Vera Lúcia Menezes de Oliveira e Paiva

Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais


E-mail has affected every aspect of human communication, from dating to conducting war…

(Sonia Arrison, director of the Pacific Research Institute)



This article examines the role of e-mail in the acquisition of English as a foreign language in the light of second language acquisition theories. Suggestions for integrating e-mail in the classroom and the judicious use of the genre are outlined before the presentation of some tools, such as discussion lists and forum. In addition, this paper presents a review of international e-mail projects available on the net, in order to give support to the conclusion that electronic interaction is an efficient tool to promote language acquisition in a foreign language-learning context.

Key words: e-mail; language acquisition; interaction



Este artigo examina o papel do correio eletrônico, ou e-mail, na aquisição de inglês como língua estrangeira à luz de teorias de aquisição de segunda língua. Serão apresentadas sugestões para se integrar, adequadamente, o uso do correio eletrônico em sala de aula e ainda algumas ferramentas, tais como lista de discussão e fórum. Além disso, o trabalho faz uma revisão de alguns projetos internacionais que utilizam o e-mail e que estão disponíveis na Internet, comprovando que a interação eletrônica é um instrumento eficiente para promover a aquisição de língua em um contexto de aprendizagem de língua estrangeira.

Palavras chaves: correio eletrônico; aquisição de línguas; interação

E-mail, the fastest way to send and receive electronic messages anywhere in the world, has affected human communication and opened new windows for second language acquisition (SLA). E-mail users connect themselves through a mail server, that is, a computer, which works as a post office at an Internet provider, sending one’s messages to their destinations and receiving and storing messages which will be sent to their owners when required. There are some Internet providers free of charge and most of them are web-based, which means that users must connect to the World Wide Web to read their messages. The different e-mail services have enabled people all over the world to communicate, making intercultural communication a reality.

Acquisition theories

As pointed out by Kelm (1996) "our major objective in second language education continues to be that of bringing individuals together so that they might communicate across cultural and linguistic boundaries" (p. 19). My contention is that e-mail is a unique tool for bridging the gap between English learners and English speakers.

The increasing use of e-mail in second language learning must be viewed in the light of second language acquisition theories. Different theories have claimed to explain how a language, different from one’s mother tongue, is acquired.

Larsen-Freeman and Long (1991) divide SLA theories into three groups: nativist, environmentalists, and interactionist. According to those authors, "nativist theories are those which purport to explain acquisition by posting an innate biological endowment that makes learning possible" (p.227). On the other hand, "environmentalist theories of learning hold that an organism’s nurture or experience, are of more importance to development than its nature, or innate contributions" (p.249), and interactionist theories "invoke both innate and environmental factors to explain language learning" (p.266).

According to Larsen-Freeman and Long (1991), theories of SLA range along a continuum from nativist through interactionist to environmentalist. They differ, in other words, in the relative importance they attach to innate mechanisms and knowledge, to interactions among innate abilities, learned abilities and environmental factors, and to experientially conditioned learner characteristics and the linguistic input. (p. 226)

Although there are, according to Larsen-Freeman and Long (1991), at least forty theories of SLA (p. 227), none has been regarded as satisfactory enough to account for how second languages are learned. Nevertheless, there seem to be certain assumptions that have been accepted by experts in second language teaching. They are:

1. Nativist assumptions:

The existence of language universals. Ellis (1997) highlights the importance of Chomsky´s theory of Universal Grammar for SLA, "a set of highly abstract principles that provide parameters which are given particular settings in different languages" (p. 65). Learning is a cognitive process. As pointed out by Gass & Selinker (1994), it is essential to view "the learner as an active participant in the learning process and as a language creator" (p.79). Input is a key factor in language acquisition. Krashen (1985) states that "humans acquire language in only one way — by understanding messages, or by receiving ‘comprehensible input’…"(p. 2). Although many researchers criticize Krashen’s theory, no one denies the central importance of input in the acquisition process.

2. Environmentalist assumption:

The closer a person is of the target-language group the more he or she will learn. According to McLaughlin (1987), "social and psychological distance influence second-language acquisition by determining the amount of contact learners have with the target language and the degree to which they are open to the input that is available" (p. 111).

3. Interactionist assumption:

Interaction is essential to language learning. Hatch (1978) says that "one learns how to do conversation, one learns how to interact verbally, and out of this interaction syntactic structures are developed" (p .404). Even though, the basic assumption in second teaching has been the opposite – one learns structures and then uses them in discourse – no one doubts that verbal interaction is an important factor in language acquisition.

But to what extent has the Internet been a useful tool as far as the learning of a new language is concerned? It seems it fits any of the theories described above as the learner can use meaningful language and keep close contact with the target-language group, while interacting with native speakers or other language learners.

E-mail and language acquisition

E-mail has had a huge impact on education, mainly in foreign language learning where opportunities to interact with speakers of the target language were hardly found before the Internet creation. Although most students have free e-mail accounts, more and more schools today offer Internet access to their students. Unfortunately, less privileged students are still apart from this efficient communication technology, but I think we can hope that, in the near future, every student will have access to the Internet tools.

Several Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) researchers have reported the benefits of using e-mail in EFL. Warschauer (1995, p. 2) states that

e-mail provides students an excellent opportunity for real, natural communication. Many of our students – often even those living or studying in English-speaking countries – lack sufficient opportunities for communicating in English. E-mail can put students in contact with native speakers and/or other learners across town or around the world in minutes and provide the authentic contexts and motivations for communication that teachers are always trying to supply.

Bosswood (1997) reminds his readers that "conferencing via e-mail, or communication with the classmates and teachers through networked computers, offers many opportunities for language learning" (p. 71). Windatt et al (2000) claim that "as a means of communication, the Internet allows students around the world to interact with one another cheaply, quickly, and reliably, opening up the classroom to the real world in a way which has never before been possible" (p. 6). Chapelle (2001) lists a number of studies which identified the benefits of cross-cultural communication and other insightful reports on the use of e-mail for language teaching can be found in several publications, such as Egbert et al (1999); Debski and Levy (1999), Paiva (2000), Warschauer (1996, 1999), Warschauer and Kern (2000), Warschauer et al (2000).

The reading of such texts reinforces the thesis that electronic communication offers the necessary conditions for language acquisition as the learner performs an active role in the learning process, receives a huge amount of authentic input and interacts in authentic situations. In addition the learner gets closer to the target-language group in a faceless, non-threatening situation.

Teachers and learners can use e-mail for different learning purposes. Some of them are: keypals, discussion lists, forums, e-mail projects, etc.


Many EFL students have had the experience of corresponding with pen-pals, building up friendship solely through letters. Those students will probably never meet their pen-friends, but they will never forget how much they learned when exchanging letters with people abroad. The Internet version of pen-pals or pen friends is called keypals and is faster and cheaper than writing traditional letters. I contend that exchanging e-mails with foreigners is one of the most interesting and useful activities available for EFL learners. "The exchanges, whether student-to-student or class-to-class, exemplify writing for communicative purposes, especially when the keypals are from different cultures" (Bosswood, 1997, p. 71). Students from several countries can form groups to discuss various issues, produce collaborative research and essays, and publish on the web. Kitao and Kitao (1996:1)point out that

This is a good opportunity to practice English but it is also an opportunity to learn about other cultures and to share one's own culture. It is fun for students, and it is a way that they can use the English that they are learning to actually communicate. Students get excited when they receive replies to their messages, and that motivates them to study English harder.

