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English language acquisition is viewed in Hong Kong as a prerequisite for attending a university in the West, for entry into high-paying occupations, and as an important part of globalization and international communication. This emphasis on language learning has resulted in a wide range of language-acquisition activities, from the traditional English course taught in a classroom to more media-savvy methods such as typed instant message (IM) chats and Skype web cam interaction with native English speakers.
Ho (2006, p. 7) views the criticism of second language learning in a traditional classroom as fueled by the “general perception…that students remain orally incompetent despite being structurally knowledgeable in the second language”. He expresses “a desire for teaching environments where a lot more attention is paid to active and engaging teacher-student and student-student interactive behaviour”. In a recent JISC study De Freitas (2008) states how this challenge to the norms of education offers a direct challenge to our understanding of how we learn. Instead of traditional knowledge acquisition, she sees educational advantages in the social interaction offered by role plays and real-world practical engagements.
Mishan (2007) notes that online chat is not traditionally viewed as a component of English language study, but that it offers insight into the use of informal language and a conversational manner. This communication technology has resulted in the development of a specific dialect and interactive patterns: abbreviations and intentional misspellings (i.e. “thx” for “thanks”, “ttyl” for “talk to you later”), and emoticons (i.e. :) and ;() ) add emotional inflection. Because most people cannot type quickly, brevity is the main driver and a simple syntax is the norm. While the simple syntax aids the second language learner, the prevalence of abbreviations and codes may confuse the “newbie” to IM chat.
However, examples of innovative practice using virtual language-learning environments include several from the EU consortium: the NIFLAR (Networked Interaction in Foreign Language Acquisition and Research), the AVALON (Access to Virtual and Access Learning live ONline), and the “Talk with Me” project. The University College Dublin initiated the Asimil8 project (now RendezVu); the Electronic Village Online is a professional development project and virtual extension of the TESOL convention; Avatar Languages uses a combination of Second Life, Google Docs, Skype, and an online whiteboard; EduNation was created by Consultants-E and provides training in Second Life (SL) with an emphasis on language teaching and learning. Talkademy is another example of a language school using the SL virtual environment for its classes. The British Academy has a large and successful presence in SL, with over 1000 students from 12 different countries. Kirriemuir (2008, p. 58) states that “roughly

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