Speaking and learning a second language in a pandemic: Why is face-to-face interaction so important?

Moving permanently to a new country brings many challenges. You are suddenly confronted with a new environment, community and, in many cases, a strange language you do not understand.

When I moved to Finland five years ago, I had the benefit of some knowledge of the Finnish language beforehand; however, my speaking skills were rather poor and my confidence low. While I was able to manage most of the everyday encounters at work and throughout my daily routines in Finnish (occasionally switching to English), there were (and still are) situations in which the language barrier causes me stress and frustration.

For me as well as for many of my immigrant friends, some of the most difficult encounters are the ones held over the phone. When I am waiting for a call from a doctor, an insurance company or even a delivery service, my heart always starts to beat a little bit faster as the phone begins to ring.

So what it is with phone calls that makes them so stressful?

First of all, when you are talking on the phone, you are not able to use the full potential of your body.

In my research, funded by the Emil Aaltonen Foundation, I investigate how Czech and Slovak immigrants in Finland construct understanding in their everyday face-to-face conversations with Finns. The results of my research show that in addition to verbal means, participants strategically use various bodily (or other non-verbal) resources to achieve efficient communication despite the differences in their linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Raised eyebrows, a frown or a head poke can be used by the listener to subtly signal trouble with hearing or understanding, and these visual cues often lead to the speaker reformulating a problematic piece of talk. Furthermore, hand gestures and even full-body movements may be used by the participants to help facilitate understanding, for example, in situations when the right word does not immediately come to mind.

While these resources are universal to all human beings, they can be especially useful to second language speakers in linguistically asymmetrical interactions.

Another disadvantage of the phone calls lies in the fact that when you are a second language speaker/learner, you need to hear clearly what the other person is saying so that you can get at least some sense of what they are talking about. With phone calls it is always a lottery as to whether the sound quality is going to be good enough for you to hear and understand anything at all.

For a second language speaker life in a pandemic may feel like one never-ending phone call.

The necessary face-to-face meetings have been constrained to inarticulate mumbling behind masks, and the rest of the interactions have been moved online. Of course, thanks to technological developments, we are able to see each other at least on camera, and usually we can get the work done. The online environment, however, takes away many benefits that close-proximity co-presence offers for the organization of our social actions.

In the LINBO project (Linguistic and bodily involvement in multicultural interactions) funded by the Academy of Finland, we combine multimodal conversation analysis (CA) of video recorded face-to-face interactions with a discourse analytic study of interviews to examine both how immigrants interact in real life situations and what the thoughts, experiences, and underlying language ideologies are behind these interactions.

Our preliminary results indicate that combining various linguistic and bodily resources helps strengthen immigrants’ involvement both in everyday face-to-face encounters and in learning environments.

In her doctoral thesis Katriina Rantala explores how second language learners perform shopping exercises in a second language classroom environment. Practicing real-life shopping encounters is crucial for second language learners, and it frequently involves the use of material aids – such as cards with pictures of groceries that learners refer to when they pretend to be a buyer or a seller. In addition to material aids, the embodied co-presence also allows the learners to effectively utilize their own bodies, as they can move around in the shared space and properly act out the shopping situation. The hand gestures are of no less importance; Rantala, for example, notes that about half of the shopping requests (“I would like to have…”) include a pointing gesture towards a picture.

One can only imagine what kinds of limitations the online learning environment poses on how similar kinds of exercises and games are planned and performed. At minimum, the lack of embodied co-presence constrains the learners from utilizing the full potential of their bodily resources. More advanced learners may also benefit from these limitations, as they may be encouraged to talk more. However, for beginners in particular, distance learning may make talking – and participation in general – more difficult.

The current situation also affects the possibilities of second language speakers and learners to implement their language skills in daily encounters.

In her research, based on interviews among participants of different linguistic and ethnic backgrounds, Liisa-Maria Lehto notes that participants frequently reflect a desire to use and exercise their Finnish skills in everyday interactions with other members of Finnish society, for example, in restaurants or shops and through hobbies. Face-to-face is the preferred type of interaction in comparison to distant modes of communication, such as talking over the phone or writing. According to the participants, when they cannot see the other person, they feel more insecure about their language skills, and it is harder for them to ask the other person to repeat the message.

The observations of real-life interactions of second language speakers and learners, together with attending to their own experiences and language ideologies, can deepen our understanding of immigrants’ involvement in society.

As a second language speaker myself, I hope we will soon be able to return to non-distant forms of speaking and learning. While last year showed all of us the benefits (but also constraints) of technological advances, it also reminded us of why face-to-face interaction is the primordial and most effective form of human communication.

Ivana Leinonen is a Doctoral Researcher at the Research Unit of Languages and Literature, University of Oulu. Her doctoral thesis is funded by Emil Aaltonen Foundation and is also part of Linguistic and Bodily Involvement in Multicultural Interactions project. Her research interest is in conversation analysis, multimodality and multilingualism.