E–learning and language change
First Monday

E–learning and language change

This paper discusses the globalization of e–learning, changes in languages as an effect of distance technologies and the lingua franca of modern times, English, and its effects on other languages. Hybrid languages such as Spanglish (Spanish English) and Swenglish (Swedish English) emerge as an effect of the increasing interaction between non–English languages and the dominant English language. The need for speed and efficiency in communication and the adaptation to new technology changes language dramatically as observed in chat and SMS–mediated communication. The complexity of modern human communication is discussed with a historical perspective — the old modes of communication can now be used via Internet but this transfer changes their characteristics.


Language and information filtering
Language and culture
Speed and complexity
Language and images
Communication channels on the Internet and its effect on e–learning





Information and communication technologies (ICT) are one of the major driving forces in the process of globalization. The technologies enable speedy contacts across borders, but it is not enough to spread the messages quickly — they must also be comprehensible to the receiver. The need for a global language is evident. English is the dominant cross–cultural language and is increasingly affecting other languages as well. New hybrid languages are emerging such as Spanglish — Spanish influenced by English (Stavans, 2003); Denglish — German (Deutsch) influenced by English; Franglais — French influnced by English (Johnson, 2004); and, Swenglish — Swedish influenced by English.

In the Swedish case, writing has changed. For example, combined words are most often written in one word in standard Swedish. Mobiltelefon is a combined word in Swedish but increasingly it is spelled incorrectly as two words, mobil telefon, influenced by English where it occurs as mobile phone. The vowels — å/Å, ä/Ä, ö/Ö — in Swedish cannot be used in e–mail addresses or URLs and therefore personal names change with Börje becoming Borje. In fact, the naming of newborn Swedes is being affected by internationalization. New names are “mported” from foreign music, film and athletic stars so the use of the Swedish–specific letters is avoided. Similar tendencies can be observed in the Netherlands and other western European countries. In the Netherlands, increasingly software is used in English language versions. In higher education, frequently the English version of the Blackboard online learning environment is used, to facilitate communication with students globally.



Language and information filtering

This article originated in research in the European FILTER project. The FILTER project (see www.filternetwork.org) has a duration of 24 months and will complete its work by the end of 2005. The project is supported by the European Commission, the so called eLearning Initiative (see http://europa.eu.int/comm/elearning). FILTER wants to enhance affordable access to high quality electronic knowledge and information to learners at all educational levels in Europe. Electronic information may be filtered on economic criteria set by content providers and bounded by intellectual property rights issues, and electronic knowledge might be bounded in an ideological or cultural tradition. These considerations lead to the following main FILTER objectives and subsequent five work packages:

  1. to identify and formulate an operational concept of the hidden mechanisms that hinder generally accessible, fair and affordable knowledge, leading to a conceptual framework;
  2. to demonstrate the specific economic filtering criteria and ownership mechanisms that lead to reduced educational access in the different countries, leading to a comparative analysis of the filtering issues;
  3. to provide policy–making communities throughout Europe with the crucial FILTER factors through interactive conferences and increased Web presence;
  4. to assess a viable and cost effective strategy to solve the FILTER problems, after consultation of country–experts; and,
  5. to disseminate the FILTER results on a large scale throughout Europe.

The FILTER group represents colleagues from academia, government, industry, education, and training. The coordinating organisation is the Economisch and Sociaal Instituut of the Vrije Universiteit (ESI) in Amsterdam (NL). Partner organizations in the FILTER team are the Ministry of Education (BE), World Bank (PO), AristeiaOnline (IT), Open University (UK), Stockholm University (SE), BOLDIC (DK), CEDEFOP (GR), Compu’Train (NL), Budapest Business School (HU), SANTEC (Botswana), SOFF (NO), Bolger (IR), Technical University of Athens (GR), and Seventer, van (NL). FILTERs main focus areas are (1) economic filtering, and (2) ideological and cultural filtering. In this article we will highlight the cultural focus and present the first outcomes of Work Package 1.

