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September 16, 1999: This message was distributed by Papyrus News, a free e-mail distribution list on the global impact of information technology on language, literacy, and education. Feel free to forward this message to others, but please include this introductory paragraph. For information on subscribing or unsubscribing to Papyrus News see


Millennialism and Media:
Language, Literacy, and Technology in the 21st Century

by Mark Warschauer

Keynote address delivered at the World Congress of Applied Linguistics (AILA), Tokyo, August 1999


One of the most widespread and potent metaphors used to describe the Internet is that of "cyberspace." Cyberspace is viewed as a unique and totalizing world, separate from earthly bodies and institutions. The notion of "cyberspace" thus falls squarely within the tradition of Western millennialism, which predicts the end of the world as we know it to be replaced by a radically new tomorrow (Agre, 1998). Here, for example, are excerpts of a famous "Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace" by cyberguru John Perry Barlow (1996).


Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

Our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion.

John Perry Barlow


There is power in the cyberspace metaphor for a simple reason: the development and spread of the Internet IS bringing about radical changes in the way we communicate, study, entertain ourselves, work, and conduct business. However, these changes are not occurring in a separate world, outside of normal human existence and independent of human agency.

We are thus left searching for a different framework than that of "cyberspace" for understanding the impact of the Internet. Fortunately, as applied linguists, specializing in the study of human communication, we need not look far. For we know there have already been three previous developments in communication which have also had a revolutionary impact on human experience, and we can use those as a model for understanding what may be occurring today. And these are the development of first, language; second, writing; and third, print. Each of these developments radically changed the way humans processed, shared, and created information and knowledge. They were tied to dramatic changes in how people worked, learned, loved, fought, and produced. Most importantly, all these communications technologies existed within the context of human lives and institutions, not separate from them. There was never a distinct world of "languagespace" or "writingspace" or "printspace" that humans entered into when these new technologies emerged. Thus our task is not to understand the brave new world of cyberspace, because no such world exists, but rather to understand how new information and communications technologies are helping to reshape the world we actually live in. And this in itself is a large and important task, and one that is especially important for applied linguists since it intersects so closely with issues of language and communication.

I suggest that there are at least three major issues of concern to applied linguists that are dramatically affected by the spread of the Internet, and those are one, literacy; two, international language use, and three, second language learning and teaching.


Literacy is frequently viewed as a set of context-neutral, value-free skills that can be imparted to individuals. In fact, though, being literate has always depended on mastering processes that are deemed valuable in particular societies, cultures, and contexts (see de Castell & Luke, 1986). Just as the spread of the printing press dramatically altered notions of literacy in Europe, and eventually the world, so will the spread of computers, the Internet, and information technology help change notions of literacy today.

Except there is one important difference. The Internet is spreading much more quickly than did printed works. In fact, the Internet is one of the fastest growing communications media in world history. It has taken the World Wide Web just 4 years to achieve an audience of 50 million users, compared to 38 years for radio, 16 years for personal computers, and 13 years for television (Economist, 1998).

According to the United Nations Development Program (1999), there may be 700 million Internet users in the world within three years, or more than 10% of the world's population. The fastest growth of the Internet is outside the United States and Western Europe, and is occurring in countries like China, Indonesia, and Egypt. Indeed, by 2005 it is predicted that China will have more Internet users than Japan, Germany, France, or any other country except the U.S.(Computer Economics, 1999).

What is significant though is not only how many people have access to the Internet but also how often, and how, they use it. According to one remarkable statistic, some 3.4 trillion e-mail messages were sent in the United States alone in 1998, or more than 10,000 e-mail messages for every man, woman, and child in the country (eMarketer, 1999). One study has indicated that e-mail has begun to pass face-to-face and telephone communication as a frequent means of business communication in the U.S. (American Management Association International, 1998) In fact, according to some industry estimates, the majority of business documents in the world are no longer printed out at all. This means that in a remarkably short time there has been a dramatic shift from the literacy of the page to the literacy of the screen. Now, I'll venture that many people in this audience will doubt this, claiming that you do all their serious reading from books, journals, print-outs, and other paper sources. But few of you will dispute that you do most of your WRITING on the computer. And the younger generation is learning to read from the screen as easily as our generation has learned to write from it . Over time, the screen itself might adapt, taking on features of the book, but the shift toward online reading and writing has already advanced quickly and the trend will certainly continue.

