Wednesday, October 18, 2006

st louis in the rearview mirror

So Second Life announced today that it has over a million residents, and that over $400,000 is spent there every day. As a city it is larger than St. Louis, and soon will be more vibrant. I didn't have to read too much about it (here's a good place) to find out that it has working-class neighborhoods, glitzy areas, red-light districts, etc. It has its own language, its own culture, and its own population of trouble-makers who set loose cyber-cannonballs to wreak havoc on innocent gamers. I haven't had time to actually join it, but still I can't get it off my mind. Here are my thoughts:

1. The world has changed forever- subtly, but nevertheless permanently. Online communities will change the way people think, live, do business and use language.
2. The primary language of Second Life and most online games is chat. I may be totally wrong about some of this, but if so would love to be corrected. I am interested in chat and what it is doing to people's minds and their language. I think this should be studied carefully. This is only one minor way in which the world has changed forever; nevertheless it's the one I'm most interested in. So I'll run with it- indulge me.
3. Chat is based on English, at least the English version of chat that I'm most familiar with and which as far as I know is used in Second Life and a number of other games. That is, users of chat for the most part already know English and use abbreviations (R U w me?) because they're typing quickly and communicating quickly. Chat has unusual discourse conventions- often two or three conversations are taking place simultaneously- but for the most part its grammar is the same as that of English from which it springs. It does not invent its own grammar- or if it does, I'd like to know about it. It's an abbreviated, written form of English that is in many ways a cross between spoken English and written English.
4. It is, however, possible for people to enter Second Life or another game from a country in which they have not been exposed to English at all. For these people chat is their doorway to English. They learn chat first; English later if at all. They learn English language grammar through chat but would have to construct meanings (lol=laughing) without knowing what the letters stand for, unless they observe someone asking, and then find out- or ask themselves, and then find out. For these people chat would be a kind of stepping stone to fluency which would then influence the degree of fluency and their understanding of the new language - see story below.
5. There are also native speakers who spend considerably more time on chat than on anything else- and for all I know, they may start on chat before they even write anything else. The pervasiveness of chat is not understood, nor is the influence it would hold on someone who writes/types chat maybe 5, 6 times more than they write anything in formal English. For the most part these kids have learned to talk already- but how do they view the formal written word? I'm curious.

Years ago I was in Korea and was struck by the different styles of people who were trying to learn English. On the one hand were the people who studied little books, some printed very cheaply as part of the daily newspaper, and they would study these on the train very carefully, yet not really have much fluency with the spoken word; I could barely say hello to them, though they were friendly enough. On the other hand were the street-hawkers of Itaewon, the soldiers' district, who stood in the street yelling "free" and trying to entice passers-by into basement discount clothing outlets. These hawkers lived entirely by the facial cues of the people they were working on- they had a number of phrases, and lots of charm, and actually a rustic kind of pleasant fluency, even when you didn't buy anything or they didn't really have time for you. I doubt they could read or write a word, but they could carry on a conversation sometimes for ten or fifteen minutes depending on how good you were at stalling. When you were in the shop, of course, their job was done and the manager took over. But the idea that listening always precedes speaking, and both always precede reading/writing, is not true in second language acquisition, and the entry point of the learners is always important, especially when one (reading, for example) is done at the exclusion of others (speaking/listening, for example). One other unusual kind of learner I'd like to mention is the guy I met who, deep in the interior of Mongolia, had mastered both reading and listening- listening through Voice of America- until he could pass the TOEFL, which he did...but he had never actually talked to anyone at all in English, and was absolutely not used to the discourse conventions of routine speech.

A hybrid speaking/writing chat changes the mix considerably. One interesting thing about chat, of course, is the heightened sense of communication- the urgency of knowing how much was understood, etc. Chat has its own ways of working this stuff out which are very interesting and clearly different from e-mail or spoken conversations.

The primacy of English in this gaming world brings up another issue- which is the end of the geographical assumptions we make about language as we know it. These include such things as: you grew up in X, therefore you probably learned what English you know in this way....these assumptions have always been tenuous anyway- but they are pervasive in our present world anyway. And, as a side research question, how is this: If a gendered world teaches boys to talk differently than girls, what happens to this person who spends more time chatting, in their opposite-sex avatar, practicing the gendered speech conventions of that avatar (not to mention using the language specific to that world)- than they do, here in the real world, being themselves? Just a thought.

Somebody brought up the idea of a class field trip to Second Life. If I could find a reason, I'd do it in a minute.



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