The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #13 January / February 2015
Chatting in Languages Online
Part 1: Text Chats
by Erik Zidowecki
January / February 2015 | 

To truly gain fluency in a language, a person needs to actually use that language with other people. In traditional classes, that was normally only possible with other classmates. Unless you had other people in your family or neighbourhood who also spoke it, you had a hard time practising the conversational aspect. You might establish a penpal relationship, in which you could write letters to individuals in other countries, but that meant waiting for days and weeks between practice sessions, which was certainly not the same as a discussion.

The advent of the internet changed all that, however. It not only has given people a way of getting information from all over the world, it has given them a means to communicate freely with people of all races and ethnicity. It allows the students of a German class to actually talk to other German students around the world as well as native Germans, often without even leaving their house.

First, people could use electronic letters and get responses back in hours, sometimes minutes. Public forums, which gave learners a chance to post messages and receive answers in many languages also became prevalent, allowing for rapid feedback on their progress.

The real innovation, however, came in the form of real-time chats in which any number of people that were online at the same time could write something and have a reply instantly, like a face-to-face conversation. The only thing this lacked was the physical presence of the person.


All it takes is a computer, the internet, and some effort, and you can practise language with people around the world.

One of the first and certainly the most popular widely used text chats is the Internet Relay Chat, or IRC. It is a system that is run on various computers called servers over the internet, allowing for people from all parts of the globe to connect. It normally requires a person to download a program, called a client, to connect. However, there are now web page based applications, called gateways, that allow people to get into the IRC without any other software being installed.

The IRC is actually a series of several interconnected servers sharing the same setup, creating multiple IRC networks. Each network is maintained by a group of administrators. These networks contain several chat areas, called channels, in which people can gather for discussing particular topics. Most networks allow people to make and moderate their own channels. Think of the IRC as a city, and each network is a single building. In that building, each room is a place for people to meet and talk. Now, imagine that the number of buildings is largely unlimited, as is the number of rooms each can contain, and you can appreciate just how powerful the IRC can be as a means of broad communications. Moreover, since the most basic chat system is all text, even the least advanced computer is likely to be able to join.

I first started using the IRC when in college, before the web was created. The World Wide Web (WWW) is the graphical interface that sits on the internet. Before that, the common method of using the internet was using terminals (essentially, keyboards and monitors that were linked into a large, singular computer called a mainframe). We used it to communicate with other parts of the campus as well as other universities. At that time, most people used it for playing adventure games. It began to show its real power during the Gulf War, when it was used to give updates instantly from those close to the action without having to go through the conventional media. It was also a major component in getting out information during the attempted Soviet coup attempt in 1991 during a media blackout. Now, we look to Twitter and Facebook to fill those roles, but it first started with the IRC.

Practise in Text Chat

We now have the power to talk to people in the local coffee shop, or on the other side of the world.

Many places over various networks of the IRC have been created over the years. Many of these are open channels for practising many languages as well as discussing learning languages in general. Specific channels, allowing the people in those to focus on a single language, have also become commonplace. These allow people at all levels of study to participate and help each other. In this way, they are providing the groups of learners that were normally reserved for traditional classes. An added bonus is that these channels never close; people can use them at any time, regardless of time zones and locality. Enter into one whenever you have a chance and instantly be able to converse with someone in you language of study.

The IRC is not the only place to have text chats now. As the browser interfaces became more powerful, it was possible to create software based chats on individual websites. This has the positive aspect of keeping more control over the chat situation, such as only allowing members of website to join. It also has the downside of possibly using a lot of a website resources and not being as accessible to as many people. For example, having an IRC based chat makes it easy for people to find and join, while a web based chat will likely require people to find the site and become a member before they can talk to others.

Using a text chat can not only help you in learning a language by talking with others, but it can also help you meet people in other cultures and learn more about the world in general. I have also personally met a number of people in "real life" that I had only previously talked to via the IRC. Some of these became very strong friendships that never would have happened without access to such a communication tool.


Trolls are people that just like to stir up trouble. The best thing is to ignore them.

However, just like any other gathering of people, you are going to meet people that are there to cause problems, maybe even become abusive. These are commonly referred to as "trolls", and if allowed to disrupt the channel for too long, they will drive users away. Over the years, I have had to deal with many trolls, and it is never an easy situation. While you do not want to restrict people's interactions, some level of civility has to be maintained, and that falls to the administrators. Sometimes, when a person who is being disrupted is reprimanded or even removed, other members may get angry, not at the individual but at the moderator who removed them. These protesting members would like to believe that everyone will just get along nicely without any kind of intervention. Oddly enough, they are likely to change their mind if a troll directly goes after them.