Let us examine then some of the specific literacy skills that are required by the extensive use of information technology, looking first at reading and research and then at writing and authoring


As for reading, the psycholinguistic processes involved in decoding information from a screen and a page differ, and we thus have to change how we think about and teach things like skimming, scanning, and guessing words from context in online environments. We must also think more about how texts combine with graphics, images, and audio-visual content to communicate a message.

But reading is more than a psycholinguistic act of decoding letters and words. Rather it is a social practice that takes place in particular sociocultural contexts. And, seen in social context, the shift of reading from the page to the screen is even more significant. Reading from the screen is less a passive act of decoding a message from a single authoritative author and more a self-conscious act of creating knowledge from a variety of sources (Landow, 1992). Reading well from the screen involves skills such as:

Of course none of these types of skills are completely new. The need for critical, active, and interpretive reading was also important during the age of print. Nevertheless, the vast amount of information available on the Internet and its hypertextual organization speed up changes in the nature of reading which were already occurring before, and make these kinds of critical reading skills all the more essential today.


Similar changes are occurring, and will continue to occur, in respect to writing. In much of the world, writing has been given little emphasis in education, and if emphasized at all, is seen as synonymous with the putting on paper of grammatically correct sentences. And indeed, this was sufficient for most learners' needs prior to the information revolution taking place since the 1970s. However, the rise of the informational economy, and the widespread use of computers and the Internet, significantly raises the profile of writing and the need for effective written communication. The new type of writing/authoring skills required include the following:

  1. Being able to integrate texts, graphics, and audio-visual material into multimedia presentations
  2. Being able to write effectively in hypertext genres
  3. Being able to deploy internal and external links to communicate a message well
  4. Being able to write for a particular audience when the audience is unknown readers on the World Wide Web
  5. Using effective pragmatic strategies in various circumstances of computer-mediated communication, including one-to-one e-mail, e-mail discussion lists, and real-time online discussion.

I will illustrate the importance of new types of writing by briefly discussing a case which came up in an earlier research study I conducted (Warschauer, 1999). The study involved an ESL writing course in an Intensive English Program in Hawai'i. One of the students in the course was a graduate student from China. This student, who I will call Zhong, had previously conducted some research in China with co-researchers from Sweden. Agreements had been reached about who would have the rights of authorship on the data collected. Zhong was thus surprised to learn by e-mail that his Swedish co-researchers were going to usurp all the data under their own authorship. Zhong attempted to write them an e-mail message protesting the situation:


Dear Svet:

How about your decision for your mothers treatment. I am sorry I can not give advice because I do not know what cancer she suffered from. As I know, tumor hospital of our university is skilled in many types of cancer while Zhongshan hospital and Changhai hospital are good in primary liver cancer. Zhongshan hospital has special wards for foreign guests. If you can tell me and Hengjin in detail, we can supply more information about hospital and doctors.....


As you can see though, the first draft of his e-mail message was highly inappropriate and would have failed to convey his message; indeed, it focused principally on the health of the Swedish colleague's mother and only discussed the disagreement in a vague manner far down in the message. Zhong worked with the teacher of the course intensively, over e-mail, to complete two more drafts of the e-mail message until it effectively communicated what Zhong wanted to say, as seen here.


Dear Svet:

When I received your email message of Nov 4, I was very surprised to see that you went ahead with your paper on maternal health care. As you must be aware after our discussion in Shanghai last September-October, when we distributed all the topics among us, the topic of maternal health care was incumbent on me for analysis and publication.... In conclusion, I am afraid the only satisfactory solution I can see is to publish my paper with me as the first author. ---

As a result, the problem was resolved in a satisfactory manner.

