George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teaching Strategies

Using Social Media to Boost Students’ Understanding of World Languages

Tweets and other social media posts give students a rich context for engaging with concepts in the target language.

December 21, 2021
High school Spanish class
ZUMA Press Inc / Alamy

In an effort to raise their grammatical awareness, I often ask my Spanish language students to compile authentic examples of the grammar concepts we’ve covered in class. It’s a way for students to immerse themselves in Spanish, draw connections between grammar content and real language use, and gradually become more discerning users of the language.

Social Media: Fertile Ground for the Vernacular

Last month, as we were covering the Spanish present perfect, a student found a tweet that included, “Esto ha sido mind blowing.” “What an interesting tweet!” I thought. I singled it out to the class, and one of the students translated it as “This has been mind blowing.” As everyone seemed to agree with the translation, a brief conversation started about Spanglish and how Spanish speakers might use English on social media.

It wasn’t the only sample that students collected that displayed both English and Spanish. Another one said, “No he visto Squid Game so idk pero soy feliz con Gong Yoo” (“I have not seen Squid Game so I don’t know but I am happy with Gong Yoo”). This in turn led to a brief discussion about the series and its impact worldwide. I started an informal survey by sharing something along the lines of “No he visto el juego del calamar, y tú?” It turned out I was not alone.

In that same batch of student-collected samples, there was a third tweet that had a combination of Spanish and English: “me he comido una mcaitana y un happy meal de pokemon…year = fixed” (“I have eaten a McAitana and a Pokémon Happy Meal”). We found it funny enough to dig a bit and discovered that a McAitana was a special sandwich honoring a contestant of the Spanish TV talent show Operación Triunfo, which has a format similar to that of American Idol. “Nunca he visto Operación Triunfo ni American Idol, y ustedes?” (“I have never seen Operación Triunfo or American Idol, and you?”) I asked the class.

Many Lessons From One Tweet

As is the case here, one single tweet found by a student looking for a specific pattern can contain multiple opportunities for classroom analysis and reflection. In hindsight, for instance, I realize that I could have addressed the very productive emphatic use of the reflexive pronoun “me” in that sentence. This would have been a good chance to have students reflect on how “me he comido” conveys a certain sense of enjoyment and accomplishment. These shades of meaning would be absent in the more standard “he comido.”

In general, I was satisfied with the way students’ research generated a fruitful discussion that reflected different degrees of analysis. Subsequent reflection allowed me to identify three benefits of having students take an active role in the process of studying a new grammar concept.

1. It’s important to teach concepts within rich contexts. Elements of language that often appear itemized in teaching materials (vocabulary, syntax, pronunciation, culture, etc.) occur simultaneously in real life. Excessively zeroing in on each one in isolation might give learners the impression that language acquisition means the mastery of certain sets of content and skills in a separate and parallel way.

Activities that rely on authentic input and force students to draw on several advanced skills at the same time are more likely to facilitate actual acquisition. Additionally, authentic materials set ideal conditions for drawing connections across topics and concepts, and they may prompt learners to pursue their own interest in the target language beyond what’s proposed in the classroom. This is especially the case when it’s the students themselves who are in charge of gathering and curating the linguistic samples.

2. Learners need to experience languages as ever-evolving systems. As the world changes, so do the communicative needs of language users. Being in direct contact with authentic texts sets the conditions for experiencing not only the patterns targeted, but also inconsistencies with previously accepted norms. The frustration that often arises when dealing with those inaccuracies may undermine student motivation and hinder proficiency progress. For this reason, an inquisitive, low-stakes approach to input that may not yet be sanctioned by those in charge of establishing prescriptive language rules provides added value.

3. Focusing exclusively on language accuracy may be counterproductive. As teachers, we need to be aware of how narrow notions of correctness may drive learners away. Dealing with authentic texts provides a great opportunity to exercise a more holistic and inclusive view of language that keeps students engaged. When inaccuracies appear in real texts, such as tweets, songs, advertising materials, or news media, they offer ripe opportunities for teachers and students to reflect on notions of correctness and appropriateness. These inaccuracies illustrate how factors such as place or mode of communication are what set the expectations for what’s considered appropriate language use.

Is the Spanish (or English, or any language) used on social media the same as the one used in official documents? Should Spanish language users in McAllen, Texas, employ the same vocabulary as the residents of Antofagasta, Chile, when they talk about their school life, dietary needs, leisure activities, or fashion interests?

Rather than condemning or censoring these differences, using them as opportunities to comment on the vitality and diversity of the language can be a more fruitful and compelling approach.

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