Willingness to communicate: can online chat help?1

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International Journal of Applied  Linguistics
                          Willingness         w Vol. 16 wcan
                                      to communicate:     No.online
                                                              2 w 2006
                                                                    chat help? w 189

Willingness to communicate: can online
chat help?1
Mark Freiermuth Gunma Prefectural Women’s University, Japan
Douglas Jarrell Nagoya Women’s University, Japan

   This study compared the experiences of small groups of female Japanese
   university students communicating in English to solve tasks using online
   chat with those who solved the same tasks in face-to-face settings using spoken
   language. The groups were compared using a counterbalanced research design
   so that the nine groups consisting of four participants each took part in solving
   tasks in both the online mode and the traditional face-to-face setting. Data
   gathered from questionnaires, along with an analysis of the discourse produced
   by students, led to the conclusion that under the conditions in the study,
   online chatting provided a more comfortable environment, enhancing students’
   willingness to communicate. Regarding benefits to the language teacher,
   online chat provides another fruitful tool to enhance interaction in the target
   Keywords: willingness to communicate, online chat, anxiety, power balance,

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In the communicative classroom, conscientious language teachers want
motivated students who demonstrate a willingness to communicate in the
L2. A lack of willingness inhibits effective interaction and language production.
Recent technological advances have changed the classroom so that interaction
has come to mean not only spoken interaction but electronic interaction as
well (Chapelle 2001). And since electronic communication has become a
ubiquitous form of interaction in language-learning classrooms, students’
willingness to communicate while engaged in an electronic dialogue warrants
a more thorough investigation.
    The technology employed in this study is electronic online chat, which has
been suggested as a tool for encouraging students to interact in the language
classroom (Negretti 1999; Freiermuth 2001a). However, no one has yet
established how students’ willingness to communicate online compares to
that in their spoken conversations. In this study, using the results of a ques-
tionnaire and descriptive discourse analysis, we explore female Japanese
university students’ willingness and propensity to communicate in English
in small groups using both online chat and spoken English (face-to-face).
    The key element for successful interaction is willingness to communicate,
which is operationalized here as the probability that language learners will
choose to use the target language when the opportunity arises or is presented
(MacIntyre 1994; MacIntyre et al. 1998). When considering opportunities,
there is little doubt that learners’ attempts at using the target language are
inexorably linked to motivation – their self-determination and will to proceed
while cognizant of the potential consequences to ‘face’ (Good and Brophy
1999; Ushioda 1997).


Most studies of motivation in L2 learning refer to Gardner (1968, 1983, 1985),
Gardner and Lambert (1959, 1972), and/or Gardner and Tremblay (1994).
Gardner and his collaborators have provided the bulk of L2 research
concerning motivation, focusing much of their early work on a learner’s
identity within a particular culture and, later on, exploring motivational issues
in the language-learning classroom (Gardner and MacIntyre 1993; Gardner,
Tremblay and Masgoret 1997). Keller (1979, 1983) characterizes motivation
as a matter of task attractiveness – an intrinsic measure. If a task is attractive
and can sustain its attractiveness throughout an exercise, it is considered to
be motivating (Deci and Ryan 1985; Deci and Flaste 1995; Brown 1994;
Inyengar and Lepper 1999, 2000). Crookes and Schmidt (1991) go on to make
the point that in any language-learning situation, the question of motivation
essentially hinges on whether or not learners take advantage of opportunities
to acquire language (Dörnyei 1994a,b, 1998, 2001).

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    In the classroom, willing learners are only part of the equation. The
learners also need to be involved in productive tasks to promote sustained
communication in the target language (Doughty and Long 2003). When
technology is used to deliver a task, the effect it has on a learner’s willingness
to communicate must also be considered. In this study, we look at electronic
online chat as the technology and examine some of the effects it has on
interlocutors’ willingness to communicate.

Willingness to communicate

What are some of the factors that affect a student’s willingness to com-
municate? Japanese university students may lack motivation because
they have achieved their short-term goal of entrance into the university
(Berwick and Ross 1989; Kobayashi, Redekop and Porter 1992; Yashima
2000, 2002). Additionally, the classroom environment can play a role.
MacIntyre et al. (1998) claim that when a learner is presented with a task
or surroundings that are uncomfortable (for whatever reason), motivation
is likely to be negatively affected. They also suggest that self-confidence
and affiliation (see also Clément 1980, 1986) can affect willingness to
communicate. Consequently, if students’ competence is sufficiently high
and the language-learning situation is relatively free of anxiety, the result
will be more language production and learning potential. If the students
also desire affiliation, that is, to relate interpersonally with their fellow
interlocutors in the target language (Newcomb 1961; Zajonc 1968;
Byrne 1971; Dion, Berscheid and Walster 1972), they may feel comfortable
enough in the company of their peers to attempt language production.
MacIntyre et al. (1998) also discusses the importance of relationships
between individuals. Elements that affect willingness to communicate
include feelings of power inequity (see also Zuengler 1989), intimacy
level, extent of background knowledge in common, and social distance
between interlocutors.
    Directly related to the environment and certainly relevant to this study
is the effect the communication channel has on willingness to communicate.
In the past decade, research in computer-mediated communication (CMC)
has indicated that the computer might alter a student’s willingness to
communicate. For example, Freiermuth (1998, 2001b) determined, based upon
language production among other factors, that when groups of language
learners using CMC were presented with a task to solve, they seemed more
willing to communicate than groups using spoken language. According to
Freiermuth, the differences could be attributed to use of the computer rather
than other variables. Specifically, online chat gave students an opportunity
to express themselves without being inhibited by the teacher, other students
or a plethora of other elements that might minimize the effect of the experi-
ence (Schwienhorst 2002).

