About the Author: Melvin W. Hall serves in the Youth Programs Division of the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
The monikers Net Generation, Millennials, and Digital Natives identify a generation coming of age in a global information and communication technology (ICT) environment. Computer and Internet savvy, this new generation of young women and men propel globalization forward using social networks that span the globe: Facebook, MySpace, Humble Voice, and Trig, to name a few. Millennials interact with their international peers to weave social networks across one global, virtual city; they exchange ideas, culture, music, literature; they inspire creativity, innovation, and change. In fact, Digital Natives’ creative use of language for “texting” testifies to their ingenuity and ability to influence our culture. A few examples: WYHAM (when you have a minute); LHO (laughing head off); UR2YS4ME (you are too wise for me); H2CUS (hope to see you soon); and, two acronyms likely to be used extensively over spring break, AITR (adult in the room) and POS (parent over shoulder). These and other linguistic innovations bring into sharp relief the one global network that unites all global networks and cultures in time and space – language. To paraphrase Confucius, “When we grasp language we grasp the one thread which links up the rest.”
The excitement surrounding new social networks and the accompanying flashy and advanced technology, however, can lead us to believe that global social networks are relatively new and cause us to forget language’s vital importance to any social network. A broad historical perspective of social networks reveals that they are not new and that language is the one enduring, essential component of all technological advances. Consider the following global networks: Progress in language and writing allowed Hammurabi (ca. 1795 – 1750 B.C.E.) to create a unified network of Mesopotamian City States by posting his laws on stone tablets located at the center of cities within the ambit of his empire. Technological advances in agriculture, navigating, and writing made possible trade along the Silk Road (c.a. 200 to 400 B.C.E.) creating a global network that stretched from Europe and Africa to East Asia and encouraged cultural exchange. The Romans (c.a. 43 to 200 C.E.), thanks to technological advances in engineering, created a sophisticated network of roads that linked the most distant frontiers of their global empire – Britain to Africa to Central Asia, again, creating opportunities for cultural exchange.
Technological developments in more recent history also expanded global social networks. The steam engine and railroads linked vast stretches of continents, such as Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway (c.a. 1891), connecting Western Russia with Eastern Siberia, China, and Mongolia. The transatlantic telegraph cable (1866) linked two continents divided by an ocean: North America and Europe. And, of course, more recently, radio, T.V., satellites, the Internet and mobile phones have accelerated the pace of global networking and cultural exchange. Take language away from any of these networks and we lose our grip on the one thread that unites and animates all social networks; we are left with technology “signifying nothing.”
The same is true for “new” social networks used by Digital Natives. Without a shared language social networks could divide people and cultures even while technology connects them with its global reach. Non-English social networking sites, some of which have more users and greater appeal than Facebook, nicely illustrate this point: Vkontakte.ru and Odnoklassniki.ru (Russian); 51.com and Kaixin001 (Chinese); Mixi (Japanese); Cyworld (Korean); Kindo.com (Hindi); Yonja (Turkish); As-hhab (Arabic). And, of course, there is the recently launched Arabic Facebook. The proliferation of non-English social networks requires Americans to continue to advance their language skills in order to stay connected with people from around the world. In fact, an often overlooked characteristic of Global Digital Natives (GDNs) is that they are multilingual; they can join conversations in a variety of languages.
Students from across the United States participate in conversations about language learning, culture, and link up with their international peers on ExchangesConnect. The “NSLI-Y Group,” an ExchangesConnect social network, links young Americans with a desire to learn Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, Hindi, Korean, Russian and Turkish and become Global Digital Natives. The National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) is a Department of State sponsored language program that provides full scholarships for Americans ages 15 to 18 to study those seven languages in intensive overseas summer, semester, and academic-year programs. By learning these less commonly taught languages American youth will acquire the linguistic skills necessary to become truly Global Digital Natives. They will be able sustain cultural exchange by using language in their academic and professional careers, engaging their international peers on-line and in person. In essence, NSLI-Y’s intensive programs are a springboard to a lifetime of language use and participation in global networks with people from around the world. To learn more about NSLI-Y Group — and to grasp the historic, cultural and geographic thread which links up the rest — go to ExchangesConnect and become a Global Digital Native. TAFN – BOS (that’s all for now – boss over shoulder).