Numerous sites help people to find keypals all over the world. One good example is IECC (Intercultural E-mail Classroom Connections), a free public service, which was created in 1992 by three professors from St. Olaf College in Minnesota. According to that site, since its creation,

IECC has distributed over 28,000 requests for e-mail partnerships. (.…) IECC was one of the first services on the Web to facilitate international pen-pal exchanges between teachers and classrooms around the globe. (.…) IECC is dedicated to helping teachers connect with other teachers to arrange intercultural e-mail connections between their students. A new service, IECC-INTERGEN, helps teachers and their classrooms create intergenerational partnerships with volunteers who are over 50 years of age. (available: )

Having a keypal is just one possible use for e-mail in learning a language. There are several ways for integrating e-mail in the classroom. Below I present some suggestions:

· A class can have a correspondence exchange with another class in an English speaking country;

· Students can develop joint projects (ex. publish an online newspaper) and tasks with a partner in another country;

· Teachers can have students sign up for a discussion list;

· Teachers can use copies of e-mail as sources of authentic material to review vocabulary and grammar in the classroom;

· Students can maintain early and continuous personal and professional contact with partner teachers;

· Teachers can use e-mail as a feedback mechanism for learner writing;

· Teachers can ask students to write online journals;

· One can reduce photocopies by sending handouts to students such as Syllabi, class schedules, lesson plans, and homework assignments.

· Teachers can have students sign up for e-mail services which deliver daily or weekly different pieces of information on the English language or learning activities. Some examples are AWAD – A.Word.A.Day which sends a new word everyday followed by examples with context. Old files can be found at The address for subscription is; Churchill House's Phrasal Verb of the Day [] which sends every day one phrasal verb followed by a definition and sentences to exemplify its use. At the end of the week an exercise with the phrasal verbs of the week is sent and you also receive a message with the key for the exercise.

· Teachers can have students sign up for e-mail services such as Your Daily Inbox [] which delivers daily different kinds of texts: recipes, stories, jokes, proverbs, quotations, the day's top historical events, helpful advice, a daily picture for reflection, etc. If the whole class is not connected, the teacher can get any of those and share the service with the students for different oral or written activities.


Before implementing an e-mail project, teachers should make the students aware of some guidelines and netiquette. A large number of students still have little experience with the e-mail management and sometimes disregard some simple rules that can disturb communication.

Rinaldi (1998) claims that "the content and maintenance of a user's electronic mailbox is the user's responsibility". She presents the following guidelines which, I believe, can prevent unwanted interaction problems:

· Check E-mail daily and remain within your limited disk quota.

· Delete unwanted messages immediately since they take up disk storage.

· Keep messages remaining in your electronic mailbox to a minimum.

· Mail messages can be downloaded or extracted to files then to disks for future reference.

· Never assume that your E-mail can be read by no one except yourself; others may be able to read or access your mail. Never send or keep anything that you would mind seeing on the evening news.

· Keep files to a minimum. Files should be downloaded to your personal computer's hard drive or to diskettes.

· Routinely and frequently virus-scan your system, especially when receiving or downloading files from other systems to prevent the spread of a virus.

· Your files may be accessible by persons with system privileges, so do not maintain anything private in your disk storage area.

I have been observing that the main problems faced by my students are related to viruses and the unnecessary storage of a large number of messages in their mailboxes. Having an updated anti-virus installed is not a common habit among some of them and that causes the spread of viruses among the virtual communities to which they belong. Besides that, students usually complain that they are not receiving messages and it is usually a consequence of overloaded mailboxes.

As far as netiquette is concerned, Rinaldi suggests the following rules:

· Keep paragraphs and messages short and to the point.

· When quoting another person, edit out whatever isn't directly applicable to your reply. Don't let your mailing or Usenet software automatically quote the entire body of messages you are replying to when it's not necessary. Take the time to edit any quotations down to the minimum necessary to provide context for your reply. Nobody likes reading a long message in quotes for the third or fourth time, only to be followed by a one line response: "Yeah, me too."

· Focus on one subject per message and always include a pertinent subject title for the message, that way the user can locate the message quickly.

· Don't use the academic networks for commercial or proprietary work.

· Include your signature at the bottom of E-mail messages when communicating with people who may not know you personally or broadcasting to a dynamic group of subscribers. Your signature footer should include your name, position, affiliation and Internet and/or BITNET addresses and should not exceed more than 4 lines. Optional information could include your address and phone number.

· Capitalize words only to highlight an important point or to distinguish a title or heading. Capitalizing whole words that are not titles is generally termed as SHOUTING!