The types of writing challenges that Zhong faced were not solely due to the new medium of e-mail. They were also due to the long-distance collaborative research that he was involved in. But, this, too, is part of the point. Reading, like writing, takes place not in a psycholinguistic vacuum chamber but in particular sociocultural circumstances. And the Internet, together with the broader informational revolution that it forms part of, is rapidly shifting the terrain of writing, as well as reading practices. Not all students will be performing sophisticated sociological research with international scholars for publication in scholarly journals. But many students will need to carry out some form of collaborative long-distance inquiry and problem-solving as part of their jobs and community activities. It will be incumbent on us to teach the writing skills necessary for these kinds of tasks. This includes both the pragmatics of written interaction as well as the hypermedia authoring and publishing skills needed for effective presentation of material (see discussion in Shetzer & Warschauer, in press; Warschauer, 1999)


Zhong was a student of English as a Second Language. And indeed, many of the examples given above are applicable to literacy in English. This leads to the next question: Is the Internet an English-only phenomenon or a medium of multilingual expression?

As little as two years ago, there was widespread concern that the Internet was fostering linguistic imperialism. Some 82% of Internet servers were in English, leading one Russian critic to proclaim that the Internet was becoming "the ultimate act of intellectual colonialism" (cited in Crystal, 1997).

The new story today is how fast this is changing. According to recent estimates, the percentage of Web sites in English is already down to 54%, and is expected to drop further to 41% by the year 2005 (Computer Economics, 1999).

Does this mean the era of English-language privilege on the Net is over to be replaced a Babylon of languages? Well, not exactly. The growth of non-English sites reflects the large number of uses of the net for local and national purposes. However, there seems to be no slowdown in use of English on the Net for international purposes. In fact, the number of English Web pages will double again in the next six few years-it will just not increase as quickly as the number of Web pages in other languages, which will triple. And according to one study, the number of "secure Web servers", which are the Internet servers most frequently used for international business transactions, are overwhelmingly in the English language (The default language, 1999).

I would contend then that we are facing a situation of diglossia on the Internet. On the one hand, English is the main (but not exclusive) lingua franca used for global communication (with other major languages, such as Spanish, used for international communication in particular regions).

Indeed the daily international communication made feasible by the Internet strengthens the need for a world lingua franca, and it appears that English will continue to play that role, at least for the foreseeable future. On the other hand though the multiplicity of channels made feasible by the Internet also allows for the full range of expression in other languages. Thus while English is most widely used for global communication, hundreds of other languages are now used on the Net as well for local, regional, national, and international communication.

I will refer to some examples in Egypt, where I have been working the past two years and investigating Internet use. Almost all formal e-mail communication in Egypt is in English, even when conducted between two Egyptians. At the same time, though, Egyptians have developed a romanized version of Egyptian colloquial Arabic as a frequent language of choice for informal e-mail or online chat, complete with the use of numbers to indicate phonemes not easily expressed in the Roman alphabet. Romanized Egyptian colloquial Arabic occurs in online conversation not only in Egypt, but also among Egyptians living elsewhere in the world. Thus while English is used by Egyptians to conduct business on the Internet, the Egyptian dialect of Arabic is used to fulfill other purposes, such as expressing cultural identity and reaching out for intimate communication.

What is the broader significance of what is occurring in Egypt, and many other countries, regarding language use on the Internet? First, the Internet is hastening the trend whereby a large number of people throughout the world, including in Kachru's (1986) "expanding circle" countries, use English on a daily basis for finding information and communicating with peers and colleagues. We thus have a "leakage" from the outer circle to the expanding circle, with many people in the expanding circle now using English as a SECOND language rather than really as a foreign one. This large and growing number of people throughout the world, including in traditional "foreign language" domains, who use English as an additional language of daily communication, is slowly shifting the dynamics of the English language, with authority and control over the language devolving from first language speakers to second and foreign language speakers all around the world. Indeed, for one of the first times in history, there are more second language speakers of a language than first language speakers (Crystal, 1997). This trend was already occurring before the development of the Internet, but has been intensified by the Internet. Interestingly, though, the spread of English is not necessarily privileging the native speakers of the language. The more widely English is used around the world, at least among those who are well-educated, the less special the skill of knowing English becomes. Thus in the 21st century, the monolingual businessman or scholar in the U.S. or England may be at a disadvantage compared to a bilingual person in Germany, Egypt, Korea, or elsewhere where people are learning two or more languages.