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In the present study, we look at the channel of communication as a potential
source of enhancing a student’s willingness to communicate. For our purpose
in this study, computer-mediated communication tools are categorized as
being of either the asynchronous type, of which e-mail is the most common,
or the synchronous type, such as chat, allowing simultaneous participa-
tion. In reality, there are varying degrees of synchronicity, ranging from
online discussion boards to ICQ (“I seek you”) chats that essentially allow
interlocutors to view one another’s contributions as they are typed, mistakes
and all.
    Synchronous online chat has been used in the language-learning classroom
by a number of researchers with success (Kelm 1992; Chun 1994; Kern 1995).2
The consistent element across these studies is that online chatting was used
as a kind of synchronous discussion platform for entire classes. In contrast,
in our study, participants using online chat under the treatment mode solved
tasks in small groups, while in the controlled setting, grouped participants
solved tasks using face-to-face conversation (see also Warschauer 1996, 1997;
Warschauer, Turbee and Roberts 1996; Freiermuth 1998, 2001b).3
     This study is also distinctive in that the language learners consisted of
a highly homogenous group of students, all the participants being female
Japanese university students. However, the main distinctive note is this
study’s attempt to gauge how willing these Japanese students are to com-
municate by examining their experiences solving tasks online in small groups
and comparing those experiences to participants who solved the same tasks
in spoken conversation groups.
    To accomplish this objective, we gathered data from three sources using
primarily a qualitative approach: (1) student-produced discourse, (2) student
responses to post-test questions, and (3) overall output (a count of words
produced by students under each condition). The data gathered provided
the basis for insights into teaching with CMC that we would have otherwise
overlooked. We also piloted a tool for identifying elements of a discussion to
help us to gain a clearer picture of whether or not students were actually
communicating in a manner that could be considered conversational. As a
basis for this approach, we contend, as do Johnson (1992) and Chafe (1994),
that mining and examining data using a combination of approaches can be
very powerful as a means to understand the population being studied and
may provide a clearer picture of what is actually transpiring in the classroom.
    The general aims of this study, then, can be summed up in the follow-
ing questions as they relate to the effects of computer-mediated chat on
willingness to communicate:

1) Which venue is preferred for task resolution?
2) Why is the selected venue preferred?
3) Which venue elicited more second language production?

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4) Are there qualitative features in the discourse and from other survey
   questions that could offer evidence that either online chat or spoken
   conversation might stimulate a willingness to communicate?



This study took place during regularly scheduled English classes at a women’s
university in Japan, with permission given by the university and in adherence
to the university’s standards and policies. The students who participated
consisted of sophomores and freshmen enrolled in various English classes;
data from 36 of these female participants were recorded. All of the students
were accustomed to using online chat, the ability to use a computer being a
prerequisite for this kind of classroom task.
    The students’ Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC)
scores (ranging from 120 to 560) and teacher evaluations were used to divide
participants into two main groups (Groups 1 and 2) and then into small
groups of four students each (Groups A–I). The objective here was to ensure
that each small group consisted of mixed levels based upon TOEIC scores,
English class grades and university class levels (first- and second-year
students were actively mixed). In total, nine groups were compared in this
study. Only groups that remained intact (retaining four members) for both
weeks of the study were used; there were three additional groups whose
data were not included here.4

Task and setting

The task prompts provided to all the students were:

   Week 1
   Your group has won a 500,000 yen gift certificate in a raffle. Come up with
   3 possible ways of spending it. Then discuss each plan in detail and decide
   which plan is best. Explain why it is better than the other two plans.

   Week 2
   A group of four 18-year-old American female university students will be
   coming to Japan in August. Your group will be their guides. Plan their
   trip in Japan for 2 weeks and include places, length of stay and daily
   activities in each place.

Each group member received a printed bilingual copy of the prompt. All
groups had approximately 45 minutes to solve each task.

