Net Gains

Immigrant students build language skills and multicultural identity online.
By Marilyn Sherman

At school Chen* is isolated from other students because he recently arrived from China and can't speak English very well. However, on the Internet, he has a host of friends all over the world who help him practice English and build a bicultural identity. His web site for fans of Japanese animation draws viewers worldwide who converse in a mixture of Chinese and English.

Professor of learning sciences Eva Lam has studied the language learning of young Chinese immigrants like Chen in the global environment of the Internet. She has found that although these young people may be restricted in school, on the Internet many are able to develop skill and confidence in conversational English and multimedia literacy.

For the past three years, Lam has observed how chat rooms, web pages, e-mailing and instant messaging all serve to build learning, as well peer relationships. Students are "seeking out other arenas to develop competence," she says.

A striking discovery was that on the Internet students assert a bilingual identity by "code mixing." This combining of two languages, such as English and Chinese, shows students are proud of both languages.

"Multiple languages are used and valued on the Internet in a way they might not be valued where students go to school," says Lam. Also, because language is used in diverse ways, students learn that acquiring standard English doesn't have to mean losing another language. In the end, through new ways of using English, students can become less isolated and more confident.

Lam's newest project is researching how students' language practices online affect their use of English offline. This study uses a more diverse group of students and a more longitudinal approach for a broader picture of how students from different ethnic backgrounds use the Internet to acquire English and build online cultural communities.

In a way, through the Internet, immigrant students can go beyond becoming Americanized to becoming "global citizens," says Lam, who looks forward to the day when education can be viewed more internationally. "With the Internet, we're seeing grassroots globalization."

Marilyn Sherman is Director of Communications and Outreach

*Not his real name
By Marilyn Sherman