· *Asterisks* surrounding a word can be used to make a stronger point.

· Use the underscore symbol before and after the title of a book, i.e. _The Wizard of Oz_

· Limit line length to approximately 65-70 characters and avoid control characters.

· Never send chain letters through the Internet. Sending them can cause the loss of your Internet Access.

· Because of the International nature of the Internet and the fact that most of the world uses the following format for listing dates, i.e. MM DD YY, please be considerate and avoid misinterpretation of dates by listing dates including the spelled out month: Example: 24 JUN 96 or JUN 24 96

· Follow chain of command procedures for corresponding with superiors. For example, don't send a complaint via E-mail directly to the "top" just because you can.

· Be professional and careful about what you say about others. E-mail is easily forwarded.

· Cite all quotes, references and sources and respect copyright and license agreements.

· It is considered extremely rude to forward personal e-mail to mailing lists or Usenet without the original author's permission.

· Attaching return receipts to a message may be considered an invasion of privacy. Be careful when using sarcasm and humor. Without face-to-face communication your joke may be viewed as criticism. When being humorous, use emoticons to express humor. (tilt your head to the left to see the emoticon smile) :-) = happy face for humor

· Acronyms can be used to abbreviate when possible, however messages that are filled with acronyms can be confusing and annoying to the reader.
Examples: IMHO= in my humble/honest opinion
FYI = for your information
BTW = by the way

The Internet "Twelve Commandments" [] summarizes the netiquette in six points: be aware of your audience; be courteous; be concise; do not defame; be aware of cultural differences and sensitivities; and do not spam.

The three main problems I have been observing in my students’ e-mailing interactions are related to the context. Some students answer the messages without any quotation or reference to the previous one, making it difficult for the receivers to understand what the sender is talking about. Sometimes they reproduce the whole message without editing the previous message that is automatically quoted in totum by the software when the reply button is pressed. The last problem is using the reply mode without editing the subject line when a new topic is introduced.

Another common problem is the lack of signature, but that is a minor difficulty because looking at the address line one can usually identify the sender. Even though, I think we should always remind students of the importance of signing their e-mail messages.

Emoticons and acronyms are hardly used by my students. In fact, e-mail users in general use just a few emoticons and acronyms because their natural habitat seems to be the chat environment due to its main characteristics: brevity and speed.

Discussion lists

Discussion lists are composed of e-mail users who get together in order to exchange ideas on specific topics. When e-mail is sent to a discussion list, it is automatically distributed to all the other subscribers. One can either join a discussion list or create a personal one. The lists may be moderated or unmoderated and the rates of message traffic in the former is usually lower because all the messages are read by the moderator who decides if a message is adequate or not to that group. The subscribers have at least two choices when they join a group: receiving individual e-mails or a daily digest, that is, all the messages saved in just one e-mail. A third option, reading the messages on the web, is provided by software such as, where you can create your own group free of charge.

Some discussion lists have members from many different countries, and interacting with members from those virtual communities is a unique intercultural experience for our students. Students can actively engage in a group or just lurk, that is, "just read other people’s contributions without e-mailing, or posting, a message to the list themselves" (Windeatt et al., 2000, p. 112).

Discussion lists are useful tools for classroom communication as the teacher can interact with many students at the same time. Anyone can create an e-mail discussion list at web sites such as Yahoogroups ( or the Brazilian Grupos ( without paying for it.

Netiquette in discussion lists requires that when you post a question to a discussion group, you should request that responses be directed only to you personally. You are expected to send a summary of the answers to the group afterwards. On doing that students will be practicing reading and writing in a very meaningful way.


Forums, also called, Web boards, Web Discussion Boards, or Web Bulletin Boards, store all the messages on a Web page where the user can read and post messages. According to Warschauer et al. (2000), "Web boards can be a good alternative when students do not have individual e-mail addresses or when student’s opportunities to download, save, and read e-mail are limited" (p. 36). Sperling (1998) lists some Web Boards for language students and teachers. They are ESL Chat Line; ESL Discussion Center; WebChat CALICO and Yuki’s EFL/ESL Bulletin Board (p.36).