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    During week one, Group 1 chatted online while Group 2 solved the
identical task in a typical face-to-face small group setting, and during week
two, the groups switched modes. This counterbalanced design was used to
minimize any experiential advantages one group may have gained. Thus,
no participant chatted online or solved the task face-to-face in consecutive
    The face-to-face conversations were held in a normal lecture room with
moveable desks so that the members of each group of four could sit facing
one another. After a short conversation warm-up task, the students were
given the task prompt. A hand-held audiocassette recorder was placed in
the center of each table, and recording started as each group began to discuss
the prompt.
    The setting for the online chat group was a computer lab, consisting
of three long double rows of computers, so that each computer user’s
easily accessible contacts were only the participants sitting at adjacent
computers. The computers were checked prior to the start of the session so
that all participants would be logged on correctly. Members of the same
small group were not placed in close proximity to one another. Since
participants used pseudonyms when chatting online, they may or may not
have known the identities of the actual members in their particular small
group. The groups engaged in online chat were also given a warm-up task,
after which they received the task prompt. The software program used
for the online sessions was the web-based L.E.C.S. (Language Educational
Chat System).5 The software dates and stores each chat session, so the
discourse the students produce during online chat sessions can be accessed
     Figure 1 is a sample of actual discourse from the study. In order to
follow the online discussion, one must read the entries from bottom to top.
This quickly becomes natural as the conversation progresses because the
most recent proposition always appears at the top.
    A week after the second task was carried out, a questionnaire was
administered to assess the procedure and students’ experiences of working
in each mode; 39 participants completed the questionnaire. It consisted of
the following questions, written in both English and Japanese:

1. Rate your experience working in the spoken conversation group.
   a. very unfavorable
   b. slightly unfavorable
   c. average
   d. slightly favorable
   e. very favorable
2. What did you like about discussing an issue in a spoken conversation
3. What did you dislike about discussing an issue in a spoken conversation

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Figure 1. Example of discourse in L.E.C.S.

4. Rate your experience working in the online electronic chat group.
   a. very unfavorable
   b. slightly unfavorable
   c. average
   d. slightly favorable
   e. very favorable
5. What did you like about discussing an issue in an online chat conversation
6. What did you dislike about discussing an issue in an online chat
   conversation group?
7. Which type of group communication do you prefer?
   a. spoken conversation
   b. online conversation
8. Explain your answer from Question 7:

All students chose to respond in Japanese. The responses were translated
into English by one of the researchers and a native speaker of Japanese
working at the university where the study took place.

Data Analysis

Of primary importance to this study are the results of the questionnaires
because they address, albeit indirectly, a student’s willingness to communicate.

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If student experiences are negative, we assert that this hampers willingness
to communicate, and if experiences are positive, this enhances willingness to
communicate. A total of 17 students considered the experience of solving
tasks using online chatting as slightly or very favorable, whereas only 8
students felt the same about using the face-to-face mode. At the unfavorable
end of the scale, 15 students viewed using the face-to-face mode for task
resolution as slightly or very unfavorable, while only 4 students viewed the
task as unfavorable using online chat.
    The remainder of the items included in the questionnaire deal primarily
with the factors behind students’ inclination to favor one medium over the
other and are qualitative in nature. The results of this qualitative analysis of
the questionnaires can be grouped into six themes or factors: anxiety, power,
control, confidence, sequence disorientation, and negotiation and discussion.
In the subsequent sections, we examine each of these more closely.

Anxiety factor

Interestingly, the most prevalent recurrent reasons that students gave for
their favorable rating of online chat can be tied to differences in the channel
of communication, namely that online chat allows users to communicate
with their interlocutors from a distant environment in a way that mimics
conversation but does not require quite the same immediacy. Here are some
of the comments made by students:

• I can state my ideas in a direct manner, and it’s easy to give my opinion.
• I couldn’t see the other people’s faces, so it was easy to talk.
• With chat you have time to think. I enjoyed chat in a different way
  from the face-to-face conversation. I didn’t feel very nervous and could
• I didn’t know who my partner was, so I could talk without worrying.
• We didn’t know who we were talking to, so I could write honestly what
  I thought.

These five comments all revolve around the idea that it is easier to
communicate in the target language in settings where one does not have
to face his or her conversation partners directly (there were a total of 19
participants who mentioned that their preference stemmed from not being
in a face-to-face setting).
    The proximal environment of face-to-face conversation can cause
tremendous anxiety, which has the potential to even interfere with a student’s
ability to retrieve already learned language and use it (Dörnyei 1994a;
Oxford and Shearin 1994; MacIntyre 1995). For language learners in this
study, these pressures were palpable (as can be seen in some answers to
Question 3):

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• People who could speak well talked a lot, so I couldn’t talk much.
• I had a hard time communicating with the second-year students that I
  met for the first time.
• It was difficult for me to share my opinion face-to-face with someone I
  met for the first time. The atmosphere wasn’t very good. I became very
  tense and couldn’t give my opinion freely.
• I was embarrassed to talk when we were looking at each other in the face.

