Negotiating Local Norms in Online Communication

Negotiating Local Norms in Online Communication

Jonathan R. White (Högskolan Dalarna, Sweden)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2255-3.ch105


This chapter investigates norms of English usage in a community of novice students on a net-based MA programme. They communicated in academic seminars using textchat. They were found to develop their own norms for using reduced forms to speed up communication. Their teachers, who in the Vietnamese and Bangladeshi native cultures of the students should have been given great respect, did not have much influence on the norm-setting process, and even were addressed very informally in the discussions. The author argues that this is an affordance of net-based education that the discourse community sets its own norms of English usage, despite the members' lack of experience.
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This entry deals with norms of language use in online communication. Norms are a controversial issue for language learners, in particular when it comes to English usage. There are many varieties of English around the world, but they have different statuses. It is still the case that, for many learners, British and American English have the highest status, and are the only really “proper” varieties to learn; but for others the colonial and cultural hegemony associated with them makes them irrelevant, and even inappropriate, in local contexts.

The Internet has got the reputation of being very open regarding freedom of speech (cf. the Wikileaks scandals), and for being a place where very informal, speech-like language is used. Research has shown, though, that language use online can be a way for social minorities to find a voice, and for those with lower confidence levels to communicate more. Also, it has been demonstrated that non-native speakers contribute more in discussions online, especially with native speaker interlocutors, compared to face-to-face communication. Discourse communities in general have also been argued to develop their own language practices, through the act of using language. The issue under investigation here is what norms do Internet novices adopt in online communication with native speakers of English?

Language production in online seminars by learners of English is analysed to see what norms they develop. The learners are studying on a net-based MA programme in English Linguistics. They were novice Internet users and had never taken a net-based course before this programme. Mostly they were native speakers of Vietnamese, apart from two speakers of Bangla, both cultures which value respect for teachers. The specific norm analysed are reduced forms, where users reduce either the form or formality of linguistic expressions, for example, writing info instead of information, or yeah instead of yes. Given this background, and given that it is an education context, we might predict that their language production will be more oriented towards the norms of their native English-speaking teachers, and be more formal. In fact, this was not the case, and there was evidence that the learners clearly developed their own norms of language use. Thus, this constitutes strong support for the idea that online communities develop their own local norms through using language.

The next section presents the theoretical background to these issues.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Reduced Form: Linguistic expressions reduced in form or formality.

Norm: A linguistic form agreed upon by a discourse community as appropriate in a particular situation.

Net-Based Education: Education taking place primarily through online resources.

Inner Circle: The highest status varieties of English consisting of the “colonist” varieties.

Textchat: Quasi-synchronous use of language in written form.

Discourse Community: A group of language users who communicate on a particular topic.

Lingua Franca: A language variety used for communication between non-native speakers.

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