified again in April, 2002.

(1) Electronic newsletters (mail magazines)

  • “Tukaeru eikaiwa (English grammar for use)”
  • “Quiz de manabu TOEIC (Quiz for TOEIC)”

(2) English-written web sites for English speaking people

  1. News
  2. Stock market information
  3. Other

English-written web sites for ESL/EFL learners.

(4) Japanese-written web sites for Japanese EFL learners.

(5) Chat room for Japanese EFL learners in English.

(6) Online dictionary

(7) Online course