A total of 12 comments focused on the difficulties of speaking to others
face-to-face in the target language. Face-to-face settings restrict freedom to
interact, in part because immediate interaction is a societal expectation of
interlocutors, and the potential for mistakes is high, both of which are
face-threatening (Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson 1974; Brown and Levinson
1978). Such face pressures are generally considered to be more acute in
Asian cultures where respectable adult members of society, sensitive to
evaluation by others, tend to proceed with hesitancy and caution whenever
there is the potential for making mistakes in the presence of others (Wen
and Clément 2003). On the other hand, students chatting online have neither
pressures of immediacy nor face pressures caused by making errors. While
online, students find themselves in the low-anxiety atmosphere that Dörnyei
(2001) and Horwitz, Horwitz and Cope (1991) suggest is fruitful and necessary
for maximum language production. The comfort allowed by online chat
opens a wider window of opportunity to participate. This is consistent
with existing research findings (Kelm 1992; Sullivan and Pratt 1996;
Freiermuth 2001b). Chatters could state their opinions freely in the target
language even with people they did not actually feel comfortable with in a
face-to-face setting. Instead of focusing on the pressure associated with
performing, students can focus on the task (Eveland and Bikson 1988; Sproull
and Kiesler 1991; Constant, Kiesler and Sproull 1994; Schumann 1998). Garton,
Haythornthwaite and Wellman (1997: 6) pinpoint the role that online chat
plays in reducing social barriers:

   CMC tends to underplay the social cues of participants by focusing on
   the content of the messages rather than on the attributes of senders and
   receivers. By reducing the impact of social cues, CMC supports a wider
   range of participants and participation.

   To sum up, online chat elicits a willingness to communicate because it
suspends, at least partially, the social rules that are found in face-to-
face settings. Students’ inabilities in the target language fade from the
users’ immediate focus; there is no social penalty for making an error; there
are no pronunciation problems to deal with; students instead can focus on
the task at hand. The result is that students can relax and attend to solving
the language exercise without embarrassment, as is reflected in these
comments to Question 8:

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• I felt no tension; I could express myself in sentences without feeling any pressure.
• It didn’t bother me to make mistakes when I couldn’t see others’ faces,
  and it was easier to talk.
• I can say anything, and I can think of how to express myself at my own pace.
• It’s easy to give our opinion if we aren’t face-to-face. It’s easier to express
  ourselves than when we are having a conversation.

Essentially, students’ self-image and social image are more easily protected
using online chat. This equates with a classroom where students are par-
ticipating in the target language unencumbered by socially cued anxieties,
so willingness to communicate is naturally enhanced.

Power factor

A second element that we can glean from these comments is that even when
there is a feeling of a power imbalance between participants using online chat,
it does not impinge upon their production (see Zuengler 1989). This was
not the case in the face-to-face environment. From the conversation group
members’ comments, clearly some first-year students felt quite uncomfortable
with second-year students, a fact that did not escape the notice of at least
some of second-year students. Compare these two comments:

• I was with first-year students, and they said nothing. I think it’s difficult
  for first-year students to talk when they are with second-year students.
• Even though I was doing chat with second-year students, it didn’t feel
  strange because I couldn’t see their faces. I could see the second-year
  students’ sentences and learn something from them.

It was interesting for us to learn that many of the first-year students actually
wanted to be in a group with second-year students as a way of improving
their language skills but did not necessarily feel comfortable in a face-to-face
environment with them. This is probably related to age differences and the
culturally fueled belief that your senpai (upper-classman) are in a position of
power, warranting respect and deference (Wen and Clément 2003). Such
comments from students are tantamount to an endorsement of online chat’s
ability to break down communication barriers in the classroom and increase
students’ willingness to communicate.

Control factor

Not all students had a negative experience in the face-to-face conversation
groups. A number of students preferred the face-to-face conversations, as
these comments indicate:

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Table 1. Number of words produced per mode

Group             Week 1                Week 1          Week 2            Week 2
                Face-to-Face             Chat         Face-to-Face         Chat

A                     47                                                    285
B                    111                                                    161
C                    346                                                    211
D                    287                                                    261
E                    114                                                    181
F                                         274             503
G                                         376              92
H                                         388             170
I                                         278             115

• I sometimes say what I think in English in class, but we seldom have the
  opportunity to exchange opinions and talk with many other people in
  English. This was fun.
• The second-year students were very nice people, so I enjoyed it.
• I was able to talk to many people in English. In my classes I end up using
• I had a conversation in English, so even though it was difficult, I got
  something out of it.