During the first stage of the study, FILTER worked on the identification of some filtering levels. Filtering is not a new phenomenon in society. However, in the Internet age it it is of unprecedented size and the scope of filtering has accelerated. Table 1 distinguishes some of the filters that are of interest in this study. The aim is to give a holistic picture of the different types of filters on the gliding scale from information to knowledge. Individual filtering on levels A and B will not be included in this study, nor level C, the pre–Internet level. FILTER focuses on the filters built purposefully for the Internet and its information in one way or another, represented by levels D, E and F. At these levels, there are many sub–categories of filters, to be further elaborated during this study.


Table 1: A summary of filter levels.

1. Individual    
  our senses Filter level A Perception filters
  our thinking Filter level B Knowledge and value filters
2. Information    
    Filter level C Pre–Internet filters
3. Internet information    
  i. Volume: quantity Filter level D Search and sorting filters
  ii. Valid: quality Filter level D Search and sorting filters
  To use information:    
  iii. Copyright, language Filter level E Legal and language filters
  iv. Privacy: covertly controlled Filter level F Surveillance filters


According to the filter levels of the FILTER conceptual framework, there are pre–Internet filters influencing the search results of an individual e–learner (see filter levels A, B and C). Language is a major pre–Internet filter, as well as an Internet filter. The level of language filtering is also illustrated by Brunkhorst (2004), who distinguishes four language filters.

Brunkhorst considers language as a limited system of symbols, signals, sounds, or gestures that belong to a specific culture or group. There are important factors — or filters — to consider if we want to make our communication effective. Language must pass through the filters of emotion, culture, situational context, and personal beliefs. These filters will influence the listener’s perception and interpretation of our message, resulting in either acceptance or rejection of our ideas.

  1. Emotion: listeners may be joyful, anxious, upset, expectant, excited, or in any emotional state. Their emotional state will influence their reaction to our message. An upset individual will not be ready to receive new ideas.
  2. Culture: An individual’s personal history, country of origin and upbringing will influence their worldview. Their language may not contain words and concepts that ours does. These people will interpret our messages differently than someone with our own background. They may not understand many of our views.
  3. Situational context: What the listener has recently experienced as well as environmental factors will also influence the way he or she receives our messages. Unlike emotions, situational context involves elements that are external to the listener. This includes our own presentation of the message. What we said previously and how we said it will influence the listener’s perception of what we say next. A room that is too noisy, dark, cold, or uncomfortable will distract the listener’s attention.
  4. Personal beliefs: We filter everything we hear through our personal beliefs. We relate everything we experience to previous experiences. We have core beliefs about our lives; these personal maps of the world guide the way we listen, perceive, and interpret what we hear. Our messages will be influenced significantly by our listener’s personal beliefs. We need to select our words carefully, and craft our presentations so that they will touch our listeners on a deeper emotional level. It is at this deeper emotional level where the most effective communication is achieved.



Language and culture

Do we take these changes in languages for granted? The Internet will accelerate ongoing changes in languages and affect the cultural attitudes, norms and values of internet users. Let’s take a closer look at some European languages to learn about the dynamics of language and culture. In Sweden, large multinational companies have changed their Swedish names by taking away the accent markings in the letters å/Å, ä/Ä, and ö/Ö. The original letters gave meaning to specific words in Swedish. After alteration, formerly understandable Swedish words become meaningless. In some cases, the change made a name internationally useful, a brand to market globally. For example, the construction company Skånska cementgjuteriet, founded 1887, became SKANSKA in 1984. This word has no meaning in Swedish.

Some observations about the emergence of Spanglish can probably be generalized to other languages as well. Johnson (2004) provides an example about the role of information technology in the process:

“Cyberspanglish is just as pervasive as its more terrestrial relative. You turn on your computer (butear) to explore (surfear) the Web. Made a mistake? You’ll want to deletear not borrar it. Want to move a file? You’ll have to dragear it across rather than arrastrar it.”

