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Review of  ICT and Language Learning

Reviewer: Mathias Schulze
Book Title: ICT and Language Learning
Book Author: Marie-Madeleine Kenning
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 19.2345

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AUTHOR: Kenning, Marie-Madeleine
TITLE: ICT and Language Learning
SUBTITLE: From the Printing Press to the Mobile Phone
PUBLISHER: Palgrave Macmillan
YEAR: 2007

Mathias Schulze, Associate Professor of German, Department of Germanic and
Slavic Studies, University of Waterloo, Canada

Marie-Madeleine Kenning's book aims to answer two broad questions, first, how
information and communication technology (ICT) affected the experience of
language learners and language users, and second, what we can infer from this
experience for a successful employment of ICT in language learning today (p.1).
The book contains six chapters and a short conclusion.

Chapter 1 ''Technology as an Agent of Change'' begins with an introduction. Here
and throughout the book, Kenning defines ICT broadly and over a period of time
spanning some 500 years and attempts to understand its role in a relatively wide
context. As is made clear in the subtitle of the book, she defines ICT as all
such technologies which have been invented with or after the printing press and
with and before the mobile phone. This necessitates both a historical and a
contemporary perspective. In looking back on selected established examples of
ICT, Kenning debunks three popular myths about technology in general, not just
ICT. She argues against the impression that “technology determines its own uses
and effects” (p.6) and views technology more as a trigger for change, not as a
cause. This leads her to argue that “the changes brought by technology are [not]
inevitable” (p.9) and are not revolutionary in nature and she goes on to contend
that reviewing the role of technology mean s reviewing it as part of a complex
situation, a situation with multiple, interrelated actors and variables. Chapter
1 is rounded off with an outline of the book (pp. 21-22).

The next chapter reviews the role of ICT in communication. Here, the increasing
pace of technological innovation in ICT in the course of its history gets noted
(p.26), before communication is sketched as an (information) system by looking
at the different communication channels (p.28-31) – mainly oral and written –
and the participants as source and receiver (pp. 34-38). Different types of
communication are described according to space coordinates (e.g., face-to-face
vs. long distance), time coordinates (e.g., synchronous vs. asynchronous), and
range of symbolic cues which are related to the communication channel(s) used
(e.g., non-verbal and verbal cues), variables of interactivity such as
reciprocity (possible role reversal) and simultaneous feedback, and lastly,
action orientation which “relates to the extent to which communication is
oriented to specific others rather than to an indefinite range of potential
recipients (p.50). This is followed by a discussion of communication in everyday
life in which Kenning concludes that despite “the growing importance of media in
modern society” (p. 55), face-to-face interaction is still superior (p.57). In
her conclusion to this chapter, she advocates that language learners need to be
able eventually to handle both face-to-face and mediated communication (p. 58).

Chapter 3 is entitled ''ICT and Language''. It begins with a review of the role of
ICT in language change. Kenning concentrates on external factors such as
geographical proximity or distance, contact with new and old phenomena, and
social prestige which can all trigger or influence language change which she
sees all as mediated by ICT. For example, geographical distances can be bridged,
information about new phenomena from inside and outside of the field of
technology as well as varieties and language phenomena with a high social
prestige can be disseminated through ICT. ICT also strengthens both centripetal
and centrifugal forces – processes of unification and diversification – in that
it facilitates both the maintenance of individual linguistic varieties and the
more intense contact of speakers of different varieties (pp.66-69). This
discussion of what Kenning calls the direction of language change is followed by
a section on the role of ‘the written word’ in the context of language
development from which she concludes that “as a result of its properties, a
media will have a built-in bias towards certain uses, as well as affinities with
certain kinds of texts and therefore certain kinds of language” (p.74), a bias
or affinity which is only realized within a receptive social context. ICT, and
in particular mass media, is said to influence language change, but it is, of
course, difficult if not impossible to single out one contextual variable and
exactly measure its impact on a complex phenomenon such as language change.
Obviously, ICT gives rise to new vocabulary (p.86) and new genres – discussed
based on the example of print media – and triggers change in spelling (p.90).
The impact of ICT on pronunciation, however, has been assessed controversially
(p.88). Kenning does not only argue that ICT plays a role in language change,
but that it is also instrumental in the proliferation of a language. For this
discussion she contrasts the spread of English with French in colonial and
postcolonial periods, before she looks at recent technological advances which,
she argues, drove at least partially the global spread of English through
inventions in Anglophone countries such as the telegraph, the Morse code, the
American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII).

Chapter 4 moves the reader away from language and into education and begins with
the discussion of some aspects of ICT in the context of educational
institutions. The changing educational organization is reviewed in the context
of the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century (pp.107-08),
whereas the changing role of the teacher is mainly illustrated in the context of
the introduction of educational broadcasting by the BBC. Kenning then resumes
her discussion of ICT and education by arguing that ICT plays an important role
in our consideration of literacy, particularly when one adopts a functional
understanding of literacy which considers literacy levels in the context of
social demands (p. 122). The chapter is completed with a very brief overview
(pp.130-33) of some different types of ICT: print, audio recording, radio,
television, computers, mobile phones and MP3 players.