Anyone can easily create a forum free of charge. Some free services are Ezboard, "an online community service on the Net, consisting of over 800,000 communities and over 6 MILLION registered users; Beseen Bulletin Boards" (; and the Brazilian Inforum (

E-mail projects

Students can participate in countless projects by using e-mail. A classroom can meet other classrooms on the other side of the world; students can be involved in collaborative writing; languages can be learned in tandem; and intercultural projects can be developed. A list of interesting collaborative projects can be found at The Global Schoolhouse Global Schoolhouse claims to be the leader in collaborative learning. They "provide opportunities for teachers to collaborate, communicate, and celebrate shared learning experiences".

E-mail Projects Homepage is another outstanding example. If you go to, you will find the following explanation:

This site was developed by Susan Gaer in 1994 as a means for people to collaborate worldwide. Based on the premise that non-native speakers have as much to offer as native speakers of English, Susan created the site to help both interact with each other. Projects are either initiated by classes or individual teachers. The word "E-mail Projects" was developed in 1994 before the popularity of the World Wide Web. At that time (1994) most of the projects were conducted via e-mail. With the advent to the World Wide Web, most of the projects are now "web projects".


You can see below one of Susan’s pages where you can access eleven different projects.

I am going to describe just one of them, ‘The Food Project’. When you go to the ‘Food Project Page’, you will find several options: fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry and seafood.

I selected "fruits" and was taken to a page with 26 different names of fruits. If you click on any of them you will see its picture.


As you can see above, you have the option to answer the question and/or see what other people have said. If you click on the question, a page with an e-mail form will appear for you to fill in and answer the question. All the messages are posted on a web file and can be read by anyone.

Another interesting e-mail project on the same site is the ‘price comparison project’ An overview of the project can be read below:

ESL classes in Sacramento and Baldwin Park n ABE class in Hayward each collect price information and exchange it for comparison. Students gather price, quantity, store and brand information for the following items:

· half gallon 2% milk

· 1 pound red delicious apples

· the cheapest powder laundry detergent, 33 use size

· the cheapest 4 rolls of toilet paper

· 5 pounds of white rice (indicate grain size when posting)

· 1 gallon of the cheapest gas

· bus fare

Exchange of data will give students material to use in comparative pricing exercise and graphing of price information. Students will improve math skills as a result. The material may also be used for practice in the language of comparison.

Ruth Vilmi, at Helsinki University of Technology, is responsible for one of the most important and popular e-mail projects in the world  International Writing Exchange (IWE) – Her goal is to motivate her students to communicate with students abroad. Vilmi says, in her homepage, that

[T]he main aims were to increase the global awareness of my students and to improve their writing skills. In the Autumn 93 Project, they corresponded with students at eight universities abroad. They regularly exchanged informal letters and eventually a research paper, thus gaining knowledge and intercultural sensitivity, as well as acquiring writing skills. (

The project has 5 main phases and a full description of the phases can be read at Ruth Vilmi’s site.


When learning a language in a foreign context, one is always faced with the paradox of being in a class where students share the same mother tongue, but are supposed to communicate with classmates in a language they do not know well. In such a context, no matter how strong motivation is, no matter what the learners needs are, all of a sudden students find themselves using their native language. The struggle to negotiate meaning turns out to be artificial when the speakers share the same language.

Electronic interaction seems to provide more natural contexts and students do not feel they are using the language to learn it, but that they are equipped with linguistic skills that enable them to communicate with people all over the world. The more they interact, the more they learn the language and more confident they become.

To sum up, I believe that the arguments and examples presented in this article are enough to show that electronic interaction is an efficient tool to promote language acquisition. I think activities developed via computers can be more effective than some traditional classroom activities in foreign language contexts because computers can bring "individuals together so that they may communicate across cultural and linguistic boundaries", which is our major objective in second language education as claimed by Kelm (1996, p. 19).



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