According to Erichsen (2004), Spanish speakers adopt English vocabulary in the following ways:

  1. Outright adoption, like the words CD–ROM, flash, e–mail, links, OK, Top 40, Sexy etc.
  2. Adoption with changes to make specific words or phrases more “Spanish.” Typically, verbs see the addition of the –ear suffix, as in tipear (to type), clickear (to click), emailear (to e–mail).
  3. Use of cognates and literal translations, as in reportear (to report) instead of informar, educación instead of pedagogía (for education) and computadora instead of ordenador (for computer).

Spanish speakers have noticed that the accents “disappear” in e–mails, few bother to type them since it takes extra time and of course this changes the language. The above findings are in line with the more general notion of Kieren McCarthy (2001) on the contribution of the Internet to modern language and culture:

“More language from Internet culture is to enter the Oxford English Dictionary — but only on its online version because a new printed version is not due for another 10 years. A whole raft of new words are going in from modern culture, but the IT and Net–based ones include: .com, FAQ, HTTP, HTML, homepage, information superhighway, MP3, search engine, spam, smiley face, snail mail, WAP and Y2K.

Now hang on here a minute. We did the same story in August last year — new OED words. You’re not telling us that HTML wasn’t in there before. Well, looking back, no it wasn’t. Last time the words included e–commerce, cybersquatting, dot–com, e–tailer, WAP phones, webcam and — get this — XML. So there we have it, XML gets in before HTML. E–tailer is there before homepage. Cybersquatting was going on before the information superhighway or search engines even existed (actually we like to think info superhighway was left out on taste considerations). WAP phones have now been reduced to plain old WAP. Not that we expect the word to survive much longer in anything but a Sinclair C5 context.”

Similar to the findings of Kieren McCarthy, Walsham (2001) arques that online learning and working across cultures often means that language is culture and vice versa. He illustrates his statement with the cultural and ICT context in developing countries and Eastern Europe. Cultural values and language are the social glue holding people and society together. Attitudes to information, knowledge, decision–making and spatial awareness are heavily influenced by cultural values. Local adoption of ICT in the public sector and in industry is easier if there is a cultural and language fit. In Walsham’s opinion, culture should not be viewed as a “barrier” to IT adoption. Such a view often assigns a low value to indigenous culture. Vigilance is needed to avoid equating difference with inferiority. Walsham provides an example of a Mexican IT company in information services, The Group. The Group encountered several cultural roadblocks, in particular the general lack of interest in “objective” information among Mexican readers. The Group stimulated the interest of the potential Mexican readers through aggressive marketing. The Group reporters were encouraged to avoid adjectives in their language, be direct, and well–quoted. The Group reported “Of course we have our critics who think we violate the Mexican tradition of flowery language, politeness and genteel etiquette.” To be successful in Mexico, it became clear that it is important to appeal to Mexican aspirations e.g., by showing Mexican architectural traditions and an interior representing a combination of pre–Columbian construction and a colonial house.



Speed and complexity

Two factors influencing language changes are the need to communicate faster and to convey more in each message. To achieve this, we use an increasing armada of personal communications tools, compress the language itself and substitute text with images. Acronyms are typical of our time; via these, complex names and explanations can be avoided, but without context they become meaningless. The Internet site Acronym finder lists more than 344,000 acronyms. If we type ASAP, there are 73 definitions depending on context among others: “As Soon As Possible,” “A Stupid Acting Person,” “After School Activities Program” and “Always Stop and Pray.” Sometimes the abbreviations hide the meaning and only a few know the origin of the term. In IT, there’s an abundance of these magical words, such as TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol), LAN (Local Area Network), and WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get).

Technology itself encourages abrupt and abbreviated language use, because in some communication modes it is necessary in order to get across in reasonable time. In chat forums and other text-based digital areas, a highly coded language is used, incomprehensible for outsiders. Some examples from Chat abbreviations include IGP (I Gotta Pee), LHO (Laughing Head Off), ^5 (High Five) and <o><o> (staring).

