Internet and Interculture. #61 #cong14

By Joe Kearns.

Do young people of today get less from an overseas experience than the generation before the Internet and the arrival of social media?

To talk about this I need to use two examples. 

When I was a student I spent a lot of time in France and at one point studied French there for about three months – this was the early 80’s. At that time if I wanted to phone home I had to go the post office and wait for a ‘Cabine’. This was a phone box in the post office which one got access to after paying for a token to make the International call. It was expensive so I phoned home at most every few weeks – maybe even less than once a month. I wrote home when I could but that took some effort. 

The end result of all this was that I was immersed in the world of the friends I made in Lyon, speaking French and experiencing life there. I should add that the ancient TV I had only showed French channels.

Next I spent two years in Ethiopia from 1983 to 1985. During my time there I made two phone calls home – at Christmas. I wrote more often to friends and family – for many reasons but mainly to relate my experiences.

Now fast forward to about 2010 and my nephew going to France for a university term to help improve his French and get to know France and something of the legal system there.  He left a girlfriend back in the UK and so when he was in France he talked to her on Skype most days. He had a mobile phone with a local SIM card so could make cheap calls home as he wished. He was also on Twitter and Facebook. To contrast further his experience with that of mine, he could even afford to fly home twice for week-end parties during his 3 months!  How much that has to do with the age of social media is a topic for another day.

So, did the access to social media and technology enhance or take away from the experience? A superficial look might say his experience could not have been as deep as mine but I think it is more subtle and complex than that. 

I will focus on looking at both of our experiences in France, my Ethiopian experience has many facets to it beyond the discussion here. Suffice to say things have changed dramatically form 1983!

I have little doubt, that by one measure, how much French was learned, my experience in the 80’s was far more effective on that score than that of my nephew’s. I came home in 1982 speaking extremely competent French but I don’t believe my nephew reached anywhere near my level.  Given my experience teaching English as a foreign language I know that the more access students have to their mother tongue the more slowly they will learn English. I believe my nephew’s access to social media and its attendant use of English, plus his use of English as a medium for general Internet use, interfered with his absorption of French.

There is a more insidious negative, which is borne out in studies, and that is the capacity of modern students to get over the initial ‘downer’ of moving to another country. Almost everyone who goes to live in another country experiences an initial elation due to the excitement of the change and the novelty of their new life. They then, usually after a few weeks, maybe as little as one depending on circumstances, they go through a ‘downer’ when they often had feelings of loneliness, frustration, confusion, homesickness and more - and often want to go home.  The best advice is to stick that period out and you most people come out the other side to enjoy their new country.  Sometimes that transformation is so profound that people get to love their new life and country more than their place of origin! The return to a previous existence can be harder than the original move to the ‘foreign’ land.

It seems that the ‘tether’ of social media to the home country and life makes that ‘downer’ period longer and harder to get through. It seems that results in more students not completing their overseas assignment that in the pre-internet days. 

But let’s take a more positive viewpoint.  When students go to live abroad today the Internet allows them to learn quickly about their new life, food, customs, history and more. Most importantly about the culture. It can also give access to locals who can enhance the experience. Internet tools and social media can enrich knowledge and understanding of the new country and most importantly create avenues to maintain contacts and learning after the return home.

In the end I believe the critical factor will be the enthusiasm of the student to learn from the overseas experience and the extent to which they understand the advantages and disadvantages of their immersion in Social Media.

CongRegation © Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie