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Vol 27, No. 1 (September 2009)

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Does CMC Promote Language Play? Exploring Humor in Two Modalities

Ilona Vandergriff
San Francisco State University
Carolin Fuchs
Teachers College, Columbia University

In view of the growing body of research on humor and language play in computer-mediated communication (CMC) which--more than any other medium--has been associated with goofing off, joking, and other nonserious communication, this paper compares spontaneous foreign language play (L2 play) in text-only synchronous computer-mediated versus face-to-face (FTF) discussions. We examine how small groups of advanced learners of German engage in humorous language play, specifically, how they play with identity and frame in the two modalities. With play tokens occurring at similar rates in both modalities, our findings challenge the widespread assumption that the computer medium alone promotes play.



Humor, Language Play, Computer-mediated Communication (CMC), Second Language Acquisition (SLA)


In recent years research has begun to explore the role of humor and language play in SLA, focusing on two basic notions: interpersonal language play (e.g., Belz, 2002a; Broner & Tarone, 2001; Tarone, 2005; following Cook, 1997, 2000) and intrapersonal language play (Lantolf, 1997, 2000). In the former, learners amuse themselves and/or others by playing with the foreign language material, including linguistic forms or their semantic or pragmatic meanings to "create worlds which do not exist" (Cook, 1997, p. 228; following Hymes, 1972). Such playful usage is independent of the learner's age or proficiency level; but the more mature and the more proficient the learner, the richer and more complex the ludic language (Broner & Tarone, 2001). Lantolf's (2000) notion of language play, by contrast, serves to rehearse linguistic forms. Such usage is a form of intrapersonal or private speech, which is not directed at another person but oriented only at speakers themselves. Studies have shown that this kind of language play is restricted to early interlanguage (Lantolf, 1997; as cited in Broner & Tarone, 2001).

Building on the work of both Cook and Lantolf, Belz has explored what aspects of the foreign language adult learners play with and to what end. She found that learners often use language play for resemioticization of the foreign language code for both learning-relevant and pleasurable functions (Belz, 2002a). According to Belz, learners show a penchant for

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playing with second language (L2) sounds (Belz, 2002a), but foreign language play involves all levels of the foreign language code (Belz, 2003) including the level of pragmatics. Pragmatic play, similar to Bakhtin's (1981) concept of parody, allows speakers to mimic chunks of (foreign) language discourse to express their own meanings. For Bakhtin,

[t]here are no neutral words and forms - words and forms that belong to 'no one'; language has been completely taken over, shot through with intentions and accents. For any individual consciousness living in it, language is not an abstract system of normative forms but rather a concrete heteroglot conception of the world. ... Each word tastes of the context and contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life; all words and forms are populated by intentions. (p. 293)

As foreign language learners begin to appropriate the L2 discourse, they may double-voice the new code, using others' words to express their own meaning. For adult learners, for example, play can contain the conscious flouting of foreign language rituals and conventions (Belz, 2002b). In addition, Belz (2002a, 2002b) highlights the role of the native language in foreign language play as learners often use their L1 as a mediation tool of language awareness.

Within SLA, the role of foreign language play has been examined from two perspectives, namely the contribution of L2 play to interlanguage (IL) development and the use of L2 play to determine language proficiency levels. Certain types of L2 play are hypothesized to promote language learning. First, form-based play, in particular, may function to "provide learners with the opportunity to compare their existing interlanguage system to recently acquired linguistic information in an off-line way, that is, when they are not under immediate pressure to perform publicly" (Broner & Tarone, 2001, p. 374). For ludic language, the concomitant positive affect "may simply make the L2 discourse more noticeable" (Broner & Tarone, 2001, p. 375). It may be especially helpful in vocabulary development (Bell, 2002, 2005). Second, in some types of ludic language play, where learners are "double-voicing" in the Bakhtinian sense, language play "may facilitate L2 acquisition by enabling the learner to internalize many different voices appropriate to many different roles" (Broner & Tarone, 2001, p. 375). Third, by breaking the norms of conventional language, ludic language may have a destabilizing effect on the IL system, making it more receptive to change and growth.