There are other language related issues that can affect a chat. One complaint I have heard in a few different multilingual chats is the way a certain language will sometimes dominate the channel. I am not referring to English, which is normally the common language that most users change. There will sometimes be a group of people that either all come from the same country, all are learning a specific language, or a combination of those, which will seem to take over. For example, in one chat, it was common for Dutch speakers to all start speaking Dutch at once, making those who did not speak it feel left out. This caused a backlash against Dutch itself by some.

When everyone else is speaking a language you don't understand, you feel like completely out of place and isolated.

You would think that this sort of activity would actually make people excited. After all, is not this what language learning really is about: being able to come together as a group and all start speaking the same language with each other? That is what these language channels are created for and it is encouraged that you speak whatever you want. Sadly, though, some of those people that did not understand it felt imposed upon. It was common enough for a few people to start speaking the same language in a channel, just that when it reached a certain number of speakers that the complaints would begin to come. This is something I have never really understood myself, because it seems rather petty. After all, if the languages was one that the complainers knew, they would be enjoying the big conversation like everyone else and would be offended that someone did not like them doing it.

Tongue Envy

Now, imagine that the number of buildings is largely unlimited, as is the number of rooms each can contain, and you can appreciate just how powerful the IRC can be as a means of broad communications.

Another problem is related to the people who know a great number of languages, normally referred to as hyperpolyglots. When a new person joins the chat, they are usually instantly asked what languages they know and what languages they are studying. This is normally a positive situation, with a few people perking up at the list and perhaps even attempting to speak in one of those languages to the new person. The problem can arise if someone feels threatened by this new person's list. The member might feel they need to challenge the person publicly and, if they doubt their abilities, may start to speak these doubts to other members of the chat, while the new person is present or when they are absent. Like any other accomplishment, language enthusiast can be impressed and inspired by another person's abilities or feel themselves inadequate by comparison. Even if this does not happen immediately, it is a feeling that can poison the atmosphere of any group, often leading to an eventual confrontation.

One example I can give of this is when a female joined a multilingual chat and told everyone how many languages she knew. For most there, she became something like a demigod; they doted on her and treated her very well. She was even made a moderator of the channel, so great was this awe of her abilities.

I did not pay much attention to this situation because I had other things I was focusing on until one member of the chat spoke to me privately. I was told that some people doubted this woman's abilities, and that when she used some of the languages she knew, she made some mistakes.

Now, "knowing" a language does not mean you are a fluent speaker, nor does it mean you will never make a mistake. Most people make mistakes when using their native language at one point or another. And of course, there was no rule in the chat that a person had to speak all languages they claimed to know fluently. If that were the case, most of the chatters would be in violation. I did not get complaints from any other members regarding this, but to me, this was obviously a case of "tongue envy".

The Loner

Even in a chat room full of talkers, a loner can seem to be lost in space.

A third situation I have seen a few times is when there is a chatter who only speaks one specific language, and it is not English. This person can speak some English, but rarely does so. This is not a problem; many people do not feel confident enough in English, which is one reason they come to the chats: they wish to improve their English speaking capabilities.

What can happen is that there may be only one or two other people that this singular speaker will converse with. When those people are not in the channel, the singular speaker never speaks.

This should not be a problem, but some people do get frustrated. They may feel that this person should be more willing to interact with other chatters. This tension is escalated if the singular language used is one that few others know, leading to the feelings of being left out again. Here is a person that seems to only have "secret" conversations with a few certain people. While it isolates that member, it makes others uncomfortable.


The lurkers are the ones that rarely, if ever, speak in a chat, yet seem to be always there. They lurk in the shadows.

There is a more general chat issue that occurs when there are a number of people in a channel that rarely or never interact with anyone else. They are in their all the time but do not contribute to the channel. These individuals are called "lurkers".

Lurkers affect the morality of a channel in different ways. They might upset some people since they appear to be zombies: lifeless, but still there. Soulless bodies. If you focus on them, they can begin to really disturb you, like standing in a party with only a few people talking, the rest just staring out into space. Creepy!

On the other hand, lurkers can also make a channel seem more full of people, and thus giving chatters a sense of a larger community and thus making them feel more at home. They envision the large party but ignore that many are not active. They are too busy talking with those who are involved.

What are lurkers there for? Many like being able to read the chat, either while they are doing other thing or at a later time if they are logging what is said. They do not want to participate for whatever reason, but do like being part of it in this way. Some actually sit in many channels at the same time for this reason, so while they might be a lurker in one channel, they might be active in another. Some lurkers never say anything or even leave the channel. They remain mysteries to everyone.

These are some of the issues that must be taken into consideration when planning to practise your new language in a text chat online. Some are applicable to much of basic communication online, and they also can play a part in using voice chat systems as well. I will talk about voice chats in the second part of this article in the next issue.

Chatting in Languages Online - Text Chats
Writer: Erik Zidowecki
Petey: Keyboard (title); typing hands; laptops and coffee; troll; gummy bears; typing on laptop; shadowy lurker

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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