Horizon CDT Research Highlights

Research Highlights

Using English as a Second Language Online: An investigation of current practices and their implications for language learning and teaching

  Andrew Moffat (2015 cohort)   www.nottingham.ac.uk/~psxadm


Internet-based communication continues to become "ever-increasingly embedded into our daily lives" (Knight, 2015: 20), and as it permeates our everyday communicative activities its significance as a site, or multitude of sites, of language use for L2 learners to engage with grows accordingly. Internet-enabled modes of communication which 20 years ago were limited to a minority of technology enthusiasts have become so ubiquitous as to be "squarely mundane in the business of daily life" (Squires, 2016, p. 1). Furthermore, the explosive growth of smartphone connectivity over the last few years has marked a shift from static information terminals that required users to move to a certain location in order to access online communication media, to portable communication terminals carried, or even worn, by users. This has led to a situation in which we are permanently online and permanently connected (Vorderer, Krömer and Schneider, 2016), inseparable from our channels of telecommunication. Social interaction online is no longer a specialist hobby, but an integral part of a 21st Century identity.

This PhD is concerned with text-based communicative activity mediated by internet-based technologies, under the umbrella term Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC). There is a great deal of research and scholarship examining CMC from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, including communications research, human-computer interaction, sociology and applied linguistics. Terminological debate has been an inevitable by-product: the term CMC arose from work in the field of communication studies, such as Walther (1996), while linguistic approaches to the phenomenon give rise to language-oriented terms, such as e-language (Knight, 2015) and Netspeak (Crystal, 2001). The study of discourse in online environments has been labelled Computer-Mediated Discourse (Herring and Androutsopoulos, 2015). The older term, CMC, is adopted here, reflecting the focus on a broad set of communicative contexts and practices, rather than a language variety or set of discourse characteristics. Baron (2008, p. 12) highlights the fact that much CMC now takes place using devices such as mobile phones that may not be thought of as being computers in the lay sense of the word, and proposes Electronically-Mediated Communication instead. However, for present purposes, the term CMC is retained, with the computer element understood as referring more broadly to the computing technologies that underlie the forms of hardware on which such communication takes place.

For people learning a second language, today's hyper-connectivity has the potential to present new domains of engagement with and exposure to their target language. Exposure to the target language, defined as both the reception of linguistic input and the opportunity for authentic, meaning-driven interaction with other speakers, is accepted as a necessary condition for language learning (Spolsky, 1989), and CMC has the potential to connect learners with expert and non-expert speakers of the target language, regardless of geographical location. Such exposure is not an automatic consequence of access to internet-enabled devices however: the Internet is not a monolithic entity (Pasfield-Neofitou, 2012, p. 7) and learners may continue to be immersed in online networks of speakers of their mother tongue.

Research Gap

A significant body of research exists in the field of Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL) that investigates the benefits of using computer-mediated communication in the language learning process, but there has been considerably less work exploring uses of communication technologies in a second language for purely communicative purposes, and the indirect effects such activity has on learning. Small scale studies have investigated use of English outside the classroom (such as Sundqvist (2014), in which the term extramural English is proposed), with a focus on computer-mediated language use, but no large-scale fact-finding of the kind here proposed has been done. This PhD seeks to address this gap.

Aims and Research Questions

This PhD thus has two broad aims. Firstly, it seeks to explore English-language digital communication practices among people for whom English is a second or additional language, in order to understand the degree to which such individuals are gaining exposure to English through digital communications media. Secondly, the PhD investigates the effects of such activity on language acquisition, and provides suggestions for how it may be supported by formal language learning.

The PhD will be guided by the following research questions:

  • RQ1: To what extent, and in what contexts, do English learners use their English in online interactions?
  • RQ2: How does online English use affect English learning?
  • RQ3: What are the implications of online L2 English use for current paradigms in the fields of Second Language Acquisition and English Language Teaching?