This brings us to our last and, for many people in this conference, most important question: What are the consequences of these changes for the field of second language teaching and learning? To address this issue, we must ask not only "What is the role of information technology in language teaching?" but more importantly, "What is the role of language teaching in the information technology society?" (paraphrased from Bossert, 1996) This is because all the above-mentioned changes in language and literacy influence the context of language teaching and thus affect our educational goals.

First of all, as I've noted above, an increasing number of people will need to use English on a daily basis as a language of additional communication rather than as an occasional foreign language. This will necessitate a change of attitude toward the language among teachers and learners. I was at a conference in Taiwan recently where one of the speakers asked,

Why is it that our students learn in their English classes to talk about the British parliament but not about our local government institutions? Why do they learn to talk about British media and cultural artifacts, but not about our own media or culture? And indeed, why? English language educators need to develop activities that infuse learners with the understanding that English is their own language, not somebody else's, by allowing them to use the language for authentic communication about things important to themselves and their community, beginning at a young age. The changing role of global Englishes means that we will also need to take seriously the question of bi- or multi-dialectism, taking into account the needs of learners. It may be that Japanese university students hoping to pass the TOEFL exam will need and want to study only one dialect: standard American English. But primary students in Calcutta, secondary students in Hong Kong, or adult workers in Dubai may all need to master more than one dialect, for either productive or receptive communication.

A second point of concern to language educators is that educated citizens in the 21st century will need to use English not only for simple communication, but rather for the kinds complex negotiation, collaboration, analysis, critique, and construction of knowledge required by an information economy and society. In tomorrow's world, the standard language-based syllabi-formed by lists of structures of functions to be mastered-will not suffice. We can no longer practice TENOR. Do you know what T.E.N.O.R is? : Teaching English for No Obvious Reason (Medgyes, 1986).

Instead, we must practice principles of situated learning-- in other words engaging learners in the kinds of authentic tasks and problem-solving activities that they will actually need in the future (Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1989). Having our students carry out complex project work--involving negotiation, collaboration, goal-setting, meaningful communication, and development of challenging products--will prepare them for the kinds of English language usages which will benefit their future lives as productive citizens.

Finally, as discussed earlier, students will need to develop a whole new range of English language literacies, which involve emerging forms of communication, reading, and writing using online technologies. And this will in a sense be natural for the next generation, which, at least in the developed countries, will be as familiar with computers as we are with books and journals. But just as growing up around print does not necessarily make one a good reader and writer, so growing up around computers does not ensure one can become an effective communicator in online realms.

If we want to facilitate our students' developing new electronic literacies, we have to break away from the notion that computers and the Internet comprise an optional tool to use in the language class, like a tape recorder. If I may paraphrase Mark Poster (1997), the effects of the Internet are less like those of a tape recorder and more like those of Australia. In other words, the Internet is an important social environment, rather than a tool or thing. And it is becoming a major, in some ways THE major, environment in which people use English for reading, writing, and interpersonal communication. If we want people to know how to function in Australia, chances are we're going to have to take them there. And if we want people to learn how to communicate, read, and write in online environments, we're going to have to take them there as well.

