Social media is the best and worst thing that ever happened to us. It is able to both connect and isolate us, and can make us feel either important or totally irrelevant. It is the Joker in the deck and how we play it is up to us.
In terms of learning a language, is social media able to help us or distract us completely from the learning process? Perhaps the answer lies in considering social media's place within the internet landscape.
In terms of connecting people, the internet has done that since its inception. By putting a computer on the internet people were able to find like minded individuals with whom they could discuss art, engineering and even popular television shows.
Social media really only affected the connection process of the internet. Now we could see what the other person looked like, where they went on holiday and even if they were single. You could argue that a lot of this information was both useless and not needed.
The Internet's Golden Age
Now we have the kind of internet power that science fiction authors dreamed of in the 1950s. We have high quality sound and video so smooth that face to face calling is now seamless. In terms of learning a language, technology is now ready and more than able to help us. But where is social media's place in this?
Let's take a look at some of social media's popular tools and try to decide if they can help us become fluent in a second language.
The 'Like' Button: Clicking 'like' on someone's photograph or status is very popular and quick to do. But what purpose does it actually serve? It is good to show encouragement, perhaps the other person passed a language exam and you want to congratulate them? This is a good intention yet it also promotes laziness. One of my own pet hates is receiving a birthday card pre-printed by an internet company. Rather than thoughtfully buy a card, write in it, and go to the post office the other person has essentially sent me an email. It seems a little lazy and not very thoughtful. I may be grumpy but I feel the same way about digital Christmas cards too. The like button is similar to this in that it requires no time and shows you have made little effort.
It would be better to write a personal message, and even better if it is in the target language the other person is studying. The like button has also been accused of altering chemicals in the brain. A like on a photograph stimulates the human brain and the user quickly becomes addicted to the process. If you put a picture on Facebook and then check every ten minutes for likes you may well be addicted and damaging your brain at the same time.
Comments: Adding comments to photographs or status updates is another important and popular device of social media. Twitter has become the go to place for engaging in conversation which is often political. Although this is more thoughtful than clicking a like button it can often be misconstrued and considered offensive as it is viewed by everyone. It could be a great thing if you are practising English or Kanji. But again, there is always the chance of miscommunication so it may be better to make your comments private and send them in a message.
If you are going to use comments to criticise someone's work or a letter they have written, always use caution. If the person is trying to practice written English, ask yourself if your comments will be helpful and productive to the other person. Also consider if you are the right person to be making the comments. I would not post comments on J.K. Rowling's Twitter feed telling her how to write children's books. At least not until I have sold four hundred million copies which is not happening anytime soon.
Think about your motivation for making comments, is it to genuinely help someone or to feed your need to be seen as an intellectual?
Adding Friends: If you are looking to find others to practice a language with then adding friends is an excellent idea. Once you add a friend you can quickly exchange messages and also practice a language together using technology like Skype. However, before adding a friend always consider if the connection will be a helpful one. If you are looking to practice Arabic then there may be little point in adding friends who do not speak that language.
Also, try not to rack up a large number of friends just to try and impress people by appearing popular. Also consider how much time you have. Do you really have enough time to write messages in Korean to over two hundred people? Think quality rather than quantity and you will be able to both practice your language and make friendships that are deeper than a quick chat about the weather.
I usually receive friend requests every time I publish an article. I have been genuinely happy to receive messages from people who liked or disliked an article for a genuine reason. I always reply to a message as I appreciate feedback which is helpful and instructive. Personally, I do not respond to comments any more as they are public. I find some people will use this to talk down to you and receive admiration from others for doing so. For this reason, I take personal messages more seriously and will respond.
Social Media Sites
At what point does a website become a social media site? If I open a website about tractor parts and then add a like button does this make it a social media site? As a term 'social media' is quite hard to pin down.
In terms of learning a language I would consider italki to be a very good social media website. I assume you feel this way also if you are reading this article. It does contain comments and the 'like' button, but the backbone of the site is about learning another language. I understand that Facebook has made similar inroads but with so many subjects, for me personally, Facebook is not properly structured or focused to be of benefit.
I prefer websites that began as serious learning platforms and then incorporated elements borrowed from social media to improve the learning process. After leaving a job last year, I had some free time to consider how beneficial the internet had been to my personal aims over the last ten years. Worryingly, I found the internet had not been either a great help to my career or relationships.
I decided to change all that by closing all my social media accounts and even most online store accounts. Does this work and is it a little extreme? I agree it sounds over the top but the result for me has been astounding. I have far better and smoother relationships in the real world. My only social media account is now italki which I do feel is of benefit to me. I also successfully changed career, passed a driving test, got work with a radio station and wrote a book I have been planning for five years.
My free time has also increased and I now either borrow books from the library or buy them from Waterstones. I like the idea of going out to buy my books and looking at them in the comfort of a coffee shop.
Distraction Vs Determination
Before signing up for any social media site, take time to consider if the site is going to help you learn a language. Does it have professional foreign language teachers you can contact? Does it have articles which are valuable to the learning process and also make you think? Look at the design of the website and check it is not going to lure you in with time sapping games and collecting trophies which are useless in the real world.
You should also take a look at yourself and your habits. Are you easily distracted? Do you find it difficult to study a Japanese textbook without checking your phone every fifteen minutes? If you have previously got stuck in the addictive nature of social media then only you can break that bad habit. One way to do that is to speak to people more often, particularly language teachers.
How do some people solve their personal issues and worries? They often visit a professional who will talk to them in an office where there is nothing to disturb the conversation. Treat your language learning in the same way, and social media can be a fuel for study and not a form of rust.
Hero image by William Iven on Unsplash