Industry Partner

The project is being run in collaboration with Cambridge University Press, who, as one of the world's leading providers of English language teaching and learning materials, are keen to understand the impact of online communication on tomorrow's language users and learners. CUP has an increasing emphasis on digital products and online or blended on/offline learning materials, and an ongoing research interest in "how we use, teach and learn written and spoken language, particularly English" . This PhD will help Cambridge to understand the needs of language learners and users in the digital economy, and inform the development of language learning tools that support learners' online activities and exploit them to augment their language learning.


The research will utilise data collected by means of a large scale survey, disseminated via Cambridge University Press's online dictionary website. The survey collected data from respondents in three main areas:

  • Frequency of English use in forms of CMC. This asked respondents to indicate how often they use English in a variety of types of interactions online. These 'types', designated as socio-technical modes of CMC (Knight, Adolphs and Carter, 2014, p. 34), are described, as the term suggests, both socially and technically, so that personal email is distinguished from work-related email, individual instant messaging from group instant messaging.
  • Level of comfort performing communicative functions in English online. This section draws on the Common European Framework of Reference for languages (CEFR, Council of Europe, 2001) to compile a list of language functions, which respondents are asked to rate as comfortable or uncomfortable.
  • Difficulties of CMC. In this section respondents are asked to provide short text responses describing difficulties encountered when using English online.

The questionnaire further collected demographic data on respondents, including age, sex, level of English, nationality and country of location, in order to explore the data along these dimensions. Finally, respondents were asked about their attitudes to English-language CMC and it's relation to their language learning.

Data Collection

The questionnaire was promoted on CUP's online dictionary website by means of a hyper-linked banner. The banner remained live for a period of four weeks, during which time a total of 10,354 questionnaire responses were collected, from respondents of 167 nationalities located in 157 different countries worldwide (see map below).


  • an analysis of current English-language CMC practices among English learners worldwide.
  • a large data set of learners' English-language CMC activities.
  • a critical re-evaluation of relevant theoretical paradigms in light of the findings of the research.

Insights gained from this research will inform the development of language teaching materials that reflect the communicative needs of learners in the hyper-connected 21st century.


  1. Baron, N. S. (2008) Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World. New York: Oxford University Press. doi: 10.1017/S0272263114000254.
  2. Council of Europe (2001) The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, teaching, assessment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi: 10.1093/elt/cci105.
  3. Crystal, D. (2001) Language and the Internet. 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi: 10.1093/elt/XXV.2.140.
  4. Herring, S. C. and Androutsopoulos, J. (2015) 'Computer-Mediated Discourse 2.0', in Tannen, D., Hamilton, H. E., and Schiffrin, D. (eds) The Handbook of Discourse Analysis. 2nd edn. Chichester: Wiley, pp. 127-151.
  5. Knight, D. (2015) 'e-Language: Communication in the Digital Age', in Baker, P. and McEnery, T. (eds) Corpora and Discourse Studies. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, pp. 20-40.
  6. Knight, D., Adolphs, S. and Carter, R. (2014) 'CANELC: constructing an e-language corpus', Corpora, 9(1), pp. 29-56. doi: 10.3366/cor.2014.0050
  7. Pasfield-Neofitou, S. E. (2012) Online Communication in a Second Language. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
  8. Spolsky, B. (1989) Conditions for Second Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  9. Squires, L. (2016) English in Computer-Mediated Communication. Edited by L. Squires. Berlin: De Gruyter.
  10. Sundqvist, P. and Sylvén, L. K. (2014) 'Language-related computer use: Focus on young L2 English learners in Sweden', ReCALL, 26(1), pp. 3-20. doi: 10.1017/S0958344013000232.
  11. Vorderer, P., Krömer, N. and Schneider, F. M. (2016) 'Permanently online - Permanently connected: Explorations into university students' use of social media and mobile smart devices', Computers in Human Behavior. Elsevier Ltd, 63, pp. 694-703. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2016.05.085.
  12. Walther, J. B. (1996) 'Computer-Mediated Communication: Impersonal, Interpersonal, and Hyperpersonal Interaction', Communication Research, 23(1), pp. 3-43. doi: 10.1177/009365096023001001.

This author is supported by the Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training at the University of Nottingham (RCUK Grant No. EP/L015463/1) and Cambridge University Press.