SMS services include language translations coded in the following ways: E2F English–to–French, E2G English–to–German, E2I English–to–Italian, E2S English–to–Spanish and E2P English–to–Portuguese. Some French SMS–language examples include “Qltur” for “culture,” “10ver6T” for “diversité” and “6QriT” for “securité” (DW–World, 2004). Whole sentences can be said with just one abbreviated word, and numbers are used because of their shorter form for spoken sounds.

E–mail has its own language, a mixture of written and spoken language, mostly written informally. A study reported by BBC (2003) indicated that traditional greetings, as “hello” and “goodbye,” are disappearing in e–mail. Instead, slang and universal loanwords are used, a so–called “globespeak.” Characteristics of specific languages may diminish in “globespeak.” There has also been a detectable decline of etiquette in online conversation and correspondence. This loss of “netiquette” is a source of complaints by many users, because in many cultures and languages, the medium is still the message. For example, in Japan, communication is embedded in rituals and symbols. It is not surprising that emocions are frequently used in e–mail in Japanese and other Asian countries.

Language and culture are closely intertwined. Young people quickly adopt “universal” chat and SMS–codes and communicate globally. But how acquainted are teachers with these codes? And if they are not — how efficient are chat and other communication modes in e–learning? What if English is the most predominant language in e–learning? For students there are clear disadvantages in learning in a language other than English if you collaborate with native English speakers. Part of the meaning of emotions might be filtered out due to a language gap. Bates (1999) compares the disadvantages of non–English speakers with a fictionally scenario. What if China became the predominant economic power in this century? If so, Mandarin would become the predominant language of the Internet. Native English speakers would have to learn Mandarin if they were interested in participating in international programs.

The number of online journals is overwhelming and predominantly in English. ISI provides a context for this phenomenon (see http://www.isinet.com/essays/selectionofmaterialforcoverage/199701.html/):

“English language article titles, abstracts, and keywords are essential. English language cited references are also recommended. Although, important scientific information is published in all languages, authors must provide English translations of article titles, author keywords, and abstracts if they hope to reach the widest possible audience. Likewise, as a purely practical matter, it would not be feasible for ISI to take on the task of translating this material.”

Likely, by using these selection criteria for online journals, large groups of potential contributors worldwide are filtered out.

Is multilinguality a possible scenario on the Web? One could also look at this issue from the point of view of information searching. According to Peereboom (1999), multilinguality in the online environment is a complex issue, in particular in searching and finding information on the Web. A multilingual gateway with diminished filtering of information, would require software behind the gateway to cope with multilingual data handling, search, retrieval and display. Cross–language information retrieval (CLIR) allows the creation of natural language queries and the retrieval of documents in other languages outside the language initially used for the query. A crucial interface in the search process is the keyword function. In which language should keywords occur? A consistent policy in keyword selection will enhance retrieval options. In principle keywords can be added:

  • in the (primary) language of the service (user interface);
  • the language of the document;
  • in English as Internet lingua franca; and,
  • in a number of languages for each document.

Keywords may be uncontrolled (for instance derived from the document itself) or chosen from a controlled vocabulary. When available in more than one language appropriate keywords will provide opportunities for searching in various languages, with a query in one language. Currently, Web gateways for searching will not be able to provide more than very basic facilities, if they need to keep costs within acceptable limits. Institutions providing subject gateways — as well as other services on the Internet — will have to decide in each case whether the benefits for their users outweigh the necessary efforts to provide them. Multilinguality remains one of the challenges that have to be addressed in order to serve a multitude of language communities without creating a virtual tower of Babel.



Language and images

As mentioned earlier, another way to speed up communication — and to make it universal — is to use images. Images are abundant today. Count all images you came across just one single day in daily life — on products, via television, in papers, signs, advertisements — It may well be thousands of images. Hundred years ago, society was picture–poor. In schools only a handful of illustrations were available, depicting the world outside. Our society is increasingly using visual communication; just compare a newspaper from the nineteenth century with one today. A century ago, virtually no images were used; today, pictures are large and important, increasingly expanding at the expense of the text.