Language play has also been viewed as a rich source of diagnostic data (Bell, 2005; Belz, 2002b; Belz & Reinhardt, 2004; Cook, 2000). Recent studies suggest a correlation between language learners' proficiency and their "ability to engage in humorous language play" (Bell, 2005, p. 212; see also Cook, 2000; Tarone, 2005; Warner, 2004). Because humor is created by the perception of incongruity, language learners must already possess a script for new phenomena to appear contradictory or inconsistent (Carrell, 1997; Cook, 2000). In other words, in order for hearers to consider a joke funny, they must possess a script, which in turn requires proficiency. By the same token, Bell (2005) points out that language proficiency is not the only requirement for playful interaction. Hearers must also share a particular semantic script, for example, a joking comment about a disease may not be funny to every hearer (Bell, 2005). In this way, language play allows learners to display their individual identity, for example, to present a positive face but also to develop and index a relational identity among participants (e.g., see Belz, 2002b; Belz & Reinhardt, 2004; Boxer & Cortés-Conde, 1997; Warner, 2004). Given the role of play in L2 development, Cook (1997, 2000) argues that the current focus on real-world tasks in foreign language classrooms is ill conceived.


By and large, studies of foreign language play have analyzed play in the context of computer-mediated communication (CMC)-based or networked classrooms, focusing primarily on two types of play: play with linguistic form (e.g., Belz & Reinhardt, 2004; Warner, 2004) and play with participant identity (e.g., Turkle, 1995; Warner, 2004). In the following paragraphs, we will provide an overview of both types as well as briefly outline a call for research going beyond these two kinds of L2 play.

Form-based language play has been defined as "the conscious repetition or modification of linguistic forms such as lexemes or syntactic patterns" (Belz, 2002b, p. 16). Whereas L1 play in children has been explored for a number of decades (e.g., Weir, 1962; Kuczaj, 1983), form-based L2 play has only recently attracted scholarly interest (e.g., Broner & Tarone, 2001; Cekaite & Aronsson, 2005). Research on form-based play among adult learners (e.g., Bell, 2005; Belz, 2002b; Belz & Reinhardt, 2004; Meskill & Anthony, 2007) has described play at different levels of the foreign language system, including play with sounds, derivations, or entire phrases. Form-based play appears to be motivated by linguistic creativity, and the desire to present a positive face and establish personal rapport (Belz & Reinhardt, 2004). Moreover, form-based play allows language learners to appropriate the foreign code (Belz & Reinhardt, 2004; Meskill & Anthony, 2007).

Identity play encompasses play with social, relational, or individual identity such as participants' manipulation of "roles, positions, relationships, reputations, and other dimensions of social personae" (Ochs, 1996, p. 424). CMC-based or networked environments appear to provide participants with increased opportunities for such play (Baym, 1995; Belz & Reinhardt, 2004; Crystal, 1998; Warner, 2004). For example, MUDs (Multiuser Domain or Dungeon) and MOOs (Mulituser Domain or Dungeon Object-Oriented) are online gaming environments that encourage participants to play roles and take on new identities (e.g., Warner, 2004, p. 72). In the process of playing, users frequently assume multiple identities, such as an opposite-gender or even nonhuman identity (Turkle, 1995; Warschauer, 1995, as cited in Levy, 1997). Turkle hypothesizes that this kind of identity play allows people to better understand hidden aspects of themselves due to the freedom which comes with the anonymity of the internet: "The Internet has become a significant social laboratory for experimenting with the constructions and reconstructions of self that characterize postmodern life. In its virtual reality, we self-fashion and self-create" (1995, p. 180). Research suggests that online communication participants may overrate minimal cues, especially if they have never met face to face (FTF). This "'overattribution' process" (Walther 1996, p. 18; quotes in original) in turn, facilitates the projection and manipulation of identity and thus may foster identity play. Additionally, Walther claims that "not only do CMC senders overcome the limits of the media to express personal cues, they may actually do so in ways that F2F communicators cannot" (p. 19). Other research indicates that CMC does not always promote identity play (e.g., Chester, 2004; Herring, 1996; Huffaker & Calvert, 2005; Yates, 1997).

Recently, there has been a call for a broader agenda on foreign language play (e.g., Cook, 2000; Warner, 2004). In his monograph entitled Language Play and Language Learning, Cook argues for "bring[ing] together a range of normally dissociated activities under the heading of language play" (p. 5), such as children's verse, fiction, insulting, joking, magical rituals, puns, riddles, and play languages. Such language play activities, whether humorous or not, are all "expressions of a single underlying phenomenon" (ibid.), which he describes as "disconnection from reality, disruption and subversion of social structures, and the introduction of random elements" (ibid.). Like Cook, Warner also makes the case for a broader research agenda on foreign language play, that is, beyond play with linguistic form. She contends that "greater attention must be paid to playful elements in language use that are not limited to the linguistic form" (p. 81). For example, when learners play with the frame, they


are not playing with linguistic form or the semantic meaning but with the pragmatic meaning, "at the level of understanding" (p. 74). This type of language play mimics other types of verbal behavior but means something different. Warner explains,

