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Working/Learning Carnival--September 2008 Edition

In Another Country

My older daughter, Jess, left on Monday for her semester abroad in Paris. A few days ago we met in iChat (video!) so she could "show me around her apartment" (i.e., lug her laptop from room to room as she narrated what was on screen) and I could hear about how things are going so far.

In hearing her talk about her first experiences living among strangers in a country where they speak a language in which she is not fluent, I could see so many parallels to learning to use social media.

New Language--Jess has taken French for 7 years, but is by no means fluent. The other day she went to the grocery store, she told me, and was totally flummoxed by which face wash to buy. While she can obviously tell the difference between a box of cereal and a gallon of milk, figuring out the differences between two different kinds of cereal isn't easy.

This is what it's like for people who are new to web 2.0--What's RSS? And even if I know RSS, what's the difference between RSS 1.0, RSS 2.0 and Atom? The language is strange and often confusing. Words mean nothing or what we think they mean is something else all together.

New Behaviors and Customs-While Jess and her roommate were at the store, they witnessed a customer and a store clerk in a screaming match during which the clerk called the customer a name (in French) that I can't even type here. As the customer walked out of the store, the clerk threw a bottle of water at the customer's back and then calmly returned to work. The manager said nothing and the other customers, while interested in the exchange, seemed unperturbed. Jess, on the other hand, was completely appalled.

Jess told me that she's having all kinds of experiences like this where behaviors that she considers "normal," are not and where behaviors like what happened in the grocery store are completely unremarkable. It's making her a little nervous, she told me--she's not sure how she should behave in different situations.

I couldn't help thinking about how many people online experience the same feeling. What do you say in comments? What's considered rude? What's "acceptable"?

A Different Sense of History--As Americans, WWII is a distant memory or something we've seen only in history books. 9/11 is about as far back as we go in thinking about national tragedies. But in a country like France, the War is still a presence. While Paris is very modern, of course, Jess says that there's still a deep sense of history that is giving her a different perspective on things.

Thinking about this in online social media terms, the Web is a different place for people who have been blogging for several years compared to those who are coming later. This means that we each come with different ideas for context and culture that can sometimes be at odds, particularly if we aren't each sensitive to the others' point of view.

You're a Total Beginner--What really struck me in my conversation with Jess was something one of her advisers told them. At home, these kids are used to being smart and articulate, able to more than hold their own in discussions. But in France, they are total beginners. Expressing complex ideas is virtually impossible--they don't have the skills for it--so they are left in a perpetual situation of feeling "stupid," something they've usually not experienced before. This is killing her, my daughter the perfectionist, and it reminded me of how many smart competent people come online, only to find that online, they are back to being beginners, people who don't have all the answers and, therefore, feel "dumb." This is probably one of the greatest barriers for people who don't want to put themselves in situations where they are less than totally competent. It's scary.  I understand this.

As I'm watching Jess navigate her way through a new country with a different language and different customs, I'm staying alert to how what she's learning can help me understand how people new to social media must feel during their first forays online. It's all new and all hard to get through. Compassion is in order, as well as support to get through the difficulties.


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I think that one factor in why younger people learn languages quickly is that they are not afraid of making mistakes. Accepting that you're "noob", and feeling comfortable about, would help in learning about this Web stuff. I still ask lots of stupid questions and many of my techie friends are quite helpful.

Having learned another language as an adult, I know only too well what a pain it is when you can only engage in conversations at a kindergarten level. I also think that many people who speak more than one language are more forgiving with others who are still learning.

I have been in your daughter's situation at least 5 times in my life (first as an exchange student, then as a worker). Each time gets easier as you get over the "boy, was that stupid!" feeling in everything you do.

Perhaps it is that experience which allows me to jump into anything, observe, try things out, step back and reflect, then try again. And the most important thing is to have a sense of humor. Sending out my first e-mail to the whole campus can be just as amusing as telling the Attorney General of Costa Rica's wife that I had the "old man's ticket" (tiqueta de viajo) instead of the travel ticket (tiqueta de vieja).

Eventually, I learn just to be open to anything and try not to be frustrated. To extend your metaphor, I also learn not only the language, but the communicative customs, manners, etc... to any new technology. However, I sometimes wonder if I will ever have a total sense of belonging if I come to the technology late (i.e. facebook I feel an outsider, Wikis and powerpoint I feel an insider as I know more about it than new learners). Also, I do better being in the technology, manipulating it, then learning about it in class. This is how I am with languages also.

