Language learning as agency for a social purpose: examples from the pandemic
Developments in technology—such as mobile devices that afford connection and social interaction anytime and anywhere, social networking offline and online, horizontal patterns of connectivity that allow users to create natural bonds based on shared interests—all offer possibilities for user-driven, self- and group- initiated practices that redraw models of production, distribution, and reuse of knowledge. This evolution is perceptible, for instance in recent sociotechnical developments such as crowdsourcing, digital activism and citizenship science and the creative practices of online user communities (including fan communities), all of which invite us to redefine the nature of out-of-class language learning. The term digital wilds (Thorne, Sauro, & Smith, 2015, Sauro & Zourou, 2019) has been adopted to refer to “non-instructionally oriented contexts” (Thorne & al., 2015, p. 225) that support social activity, are less controllable or organized than a classroom, “but which present interesting, and perhaps even compelling, opportunities for intercultural exchange, agentive action, and meaning making” (Thorne, 2010, p. 144). Key in understanding this concept is the desire to include student experience and agency and supporting and amplifying opportunities for language learners. Research on this type of environments and their potential for Second Language Acquisition (SLA) is growing, although still in its infancy. This paper contributes by means of a critical appraisal of the potential for L2 use occurring in online communities formed around the fight against COVID-19. Due to the disruption to education that has occurred worldwide, possibilities for social action have multiplied. In this contribution we examine the potential of several possibilities for digital activism in the framework of the pandemic and its connection to L2 use. Sociocultural theory is used to frame the current study, for its emphasis on social interaction as a catalyst for learning (Bonk & Cunningham, 1998, Lantolf & Thorne, 2006, van Lier, 2004). The agentive and participatory dimensions of digital activism will be explored for their potential in SLA. Beyond enthusiasm for social action driven by spontaneous, user-driven, bottom-up practices, the study will also offer a critical appraisal of advantages and pitfalls of such an approach for language education.