Language and Digital Natives: From the Silk Road to ExchangesConnect

Posted by Melvin W. Hall
March 22, 2009
Riders on Camel Along Hills of Gobi Desert in Silk Road Town of Dunhuang

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: and (Russian); and Kaixin001 (Chinese); Mixi (Japanese); Cyworld (Korean); (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).



New Jersey, USA
March 22, 2009

Rosemary in New Jersey writes:

LOL Melvin! If BOS was Hillary, I don't think you have to worry. She probably was the one who tweeted me the URL for this article.

I teach language teachers, so I am going to share this article with them on our webcampus. For the record, though, I still like the old-fashioned technology of blackboard and chalk. You can teach anywhere in the world with that, even if your classroom has no walls.

California, USA
March 22, 2009

Wendy in California writes:

Dear Mr. Hall --

What a swell & detailed entry. COOL. By any serendipity are you related to the essential Edward T. Hall of *Silent Language* fame? He put me on to facets of language that I would have been oblivious to without his little book. We are speaking a silent language of respect or disrespect every moment in our gestures and postures. I assume all diplomats still have read Hall's little primer before they set out as possible bulls in other folk's cultural china shops?

Please tell us sometime what specific steps State is taking to get the wonderful info about the NSLI-Y Group (Language Initiatives for Youth) & other Youth Programs opportunities out to schools in the U.S.A.? When I was a kid, there was a little Weekly Reader 'newspaper' that was distributed to schools.

TNR -- The noosphere rocks.

DipNote H.
District Of Columbia, USA
April 7, 2009

DipNote Blogger Melvin Hall writes:

Hello Rosemary and Wendy, Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Although my response is delayed, I hope you find it useful.

@ Wendy, your suggestion that we use "Weekly Reader" or something similar is a good one. We are in fact looking into ways to reinforce the message about Youth Programs already posted on social networks and cyberspace in general. Information about Youth Programs sponsored by the Department of State is posted on the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs website. In addition, ECA's implementing organizations have extensive instructor networks which they use to get the word out to schools about our programs. And, no, I am not related to Edward T. Hall. Thank you for the reference about "silent language" -- I will look it up.

@ Rosemary, thank you for sharing the blog on your webcampus; it is nice to make a connection with language instructors. Please see this photo eulogy to the technology of blackboard and chalk. Thank you for bringing this to our attention the versatility of chalkboard technology. It seems the chalkboard served Einstein well when imagining and advancing revolutionary theories of physics that would eventually change the way we all see the world.


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