While play with the form involves the more material aspects of the language and play with content/concept involves the primary meaning of the language, play with the frame is largely meta-linguistic and occurs on the level of understanding. Like the play-fighting of Gregory Bateson's otters, it mimics another piece of behavior, however means something entirely different. I would like to suggest that play not be relegated to types of mimicry, but that all types of rekeying might be viewed as a type of play. (p. 74)

Warner's (2004) study on pragmatic play makes an important contribution, but the definition she provides may be misleading. She defines pragmatic play as "metalinguistic" (p. 74), suggesting that it is used to reflect or talk about language. To clarify, pragmatic play uses language in unexpected ways at the level of understanding and does not reveal itself in the linguistic form. A sarcastic remark, for example, states the opposite of its intended meaning. Typically, contextual factors provide important clues that the speaker is shifting to play mode. The notion of pragmatic play thus subsumes play with frame and identity, among other things. Following Cook's and Warner's call for broadening the research agenda, we look at pragmatic language play in FTF and synchronous text-only CMC.

On the whole, the computer medium has been associated with an abundance of play, both among first and second language users (e.g., Belz & Reinhardt, 2004; Daisley, 1994; Danet, 1998, 2001; Danet, Ruedenberg-Wright, & Rosenbaum-Tamari, 1997; del-Teso-Craviotto, 2006; Fisher, Phelps, & Ellis, 2000; Georgakopoulou, 2005; Herring, 1999, 2001; Rouzie, 2001; Sotillo, 2000). Previous research makes a monocausal explanation unlikely, suggesting instead that different, often interrelated, features of the medium may foster specific types of play. Danet et al. state that CMC is characterized by "ephemerality, speed, [and] interactivity" (1997, p. 3). Moreover, the absence of nonverbal channels associated with CMC appears to foster the construction of play frames and may also raise participants' metalinguistic awareness (Georgakopoulou, 2005) and lead to play and joking. On a textual level, Herring (1999) argues that the more "relaxed norms of coherence" (n.p.) in CMC foster language play and states that "[i]t is not surprising that a weakening of relevance norms would invite humorous play. Jokes violate Gricean conversational maxims by definition, and relevance is the most basic of Grice's four maxims"1 (n.p.). The maxim of relevance states that a speaker's contribution must be on the current topic. Taken at face value, a sarcastic remark will thus violate the maxim of relevance. Only when listeners recognize the shift to play mode can they eliminate the face value interpretation and understand the intended meaning.

In sum, previous research has noted the frequency of playful language in CMC and suggested several explanations. It is unclear, however, what effect, if any, the medium has on the amount of language play produced. The computer medium may simply serve as a "magnifying glass" (Warner 2004, p. 81) and draw our attention to features of verbal interaction between language learners that would have been overlooked in FTF communication. To date, no comparative studies have been conducted to try to pin down a possible differential effect of the independent variable medium on L2 humorous language play. The present study is designed to fill this gap.



This paper examines foreign language play in consensus-building discussions. We analyzed what aspects of language learners played with and compared some types of play in CMC with those in FTF discussions. A subsequent quantitative analysis across data sets shows whether or not the computer medium has a differential effect on the number of play events produced.

Eighteen students of advanced German participated in this study. The 10 men and 8 women were enrolled in one of two advanced German courses for students who had completed at least 2 years of university-level German. The general approach in the advanced courses can be described as communicative. The courses were taught at the same level and were not sequenced, that is, students were only enrolled in one of the two courses. At the time of the experiment students had known each other in the context of the class for a minimum of 3 weeks. Many had known each other from previous courses. Course work included films, readings of short literary and nonliterary texts, in-class discussions, and essay writing. For the study, mixed-gender groups of three students each worked on two similar consensus-building tasks.

Our empirical analysis compares humorous language play in CMC and FTF verbal interactions. To this end, the investigators chose a research design with the intent of isolating the effect of communication modalities and minimizing the effect of other variables. One of the investigators was the instructor for both courses. In the two classes, a total of 9 groups of 3 participants each took part in the 2 days of activities under investigation. However, only those groups that were represented in full on both days were examined for the study, leaving a total of 6 groups of 3 participants each for the analysis. In the research design, it was essential to keep groups identical for both sessions to allow for comparison across media.