Although these comments point to the preferences certain students apparently
had for this mode, the researchers noted that a number of groups were
struggling during task resolution. For some groups this was evident as
measured by total output, but for other groups this was manifest in the lack
of participation by individual group members. Table 1 catalogues the number
of words that groups produced in each condition. Participants’ Japanese
dialogues were not included in these counts.
    Although word counts are not the only vital matters when considering
willingness to communicate (Varonis and Gass 1985; Porter 1986), obviously
some groups struggled in the face-to-face setting. The counts and percent-
ages from Table 1 indicate that only one group strongly favored conversa-
tion, Group F. However, if we examine the discourse output by F, we
can see that two of the members produced 94% of the spoken dialogue. The
other two members had a combined production of only 24 words. The
following chunk of discourse may help to shed some light on the reason
for this:

    T: How about Disney Sea?
    U: How about USJ?
    T: There are USJ, there is USJ in America . . . and I hear USJ in America
       is better than Japan’s.

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In this part of the interaction, which takes place very early in the conversation,
U has suggested that the group should consider taking the American
university students to USJ (Universal Studios Japan). This idea is promptly
quashed by T, who happens to be the dominant speaker in the group; U, on
the other hand, is not one of the dominant speakers. There is certainly no
reason to assume that any insensitivity was intended by T’s comment.
Nevertheless, from that point forward, the discussion becomes basically a
conversation between T and the other dominant speaker. Between them, all
of the decisions are made without any real input from the other two members
(see Freiermuth 1998, 2001a; Schwienhorst 2002). Hence, we cannot conclude
that all of the members demonstrated a willingness to communicate, despite
the group’s apparently overwhelming preference for conversation. This
provides further evidence that willingness to communicate is dependent
upon both the specific situation and the specific people involved in the
conversation (MacIntyre et al. 1998).
    In contrast, online chat provided an environment that effectively opened
up the floor to all of the members in Group F. Below is a sample of the
discourse (recall that the members choose their own pseudonyms):

   Cherry >    I want to go to America. How about you?
   purin >     I want to go Australia!!
   keito >     Babary, I would like to go for Australia because it’s summer.
   purin >     I hear that Australia is beautiful.
   Babary >    I don’t have part-time job. So I want to share the mony. how
               about do we share the mony the second way?
   keito >     I want to savings.
   purin >     Yes. Probably, I think travel expenses is left.
   Babary >    I think Australia is spring now. If Keito go to Australia in
               summer, we have better go to there in February.
   Babary >    Cherry, I hear that going to America is too expencive now.
   keito >     I went to Sydney on September. It was enough warm.
   Cherry >    Oh, I see. And now America is dangerous.

    The initial suggestion by Cherry (who is, incidentally, a non-producer from
the conversation phase) is rebuffed, but later Babary (who is a dominant
speaker in the conversation phase) successfully draws her back into the inter-
action by offering her an explanation. Freiermuth (2001a), in his study mixing
native and non-native speakers, found that this kind of reaching out by other
group members is not uncommon with groups engaged in online chat dis-
cussions. From a teacher’s angle, the upside is that more members have oppor-
tunities to be more productive language users when engaged in online chat.
This is illustrated by the following chunk of chat discourse from Group D:

   pino >     I tink it will be one of good memories.
   Japan >    It’s good! let’s go USJ.

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   Bird >      USJ is in Osaka. And Let’s go Kuidaore.
   pino >      And let’s eat Takoyaki!!
   Tom >       Takoyaki is nice!!
   Japan >     Oh! I want to eat Takoyaki!! It’s good idea.
   pino >      I’m looking forward to this trip.

There is balanced input by group members and real interest in solving the
task (if exclamation points are any indicator). From the tone of the dialogue,
it almost seems as if the students have actually decided to take the imaginary
trip. And it is important to note that this is not restricted to the group
represented in this discourse sample. The lowest producers in online chat
groups of four contributed approximately 12% of the total group output.
When we consider what occurred in the face-to-face conversation (i.e. two
contributors only managing 6% between them), we conclude that 12% pro-
duction constitutes a reasonable amount. It seems that online chat promotes
participation and consequently a willingness to communicate.

Confidence factor

Another issue related to willingness to communicate is actual or perceived
competence by language learners. A lack of confidence regarding competence
can be demotivating (MacIntyre et al. 1998). If we examine some of the
discourse examples and comments previously mentioned, as well as the
total output of specific groups using the spoken mode of communication,
we could deduce that not all of the learners were confident in their spoken
language proficiency. Certainly, some students exhibited a lack of willing-
ness to communicate. The researchers, and more importantly the students,
recognized this (cf. comments to Question 3):

• We had a hard time because no one gave any opinions. There were many
  times when it didn’t seem as though this was a discussion.
• I couldn’t speak very fluently. I thought I hadn’t developed the ability to talk.
• No one tried to start the conversation, so it was difficult to talk.
• I couldn’t say what I wanted to say in English.