International places like hotels and airports mainly use icons to indicate toilets, luggage, keys and other services. This use of symbols is spreading to other areas. Browsers and computer interfaces use icons universally, a kind of “visual Esperanto.” Visual language is considered to be one of the hottest areas in the humanities. In one way, written language is moving back to its origins, since the earliest examples of writing were pictorial.



Communication channels on the Internet and its effect on e–learning

the Internet offers a wide variety of communication opportunities. Can students and teachers master all of the necessary media skills? Can teachers tailor distance education courses with suitable communication modes? It is a complex task. Can a single teacher, and each student, be expected to master and select the most appropriate media language needed in an e–learning course? Even if a multitalented teacher can take advantage of multimedia, there is a real danger of burn–out.

Certainly, the exploration of communication opportunities within the didactics and pedagogies of education has only just begun. We are only in the starting phase of adopting tailor–made media languages for specific groups of learners. More often, a teacher follows his intuition on what is the most appropriate way of communicating with a digital audience. This stage of “learning by doing” was described by Castells (2003). Castells shows that the Internet is a communication medium with its own logic and its own language. It is not limited to one culture. Communication on the Internet is related to free expression in all its various forms. The emergence of a new communication pattern can be observed, or if you like a new culture. According to Castells, there are a variety of processes at stake, such as integration (combining artistic forms and technology into a hybrid form of expression), interactivity (the ability of the user to manipulate her experience of media directly) and emmersion (the experience of entering into the simulation of a three–dimensional environment). Because of these processes, people live in a world and culture of “real virtuality.” This environment is virtual because it is constructed digitally. It is real because it is our fundamental reality, the material basis in which we live and link to others.



Table 2: Information and communication technology related to time and place.

  Same place Different place
Same time Technology–supported teaching
– Demonstrations
– Visual presentations
Synchronous communication
– Videoconference
– Chat
– IP telephones
– Whiteboard
– Audiochat
Different time Technology–supported learning
– Self–studies
– Multimedia
Asynchronous communication
– E–mail
– E–board
– Audioforum


Table 2 describes the complexity of communication channels where ICT is distinguished relative to time and place. Table 3 presents different media in a historical perspective and lists some characteristics of importance when used in an e–learning context. Some of the original characteristics of a medium have radically changed, such as when it appears digitally. The letter, for example, was in the pre–Internet era used largely for private communication, but e–mail can quickly end up in many different places without the author’s knowledge or they can deliberately be sent to many individuals instead of one person. It is significant to note that each communication channel has a long history. Over time, it developed a separate “language.” A good writer does not always translate into an excellent speaker. Each channel is a niche of human communication and very few master all channels fully. In part, we are also confused because many of these channels are available cheaply on the Internet and the border between private–public communication is blurred.


Table 3: Media channels and some characteristics of importance for e–learning communication.

Channel Distribution Mode Permanent/stored Synchronous/asynchronous
Letter Private: One–to–one Text Yes Asynchronous
Book Public: One–to–many Text Yes Asynchronous
Image Public: One–to–many Image Yes Asynchronous
Newspaper Public: One–to–many Text and image Yes Asynchronous
Telephone Private: One–to–one Speech No Synchronous
Radio Public: One–to–many Speech and other sounds No Synchronous and asynchronous
Movie Public: One–to–many Audiovisual moving images No Asynchronous
Television Public: One–to–many Audiovisual moving images No Synchronous and asynchronous
Video Public: One–to–many Audiovisual moving images Yes Asynchronous
Internet Private and Public All forms Yes and No Synchronous and asynchronous





The English language is influencing all other languages largely due to the Internet and media. This growing influence has implications for e–learning in non–English speaking cultures. More English terms and grammar are being adopted in other languages. In addition, it is becoming necessary to master English in order to utilize Internet resources and participate in the “global classroom” as a teacher or student. Languages are dying. Of the 6,000 languages known today, only half are expected to survive another century. There are a number of new hybrid languages emerging, most notably Spanglish (Spanish–English) in Latin and North America. Language is strongly connected to culture and identity; rapid language changes are of great concern in many countries. In turn, English is at the same time changing thanks to increasing contact with other languages, resulting in so–called “globespeak.”