The next chapter has the same title as the entire book. In its introduction
Kenning asks: “How widespread was language learning three, four centuries ago?
What languages did people learn and how? And what role, if any, was assigned to
technology?'' She states that language learning has become more widespread than
in previous centuries (p.139) with language learners motivating their choice of
a language to learn by selecting one which they believe has a high functional
value. This situation “works to the advantage of English” (p. 140) which leads
Kenning to express her hope that people will continue to learn languages other
than English in the future. The next section of the same chapter is dedicated to
ICT and methodological changes. Again starting with the printing press, the
different technologies are paired with language teaching methodologies prevalent
at the time. Such pairings go from print media, which included instructional and
sometimes also pictorial material, and the common grammar-translation method of
language teaching to an emphasis of the spoken language which, Kenning argues,
followed the invention of the telephone and the phonograph (p. 146) in the late
nineteenth century. She concludes her historical overview of the field of
educational technology – and its relevance to language learning – with a
reiteration of Chapelle’s claim that computer-assisted language learning will be
good for second language acquisition research (p.153-54) and continues by
stating in very general terms that “a proper rationale for technologically based
language learning cannot be built without concrete evidence from empirical
studies with sound theoretical underpinnings” (p.160). With hardly any reference
to recent studies in the field of computer-assisted language learning, she goes
on to claim that “there is still a shortage of studies demonstrating that the
use of ICT actually enhances language learning” (ibid.).

In the next section ''In Search of a Principled Approach'' an assessment of
individual media is given in two tables and selected methodological suggestions
of the past twenty years are briefly sketched.

The final chapter ''Case Study: the Telephone and Language Learning'' begins with
reviewing the history of the telephone, which is followed by a comparison of
telephone communication with human communication employing other media. The
historical overview is completed with short statements on answer machines, call
centers, and SMS. Kenning concludes that there is “a need for explicit teaching,
not only of useful phrases and tips on how to use the phone ..., but also of
culture-specific norms” (p.181). In the conclusion (pp.195-197), Kenning returns
to the two questions asked in her introduction to the book and submits that “one
of the main effects of ICT has been to create more opportunities for language
use” (p.195). However, she states also that the change of ICT has not resulted
in a paradigm shift in (language) pedagogy. Her main advice is that “teachers
must have information on what does what, for what kind of learner, under what
conditions, and with what result” (p.196).

With its enormously wide understanding of (relevant) ICT – apparent already from
the title – the book cannot provide a detailed, in-depth discussion of a single
ICT; instead it offers the reader a broadly conceived survey of 500 years of
ICT, 500 years of communication, 500 years of language change, 500 years of
education, and 500 years of language learning. The strength of this approach is
that the author as well as the reader are able to compare events over time and
identify some commonalities at a grander scale. The disadvantage is that each
topic is discussed in a rather superficial way. This problem is compounded by
the fact that significantly more room is given to more mature technologies such
as movable type printing (Johann Gutenberg, about 1450), the telegraph (William
Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone, 1837), and the telephone (various
inventors including Alexander Graham Bell and Johann Philipp Reis, 1844-1877),
whereas more modern technologies, which all have had an interesting influence on
language teaching, such as internet relay chat, electronic discussion boards,
e-mail, multi-user domains, and virtual worlds have been largely ignored in this

This bias towards well-established, normalized technologies also leaves little
room for a grounded discussion of language learning. Kenning states on page 100
of 197: “The focus ... has so far been on language rather than language users
and learners,” and some part of the remaining pages is also dedicated to matters
other than language learning. The book title should certainly not suggest to the
potential reader that ICT and language learning are discussed in equal measure.
ICT, on the basis of selected examples is discussed in four chapters of the
book, language learning and again ICT are only discussed in one dedicated
chapter and as part of the case study on the telephone.

This also has the consequence that technologies of the late twentieth and the
early twenty-first centuries a re only mentioned in passing and their current
and/or potential role in language learning and teaching is hardly discussed at
all. This is a pity because there exists a large number of language learners,
language teachers, applied linguists, SLA researchers, and educationalists with
an interest in language learning and ICT who would expect exactly this kind of
discussion when it comes to ICT and language learning. This book should appeal
to a reader who is interested in the wider historical language, communication
and learning context of information and communication technology.

Mathias Schulze's research focus is the application of linguistic theory to
computer-assisted language learning (CALL). He has published on ICALL – the
intersection of artificial intelligence and CALL, the acquisition of grammar
through CALL, online language learning and German linguistics.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0230517072
ISBN-13: 9780230517073
Pages: 240
Prices: U.K. £ 50.00