How then do we put these various pieces together? I would suggest that most pedagogical frameworks currently practiced or advocated are insufficient to allow students to develop the advanced communication skills required in the 21st century. Certainly this is true of linguistic syllabi, but even the proponents of task-based syllabi often focus their goals and means too narrowly. What we need instead is project-based learning, with students having the opportunity to engage in learner-centered collaborative projects, working together with their classmates and with others around the world, using a variety of technological means. These kinds of projects can nurture the kind of autonomous learning required for 21st century success. Following the recommendations of the New London Group (New London Group, 1996), I would suggest that such project-based learning incorporate the following elements:

  1. Immersion in situated practice: In other words, practice in authentic communicative situations which are similar to those learners will encounter outside the classroom
  2. Overt instruction. Sophisticated communication skills usually do not develop through immersion in practice alone. Students also need the opportunity to step back under the guidance of a teacher or mentor to critically analyze the content, coherence, organization, pragmatics, syntax, and lexis of communication. Linguistic elements are not ignored but are taught in context at the point of need.
  3. Critical framing: Effective cross-cultural communication and collaboration, including making effective use of information found in online networks, necessitates a high degree of critical interpretation. The instructor's overt role thus should extend beyond narrow language items to also help students learn to critically interpret information and communication in social context.
  4. Transformed practice: Based on overt instruction and critical framing, students can then raise their practice to a new level by working for a higher-quality outcome within a particular social context, or applying what they have learned in a new social and cultural context.

An excellent example of this type of pedagogical approach is provided by Kern, who described an e-mail exchange project between a class of secondary students of English in France and students of French in California (Kern, 1996). The students, who in both cases were mostly either immigrants or children of immigrants, used the Internet to discuss issues related to the immigrant experience in both the English and French languages. The teachers helped them to analyze the new language forms they were encountering in their communication, and also helped them to critically think about the immigrant experience from a cross-cultural perspective. This project involved a series of formal essays, concluding with an essay on what it really means to be French or American.

Currently, such types of projects are used infrequently in language classes. Few teachers have the regular access to computer laboratories to carry out such projects, even at the college level, let alone at the K-12 level. In addition, the students' language level is often too low for such work, or course schedules are too rigid due to system-wide required syllabi. But the price of computers will continue to fall and computers will become more common in schools. And students will become better at English as they begin to study and use it at younger ages, as is happening in many countries in the world.

Finally as seen by the English-French bilingual project, which focused on the learning of both languages, new pedagogical approaches need not be limited to the teaching of English. Indeed, the Internet is proving to be effective for linking together learners of minority languages and is being used extensively in language revitalization programs in Hawai'i and elsewhere (1998; Warschauer & Donaghy, 1997).

In conclusion, while the Internet is a new social environment, it builds on many other media developments of the 20th century. In particular the Internet extends the general media trend of the last few decades toward differentiation and stratification. Thirty years ago all of us in one country were watching the same 2-3 television networks and listening to a handful of AM radio stations. Even before the development of the Internet, we have in the last few decades gained access to a much greater variety of media, including dozens or even hundreds of cable television stations. And now the Internet, by creating an infinite number of channels, not just for receiving information but also for producing and publishing it, magnifies this trend (see discussion in Castells, 1996).

But it also magnifies the underlying social stratification. With greater media choices available, cultural and educational differences become essential in determining whether we can take advantage of these choices for our own personal and professional development. Education will play a key role in determining who becomes the interacted in the new networked society and who becomes the interacting - in other words, who has the language, communication, and technological multiliteracies required to become active shapers of the multimedia future rather than mere recipients of prepackaged choices (Castells, 1996). And language classrooms will be one important place where these new educational opportunities are found, or missed.

So as language educators, as teacher trainers, and as researchers, it is incumbent upon all of us in the field of applied linguists to understand how language, literacy, and education are evolving. Global society is not entering a mythical realm of cyberspace, but people are beginning to communicate, read, write, and learn in new and different ways. The relevance of applied linguistics in the 21st century will depend in part on whether it can fully come to grips with these changes. Working together we can help build a world where our children learn, in many languages, not only how to surf the net, but also how to make waves (Shneiderman, 1997).

Thank you. Merci. Arigato.


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