    Overall, the students seem to like using English. Most of them had been
studying English for at least seven years;6 however, in general they have
learned English in a relatively passive setting – having a conversation in
English is not an everyday occurrence for them. As a result, many of them
reverted to Japanese to compensate for their weaknesses in their spoken
English (see Daly 1991). This problem is further complicated by the social
necessity to provide immediate feedback whenever someone speaks (Sacks,
Schegloff and Jefferson 1974). In most communicative classroom settings,
silence is uncomfortable for teachers as well as students. In such situations

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it is convenient and stress relieving for students to opt for their native
language. In the majority of Japanese universities, the English class is a
homogeneous group of learners, and the reliance on the native language can
become very troublesome. Here is a sample from the discourse highlighting
this problem:

   (whispering in Japanese until the second-counter reads 60)
   Y:      I want to travel abroad. How about you?
   T:      Me, too.
   Y:      I like to going to Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea.
   K:      I would like to go to Hokkaido.
   T:      Hokkaido, where? Sapporo, or Tomakomai, Kushiro?
   (discussion continues in Japanese until second-counter reads 100)
   Y:      What very much in the sea?
   K:      Friend live in there.
   Y:      Have you ever go to there?
   K/T: No
   Y:      Your friend moved?
   K:      My friend is letter friend.
   T:      What is the best plan?
   (whispering in Japanese until second-counter reads 148)

    In the conversational chunk above, there is apparently either a lot of
planning being done in Japanese or the students are for the most part
off-topic. We assume that the students are on-task but have chosen to rely
on their native language. In this group’s discussion, the students contributed
approximately one minute of spoken language in English but spoke in
Japanese for more than 13 minutes. The students recognized this as an
unfortunate aspect of spoken conversation in the target language, as can be
seen in answers to Questions 3 and 8:

• We spent more time speaking Japanese, and the English wasn’t really
  talking but more like just stringing English words together.
• We couldn’t speak in complete sentences, and we used a lot of Japanese.
• We ended up using Japanese.
• Although we had to talk in English, I gradually found myself having the
  discussion in Japanese.
• We couldn’t help speaking out in Japanese first, and we used many of
  the same phrases.
• If we are facing each other, we inevitably use Japanese.

Regardless of the source of the ‘problem’, some groups had trouble
completing the tasks using English. Perhaps with additional opportunities
students would learn to avoid heavy reliance on Japanese. And while some
L1 is inevitable and useful in the language-learning classroom, complete

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Willingness to communicate: can online chat help? w 203

reliance on the L1 can result in little language production in the target
language and can most definitely hamper willingness to communicate in the
L2. On the other hand, the L1 did not dominate the online chat interaction;
when some of these same students were engaged in online chat, they did not
use Japanese, except for the occasional food item or place-name.

Sequence disorientation factor

Up to this point, we have been extolling the virtue of chat to promote willing-
ness to communicate; however, we need to examine answers to Question 6
to identify any aspects that might effectively hinder a student’s willingness
to communicate in this mode. There were two primary complaints leveled
against chat by students. First, chat conversations were sometimes confusing
to the students, as these comments highlight:

• The conversation gets messed up. Sometimes it comes back to the
  beginning, but it seems more like people saying what they want to do
  rather than a discussion. Things were decided according to the flow of
  the conversation (rather than by mutual agreement).
• Sometimes the conversation didn’t mesh (people’s ideas didn’t fit together).
• The conversation was often mixed up.

   Lag time can result in contributions that appear out of sequence, as this
chunk of discourse illustrates:

   Hayato >      Have you ever stay Dizney Land official hotel?
   Emily >       We decide to take them to Disney Land and Dianey Sae.
   Hayato >      Yes!>Emily
   yama >        How long stay there??
   Hayato >      3 Days.>yama Everyone OK?
   Emily >       I think 2 or 3 days.
   Emily >       I think 3 day is OK!
   snow >        3 days, OK!! I have never stayed official hotel. I’d like to stay
   yama >        OK!!
   Emily >       Where do we take them after going Disney Land and Disney
   Hayato >      We are going to stay at Dezney Land official hotel.
   snow >        Thank you>Hayato
   Hayato >      I would like to go Kyoto and Nara.
   snow >        It is good idea! >hayato

We can see that when the topic switches from where to stay to what should be
done next, the lag time contributions interrupt the sequence of the discourse,

