WhatsApp as a Learning Tool: Linguistic mélange bi Lubnan (by Lana Zeaiter)

Lana F. Zeaiter, our guest blogger this week, is a second-year Ph.D. student at the Department of Integrated Studies in Education at McGill University. Born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon, she decided to immigrate to Canada in 2019 in pursuit of a new horizon. She has extensive experience as an English instructor and curriculum developer at both the school and the university levels. Inspired by her own quest for identity and driven by her belief in the importance of identity in language learning, her research interests are focused on the role of plurilingualism in preserving learners’ identity.

This week’s blog post includes a linked audio file. Just click on the link below if you would like to hear the post read aloud. Scroll down to read the text.

WhatsApp is one of the most popular messaging applications worldwide, with over 2.5 billion active users (Statista, 2021). Through WhatsApp, users mobilize the different languages in their linguistic repertoire to voice their opinions about contextual political or socio-cultural events, or to share insights into their personal lives. They also use different mediums of communication (i.e., voice note, written message). The COVID-19 pandemic has increasingly turned digital mediums into an essential tool to accomplish day-to-day tasks. To illustrate how WhatsApp can be used as a creative tool for teaching language, I created a video that provides a contextual example of the exchange of verbal and non-verbal messages of a group of friends over a common WhatsApp group in Beirut, Lebanon.

What’sApp screenshot

The way people mix languages in multilingual Beirut is unique. Languaging is not necessarily determined by age, religion or even the region of birth. Multilingualism really is everywhere. Residents’ interaction is based on a handful of linguistic and non-linguistic codes of communication. Their interaction is based on switching between languages within one or a group of sentences and combining different languages to form comprehensible translingual words. The members of this WhatsApp group are mostly Lebanese university students who have either always resided in Beirut or have come to the city from various regions in Lebanon upon starting their university studies. The group also has members from Palestinian and Armenian origins who still use their native languages.

The WhatsApp chat window provides its users in general and the members involved in this project in particular with a Translanguaging Space (Li, 2011) where individuals break ideological dichotomies related to languages and transcend linguistic boundaries by exercising their Translanguaging Instinct (Li, 2016) through the integration of formerly separated social and linguistic codes.  The group of friends make use of their fluid and dynamic linguistic repertoire by adding new features – including often undervalued non-linguistic codes (De Costa et al., 2017) such as emoticons, to replace facial-expressions in face-to-face interaction that are not necessarily aligned with the native-speaker model of producing the language (Kleyn & Garcia, 2019). The friends also alternate between languages (Arabic, English, French and Armenian); a practice known as code-switching (Li, 2018).

The title of the video, “Found in Languaging: Hi! Kifak? Ça va?” highlights how meaning is found through various languaging strategies. It also exemplifies code-switching between English (“Hi”), Arabic (“Kifak”-How are you?) and French (“Ça va”- Fine). It is a meaningful humorous sentence often used to describe Lebanese multilingualism. The first part of the video provides a general overview of the different languages and dialects used in Lebanon. The second part consists of a WhatsApp chat between a group of friends living in Beirut.

The title of the group, “Linguistic mélange bi Lubnan” is just a descriptive hint of the linguistic mixture that characterizes common conversations or chats among Lebanese people. This group of friends uses different named languages (Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), French, English and Armenian) and different varieties of languages (colloquial Lebanese Arabic, regional Lebanese Arabic dialects, colloquial Palestinian Arabic, Arabinglizi and Arabfrensawi). The Arabinglizi and Arabfrensawi are popular forms of Arabized English and French respectively that Lebanese, specifically Generations Y, Z and Alpha, came up with through translanguaging.

Arabic Chat alphabet

It is also interesting to note that the members use a unique alphabet for WhatsApp chatting, popular among Lebanese, to express MSA and colloquial Lebanese Arabic. This basically consists of not only Latin letters, but also numbers, whose role is to replace sounds of Arabic letters that don’t have any equivalent in the Latin alphabet. Translanguaging incorporates an understanding of how different modes, including our bodies, our gestures, our lives etc., add to the semiotic meaning-making repertoire that is involved in the act of communication (Garcia and Ortheguy, 2020). In the chat, members exemplify translanguaging by making up words that are a mixture of different languages.

This kind of language mixing often includes a popular language such as English or French, so the resulting words can be understood by outsiders as well (e.g., from the chat: “mfaweksé” is the Arabized version of focused). So, speakers of French and English may relate it phonologically to the respective words in French and English. I wrote the chat based on my own knowledge of the language that we Lebanese tend to use in chats. I also asked Facebook friends for suggestions for words and short sentences that they commonly use.

I created this video with one objective in mind: to encourage people in general, and educators in particular, to accept that languages, through their different dialects, varieties and registers, can in fact go together in the classroom, rather than having to be in competition. Although this project focuses on the Lebanese context, the use of WhatsApp as a teaching tool and the implementation of code-switching and translanguaging can take place in any other multilingual context. In fact, given increased social mobility, multilingual and diverse contexts have now become the norm. 

I bet you learned a word or two from the chat yourself! If we are able to turn a random non-educational chat into a learning experience, imagine what we might be able to create purposely in the classroom.

2 thoughts on “WhatsApp as a Learning Tool: Linguistic mélange bi Lubnan (by Lana Zeaiter)

  1. Super, thank you Mona! 🙂
    Your Master’s topic is very interesting. Lebanese TV shows are a great depiction of linguistic varieties within the Lebanese community.

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