I'm an italian guy in my 30's and I'm living in Dublin, Ireland, for almost 5 years now.

I think that living abroad can be a great experience if you take it the right way.

However, at the very bottom, it's up to us to turn challenges into learning opportunities.

For instance, when I moved to Ireland from Italy I wasn't able to have an "intelligent" conversation in English. I could have got easily demotivated. I took the challenge instead and managed to get to be fluent.

I mixed with people from different nationalities and litterally got out of my little comfort zone every day.

In these years not only I improved my english, but I also managed to learn spoken Spanish and Portuguese, because of the people I used to hang out with. Because of the urge to communicate at a deeper level and because I'm a learning freak :-)

I went to study in college and got a learning & development qualification, got a job as a learning & development professional, etc...

As I said, I could have felt demotivated, I could have complained about the weather, about the food, about the Irish drinking culture. But ultimately it would only have been an excuse with myself, to justify my "laziness".

Looking back at 5 years ago, the truth is, if I had given up, I would not have achieved all this.

Living abroad ultimately put me in a learning mood. I feel more open, receptive, flexible and aware of the diversities.

And yes, Harold, not only I feel more forgiving with whom is still learning, but I also like to idea of helping others learn what I know :-)

It's a little bit like using social media and web 2.0 tools. It just broadened my perspectives and also my knowledge. In the same way, I love to help people learn about web 2.0 (espacially at work)

On the other side, there are people of different nationalities living in Dublin, who either don't speak English, or just speak two or three words, despite having lived here for a long time. And how many foreign students I have met when I lived in Rome, who didn't even care about tasting the local food, learning the language or even the culture?

Again, there are many people who don't care about web 2.0 and social media. It's just another mindset, another view.

Again, it's up to us to turn the challenges into learning opportunities. And sometimes by going beyond our barriers, we unlock some potential that we didn't even know we had.

Sorry Michele for the novel-long comment, it's just that your post was very relevant, and made me reflect upon my own experience.

Dear Michele,

Your posts are always so interesting. By reading your words I could also see another feeling. The feeling a mother has seeing her child struggle . I´ve been an exchange student twice, once in France and the other in the US and I can image what your daughter is feeling. But I can also imagine what you´re feeling. Next year, my own daughter is going to have her first experience abroad as an exchange student and we sometimes want to protect them so much that seeing them go away makes us helpless.
Something important I´ve learned is that you learn a lot getting out of your comfort zone, you review lots of your models seeing that people in various parts of the world see things differently. It´s one of the most enriching experiences I´ve had. When it comes to technology, it´s the same, you can only learn being a beginner some day. So, let´s learn to be humble and learn with each other.

"When it comes to technology, it´s the same, you can only learn being a beginner some day. So, let´s learn to be humble and learn with each other."

Something Emanuale and Ana Maria said made me remember something further about the exchange student experience. I think it has made me a better teacher as I can understand where the student is coming from. I know how hard it is to be out of your comfort zone and the fear of failure as a student. I try to set up my classroom so students will take risks (try things out and maybe bomb at doing things)but to learn from those mistakes (creating learning opportunities as Emanuale says).

I also know that I don't know everything, so I will often work through problems with my students, making sure activity I design has flexibility to react to unforeseen situations. For the most part, my students hate this in the beginning as they want to know what the "right" way is. But as we work with these new technologies, they see the potential to use them in very different ways, not necessarily the "right way" as defined by the teacher (or someone in ITS).

Thanks for all your great comments, everyone! Harold, I think you're right that people are very forgiving when someone is learning a new language, although I wonder if the same could be said for learning the language of using social media. I can see where entering some communities online would be difficult as they seem less welcoming.

Virginia, your experiences are making me wonder if having an experience in another country shouldn't be something of a pre-requisite for teachers. It seems that there's so much you can learn about what it feels like to be a beginner that could be carried over into the teaching/learning experience.

Emanuele--thank you for sharing your all of your experiences. One thing that strikes me is how you've taken hold of each move as an opportunity to learn more, which is something that, unfortunately isn't true of everyone. I wish we could bottle and sell that openness to learning! :-)

And Ana Maria, you're right that there was something in that post of wanting to protect my daughter from some of the discomfort she's experiencing right now. We always hate to see our children struggle, even when we know that it's good for them. In some ways I'm glad that this is happening so far away where I can't do much to help other than listen and offer advice now and then. Much less temptation that way! :-) Good luck next year with your daughter--it's definitely a process of letting go, isn't it?

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