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making the conversation appear unordered (compared to spoken conversa-
tion). From all of the discourse samples we examined, this was probably the
most confusing. However, the students seemed able to manage the situation
quite well because the dialogue remains visible to the interlocutors. They
can simply look at earlier contributions from their peers to reorient themselves
to the most recent entry (they also can scroll down the screen to see what
occurred earlier in the conversation). Another strategy used by students to
overcome confusing entries is to either name the intended receiver or add
an arrow (>) to their contribution as a means of directing their comment to a
certain person. We can see both methods used in the previous discourse
example. Teachers using chat should be aware that students who are not
familiar with online chat will likely have more problems with issues like lag
time overlap, which can become especially problematic when large numbers
of chatters are involved in a discussion (see Herring 1999; Freiermuth 2002;
Cherny 1999; Simpson 2005).
    Lag time also has an upside, and students were cognizant of this, as
these comments to Question 5 indicate:

• I had time to think and time to use a dictionary.
• With chat you have time to think. I enjoyed chat in a different way from
  the face-to-face conversation. I didn’t feel very nervous and could relax.
• I could say anything because I didn’t see my partners’ faces, and I could
  have a discussion at my own pace without haste.

All in all, we felt that willingness to communicate was relatively unaffected
by problems related to text sequencing due to lag time.

The negotiation and discussion factor

The second complaint articulated by students concerned the trouble they
had coming to an agreement in the online mode:

• Everyone’s opinions were so far apart that it was all we could do to put
  our ideas together.
• We couldn’t reach an agreement.
• The four of us couldn’t agree till the very end.
• There were a lot of people with different opinions so we couldn’t come
  to a decision.
• It was difficult to come to a decision.

Although these comments perhaps show that Japanese learners prefer
agreement over disagreement (cf. Yang 1981), they also reveal that actual
discussion was taking place online, which was not consistently the case in
the face-to-face interactions.

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Willingness to communicate: can online chat help? w 205

Table 2. Discussion element in each mode

Group          Spoken          Chat         Spoken Elements       Chat Elements
                                              /Total Words        / Total Words

A                  2             27                   0.043            0.056
B                 14             16                   0.126            0.099
C                 22              4                   0.064            0.019
D                 15             15                   0.052            0.057
E                  5             10                   0.044            0.055
F                 20             16                   0.040            0.058
G                  0             22                   0.000            0.059
H                  7             38                   0.041            0.098
I                  1             25                   0.006            0.090

    To investigate these student complaints in more detail, we developed a
measurement using Porter’s (1986) input tool as a model and looked at the
frequency of use of English language elements that we would expect to be
present during a discussion. The following elements were counted:

• the use of ‘OK’ as means of indicating agreement
• the use of ‘agree’ as a means of indicating agreement or disagreement
• the use of ‘too’ in instances where this would show agreement
• the use of ‘idea’ where this would indicate agreement or disagreement
  (i.e. ‘That’s a good idea.’)
• the use of ‘how about’ as a means of offering a suggestion
• the use of ‘think’ as a means of offering a suggestion (primarily as in ‘I
  think . . .’)
• the use of open-ended questions that are aimed at task resolution.7

These discussion elements were then counted and calculated as an overall
percentage of the total words used during task resolution. The results are
shown in Table 2.
    What should not be overlooked is that in all cases but one, within online
chat groups these discussion elements comprised at least 5.5% of the total. For
Group C, this was not the case, and clearly they used more discussion elements
in the oral mode than they did in the online setting (6.4% compared to 1.9%).
However, in seven of the remaining eight groups, more negotiation took place
in the online chat groups. In other words, online chat consistently facilitated
more of the kind of ‘give and take’ leading to decisions that are forged through
negotiation. Hence, we believe that online chat may encourage expanded dis-
cussions because learners can express their reservations about others’ ideas
more freely, which is the equivalent of saying that it enhances willingness to
communicate. This supposition warrants a much more thorough investigation,
but this pilot analysis is, nevertheless, promising (cf. Schwienhorst 2004).

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The post-test questionnaire data and the discourse produced by students
indicate that students were more willing to communicate online. Before
looking at some final student comments, it is interesting to reflect on the
overwhelming preference by students for solving the tasks using online chat.
Most of the second-year students in this study had used chat in the past
during their computer-assisted language learning (CALL) English class
(as freshmen), and most of the first-year students were using online chat
on a regular basis in their CALL English class. Although students had
experience using chat, it seems as if their interest in online chat had not
waned over time; the same cannot be said about a myriad of other
technological language-learning tools. Perhaps the use of computers to
communicate in a synchronous manner remains attractive inasmuch as it is
not the everyday means of conversing, and it never becomes the main way
in which students communicate in their daily school activities (Schumann
1998). If online chat tasks manage to retain their novelty effect because of the
computer-mediated environment, there is no reason not to believe that chat
will remain attractive to learners. And we believe that it is this attractiveness
of solving tasks using online chat that promotes students’ willingness to
communicate. This notion may explain one student’s comment: “I like chat.
Somehow, it is interesting.” Here are some other comments made by students:

• It was the first time I used chat in English, so it was fun.
• It was a written conversation, so it was more enjoyable than talking with
  your mouth.
• It was fun because we couldn’t see each other’s face.
• It’s fun communicating by e-mail.
• It was the first time I did this since I was a first-year student, so I enjoyed it.
• The conversation was smoother and livelier than in a face-to-face
  conversation. It was fun.