E–learning is contributing to these changes with faster interactions and units more densely packed with information. Abbreviations and acronyms are necessary in chat and SMS communication to be effective. Do teachers understand and use these codes? E–mail is a blend of spoken and written language, but in fact all text–based communication modes are slower than speech. It is expected that speech and images will play a much larger role in the future of e–learning communication.

The media mix in e–learning is an intricate issue, when tools, programs and bandwidth enable virtually all types of media in a digital course. The pressure to master these techniques and “act” in these channels is enormous on teachers. Required teacher skills to facilitate effective e–learning would include abilities to select appropriate media and to master these media both technically and in terms of content and communication.

Schools and society at large should be more aware of the filtering effects of the Internet related to the change within languages for communication and as a medium of instruction. Society as a whole could benefit from a more integated approach and certainly further exploration is necessary on the evolution of human language groups. These efforts may lead to the emergence of a common language as described in part by Rosenberg (2004). End of article


About the authors

Dr. Henrik Hansson is Senior Lecturer in the Institute of International Education at Stockholm University in Sweden.
E–mail: henha [at] mbox [dot] su [dot] se

Dr. Sylvia van de Bunt–Kokhuis is coordinator of the FILTER project at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and Lector HRM at the Haagse Hogeschool in the Hague, Netherlands.



Acronym finder, at http://www.acronymfinder.com/, accessed 23 April 2004.

Tony Bates, 1999. “Cultural and Ethical Issues in International Distance Education,” paper presented at Engaging Partnerships Collaboration and Partnership in Distance Education, UBC/CREAD Conference, Vancouver.

BBC WorldNews, 2003. “Txt means goodbye to ‘hello’,” broadcast Tuesday, 5 August, accessed 23 April 2004.

S. Brunkhorst, 2004. “Making communication effective: Four language filters,” at http://www.achieveonline.com.au/article/articleview/304/1/0, accessed 22 May 2004.

Manuel Castells, 2003. The Internet galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, business and society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chat abbreviations, at http://uscash.net/tips/chat.html, accessed 23 April 2004.

DW–World, 2004. “EU Constitution in SMS Language,” http://www.dw-world.de/english/0,3367,1433_A_1164524_1_A,00.html, accessed 23 April 2004.

G. Erichsen, 2004. “Spanglish: English’s assault on Spanish. What you need to know,” http://spanish.about.com/library/weekly/aa042301a.htm, accessed 23 April 2004.

A. Johnson, 2004. “Spanglish. Freelance Spain,” http://www.spainview.comspanglish.html, accessed 23 April 2004.

Kieren McCarthy, 2001. “More Net–speak Enters Oxford English Dictionary,” The Register (15 June), and at http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/619724.html.

M. Peereboom, 1999. “Multilingual provision by Subject Gateways,” http://www.exploit-lib.org/issue3/multilingual-gateways/, accessed 22 May 2004.

R. Rosenberg, 2004. The Social Impact of Computers, Amsterdam: Elsevier Academic Press.

I. Stavans, 2003. Spanglish: The making of a new American language. New York: Rayo.

G. Walsham, 2001. Making a World of Difference: IT in a Global Context. New York: Wiley.


Editorial history

Paper received 23 May 2004; accepted 27 July 2004.

Copyright © 2004, First Monday

Copyright © 2004, Henrik Hansson and Sylvia van de Bunt–Kokhuis

E–learning and language change — Observations, tendencies and reflections
by Henrik Hansson and Sylvia van de Bunt–Kokhuis
First Monday, Volume 9, Number 8 - 2 August 2004

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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