Judith Bündgens-Kosten, University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany
Bündgens-Kosten, J. (2011). Blogging in the target language: Review of the “Lang-8” online community. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 2(2). 97-99.
Progress in language learning can be framed as the development of skills in four domains: reading, speaking, writing, and listening. While material to improve reading and listening skills is fairly easy to find, practicing productive skills outside the formal classroom can be more difficult. Computer-based trainings attempt to incorporate elements of language production – but often with limited success (Schlickau, 2009). Theoretically, language learners can just join online communities in their target language: forums, chats, etc. exist on nearly every imaginable topic. For beginners and intermediate level learners however, such a step can be intimidating. They might wish to practice their written English, French, Japanese or Tagalog, but may not feel ready to ‘mingle among the natives’ online. Language learning communities can serve as a stepping stone for these learners. They offer protected environments where learners can interact in the target language, but under the tacit understanding that they do not need to reach a specific language level to be accepted as valued members of the community.
One such community is Lang-8 (www.lang-8.com). The basic idea is that, once you register, you receive a blog that can be used just like any other blog. You can write blog posts, each with a header, a main text (in which you may include links, images, embedded media, etc.) and a field for tags. Just like with ‘free range’ blogs, i.e. blogs maintained for non-educational purposes, blog posts are displayed in reverse chronological order and readers can comment on what has been written. There are a number of ways in which Lang-8 differs from other blogging services though. Firstly, it has an additional tag field, in which bloggers indicate what language their blog post has been written in. This in itself would not be very important if each blog were not part of a bigger blogging community. When you log onto Lang-8, you do not arrive directly at your blog, but at a dashboard that shows a list of the most recent blog posts in your target language(s) and native language(s) and invites you to read them and to comment on them or to correct them.
This is where the second major difference comes into play. In addition to normal comments, readers can easily make grammar corrections on learners’ blog posts. They do not need to copy and paste text from the blog posts since the software provides a copy of the original blog posts to individuals who wish to make a correction. It also provides all the layout features customary for making corrections, such as strike-through, ‘red ink’ and ‘blue ink’.
The community works on the basis of reciprocal feedback. Learners blog in their target language(s) and correct or comment on blog posts of learners of their native language(s).
This mechanism can be helpful for learners who might feel insecure posting ‘imperfect’ texts online. The community is an environment in which one practices one’s language skills, which includes making mistakes and receiving feedback on one’s mistakes. Each ‘teacher’ is, at the same time, a learner. Generally, the atmosphere is very friendly and supportive, even though no formal moderation process is in place. Even fairly crude attempts in a foreign language receive supportive feedback, as the reviewer can attest from her own attempts at blogging in Japanese.
Lang-8 is a free (advertising financed) service. While paid-for accounts also exist, all functions can be used with a free account as well. Importantly, learners can protect their privacy by deciding with whom to share their texts (everybody, only other users, only users one has befriended, nobody).
Advantages and Disadvantages of Lang-8
Commenting on and correcting blog posts is encouraged, but potential commenters choose which blog post to respond to. Depending on the time of posting and the target language, comments and corrections may be posted within an hour, which can be highly motivating for learners. Generally, concise and interesting blog posts receive most responses, encouraging learners to write texts with their audience in mind. Unfortunately, lengthy and very technical posts receive fewer responses, perhaps because correcting them can become tedious for volunteer correctors. This means that Lang-8 might be less interesting for more advanced learners and those with very specific interests. A target language special interest community might be a better fit for those learners.
For language learners who do not have regular contact with speakers of their target language, receiving feedback from native speakers can be thrilling. Unfortunately, the strong focus on language learning on Lang-8 often leads to paying attention exclusively on form, not on content. A learner asking his or her readers about their daily life might receive corrections and grammar advice, but not a response on his/her original question. Intensive discussion of content is observed less frequently on Lang-8, although it sometimes occurs. This stresses the function of Lang-8 as a stepping stone; as soon as learners feel ready to do so, they should also venture outside of Lang-8 and apply their language skills in more content-oriented communities, where feedback on language will be scarce, but interactions might be more rewarding. While most blog posts written in languages frequently used on Lang-8 receive comments or corrections, and the quality of corrections is usually high, learners may not always be able to learn much from these. Even though many commenters provide grammar or vocabulary explanations, these may not be comprehensible to beginners. Also, just like in the classroom, receiving a correction does not mean that the learner engages with the information he or she has received. For many learners, the main learning effect will lie in the production of the original blog post, more than in receiving the correction per se.
Supporting use of Lang-8
Lang-8 is a suitable environment for learners who want to write in the target language but do not feel ready to venture ‘into the wild’, so to speak. For some learners, additional support might improve the experience further. A teacher may, for example, suggest ways in which bloggers can make their blog posts more interesting for their audience, improving the amount, quality and speed of the corrections and comments they receive. They may also discuss with learners how the feedback they receive can be used for learning, or suggest additional resources to work on problems identified based on reader feedback. By befriending bloggers from their own teaching context, it is easy for teachers to keep in touch with them and their blogging progress. Over time, teacher support might get less and less important for learners, as they become enculturated into the blogging community at Lang-8.
About the contributor
Judith Bündgens-Kosten received a doctorate degree in English linguistics from RWTH Aachen University, Germany and a postgraduate diploma in online and distance education from the Open University, UK. She currently works at the department of educational media and knowledge management at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany, conducting research on computer-assisted language learning.
Razaei, A.R. (2010). Using social networks for language learning. In Dodge, D. & Gibson, B. Proceedings of society for information technology & teacher education international conference 2010, Chesapeake, VA: AACE.
Schlickau, S. (2009) Neue Medien in der Sprach- und Kulturvermittlung: Pragmatik – Didaktik – Interkulturelle Kommunikation. Frankfurt/Main: Peter Lang.
 For a discussion of other, not blogging-oriented, language learning communities, see Razaei 2010.