Overall, students seemed to prefer using chat because it was an enjoyable
way to communicate. And tasks that are enjoyable tend to increase students’
intrinsic motivation (Malone 1981; Malone and Lepper 1987; Lepper 1998;
Lepper and Cordova 1992; Cordova and Lepper 1996; Inyengar and Lepper
1999, 2000). In this pleasant atmosphere, most students could relax and
produce more ‘conversation-like’ language. The online software provided
students with a platform where they could engage one another in real convers-
ations, where meaning could be negotiated in the absence of some of the
effects that inhibit communication in face-to-face conversation (Varonis and
Gass 1985; Porter 1986). We suggest that this kind of congenial environment
of ‘give and take’ also bolsters students’ willingness to communicate.
    Despite these positive results, these data represent only one session
of chatting for each group. Although there are indications that students’

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Willingness to communicate: can online chat help? w 207

willingness to communicate using online chat is a sustainable phenomenon,
we are unaware of any longitudinal studies of a linguistic nature (see Chun
1994). We would also like to point out that the fact that participants in this
study are Japanese females undoubtedly has an effect on willingness to
communicate (see especially Warschauer 1996; Freiermuth 2001a). Finally,
the findings in this study were not intended to disparage the use of conversa-
tion tasks in the classroom (cf. Kremers 1993); rather, they are intended to
emphasize some of the merits of online chat for students’ willingness to
communicate, and to show that chat continues to be a useful tool in the
language lab. Overall, online chat enhanced interaction and opportunities to
interact, both of which are considered aspects of successful applications of
technology (Chapelle 2001).
    We recognize that online chat and face-to-face conversation are different
in many ways (but surprisingly similar in others) (see Werry 1996; Yates
1996; Freiermuth 2001b). Conversation includes the physiological move-
ments necessary to produce sound, while online chat requires keyboarding;
conversation demands relatively immediate responses by interlocutors, while
chat offers users a little bit of lag time; conversation requires co-presence
of participants, while chatters can be in different places across the globe;
conversation expects relatively sequentially organized turns, while chat can
proceed with overlapping turns; and conversation generally requires a face-
to-face setting, while chat requires a face-to-monitor setting (Kelm 1992;
Cherny 1999; Simpson 2005). We would be remiss to ignore these differences,
because undoubtedly they played a significant role in the reactions of the
Japanese students who used online chat in this study.
    Willingness to communicate is a fundamental element of successful L2
interaction and is therefore a vital part of the language-learning classroom.
Teachers need to consider how they can provide the best environment to
promote students’ willingness to interact in the L2. Using online chat in the
classroom reduces social constraints and reconfigures the way students
interact in the L2, giving more learners more opportunities and effectively
enhancing students’ willingness to communicate.


1. The authors would like to acknowledge and thank the referees who provided us
   with a number of useful comments on an earlier draft. We would also like to
   thank James Simpson for his helpful comments. And finally, we wish to tip our
   hats to Peter MacIntyre for his gracious efforts. His thorough examination and
   comments on an earlier version of this work proved invaluable.
2. The research comparing spoken texts with written texts has played an integral
   part in distinguishing speaking from writing (see especially Halliday 1985; Chafe
   and Danielewicz 1987). Nevertheless, by cataloguing characteristic features of online
   chat using the model proposed by Chafe and Danielewicz, distinctive features of

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208 w Mark Freiermuth and Douglas Jarrell

     chat appear, making it difficult to categorize it as either writing or speaking.
     Freiermuth (2001b) discusses this issue in detail, highlighting the distinctive features
     of chat (see also Crystal 2001; Weininger and Shield 2003).
3.   All of these studies used a LAN (local area network) rather than an Internet chat
4.   One group had only two members return for the second week; one group had a
     technical problem in the computer lab, and one group included five members due
     to an inadvertent error made by the researchers when setting up the online chat
     groups during the first week.
5.   L.E.C.S. is free software created for language teachers by Taoka Harada and
     Tomohiro Yasuda of Kanto Gakuin University (with help from Judith DeRolf ).
     Features of L.E.C.S. that teachers may find valuable are that it that allows teachers
     to effectively control group size, tracks consistent language errors, tracks students’
     word frequencies, and can look at students’ collocations. See http://home.kanto-
6.   The majority of first- and second-year university students would have studied
     English for seven or eight years.
7.   The use of forced-choice questions was not included here because, although the
     purpose may be to help solve a task, there is also a possibility that such questions
     are being used by a dominant member to coerce less forceful members to agree.
     Freiermuth (2001a) discusses this issue in more detail.


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