The student groups worked on two similar consensus-building tasks. The tasks can be considered comparable in many ways including the level of difficulty and task type. Both required each group to arrive at a collective opinion concerning a moral dilemma (see student worksheets in the Appendix). Task 1, Alligator River (Krokodilfluss or KF), asked the students in the groups to rank characters with names such as "Schleggi" from the most to the least reprehensible, and Task 2, the Bomb Shelter Problem (Luftschutzkeller or LSK), asked the students in the groups to select four out of six characters for a spot in the life-saving bomb shelter. With their inventory of type-cast characters and exaggerated plots involving sex, power, and violence, the selected tasks fulfilled Cook's (2000) requirements for fostering play among language learners. Cook argues that language educators falsely assume that it is the "mundane transactional discourse of modern work" rather than "the ancient playful discourse concerning intimacy and power" (p. 160) which can stimulate students' interest in language learning. As in a game, the nature of our tasks required participants to collaborate and compete at the same time. On another level, the task set up a gaming scenario that required students to take on new identities.

In preparation for the consensus-building tasks, students reviewed formulaic expressions for negotiation such as expressing agreement, dismissing an interlocutor's point, and so forth. Then each group completed one task in a FTF setting (a regular classroom) and the other one in a CMC setting (a computer classroom) on two consecutive class days using InterChange, the real-time discussion chat module of the Daedalus Integrated Writing Environment. Unlike some other chat programs, InterChange does not display messages as they are being typed. Instead, each message is keyed into a window that only the writers can see. When the writers are satisfied with the message, they click on "send," and the message appears on the screens of the other group members. Participants signed in to the chat program using their own names. The FTF sessions were both audio- and videotaped.


In our crossover design, we ensured that the data were balanced between the two scenarios so that both tasks--though only completed once by each group--were carried out in both media and sequences. Half of the groups (Groups 1, 2, and 3) completed Task 1 (KF) in the FTF setting and Task 2 (LSK) in the CMC setting; the other half (Groups 4, 5, and 6) did the reverse. Table 1 illustrates this crossover design.

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Before coming to class, participants were given a handout with one of the two short moral dilemma texts. They were asked to prepare their own personal responses prior to class and to refrain from discussing their responses with other students before the discussion began. The responses involved students' personal evaluations of the characters in the text and, as such, had no "right" answer. The in-class assignment was to negotiate a group consensus solution to the problem. Six groups of 3 participants worked together under a 30-minute time limit discussing their positions either FTF or in the unmoderated chat module. CMC participants were physically in the same computer classroom but were instructed to sit as far apart from each other as the classroom would allow. For both scenarios, an organizational worksheet helped students keep track of individual and group opinions.

In the first round of coding the students' interactions, the two primary investigators (Coders 1 and 2) coded contributions as communicative units or "c-units," that is, independent utterances providing referential or pragmatic meaning.2 To check for intercoder reliability, the data were subsequently coded for c-units by two independent coders (Coders 3 and 4). There was strong agreement between coders, Cohen's kappa at .80 or above for both sets of data.

While language play includes conversational humor, rhymes, puns, magic rituals, the analysis presented in this article is restricted to two types of play, namely form-based play (i.e., play with the foreign language) and pragmatic play (i.e., play within the foreign language). The latter category, pragmatic play, is further subdivided into identity play and play with frame. The immediate goal of the project was not to capture the entire range of spontaneous language play, but to conduct a comparative analysis across media. This narrower focus allowed us to develop operational definitions of certain types of language play to facilitate comparison. Initially, we analyzed the data sets looking for form-based play involving playful uses of material aspects of the foreign language, for example, play with the sounds or morphemes. Since play of this type is formally marked, it is relatively easy to identify. Second, we identified play within the foreign language, which involves playing with the language at the level of understanding. This is what we call pragmatic play. Such uses are more difficult to spot because the verbal record does not always provide cues on nonserious keying. Laughter, for example, may signal a play event (Broner & Tarone, 2001), but not all playful uses are accompanied by laughter. Moreover, laughter does not always indicate humor; it may instead accompany embarrassment (e.g., Bell, 2005; following Jefferson, 1979). Finally, transcripts differ as to what can be recorded. In recordings of FTF settings, all laughter is audible and


can thus be transcribed. CMC transcripts, in contrast, record participants' written contributions only and do not capture audio. CMC participants have the option to signal keying (e.g., via emoticons). The most important evidence of playful language use came from fellow group members. If a given contribution was treated as play by at least one group member, the token could be labeled play. The researchers then looked at what aspects of meaning participants played with and focused their analysis on the two subcategories of pragmatic play: play with identity and play with frame. Play with identity involves taking on a new temporary identity, pretending to be or speak as someone else. Play with the frame, on the other hand, describes the process by which participants deliberately flout the rules of the task or the classroom script. By focusing on these two types of pragmatic play only, some types of playful language--for example teasing or puns--were excluded from analysis.

After having collaboratively developed ostensive definitions for play with identity and play with frame, each coder (Coders 1 and 5) coded all c-units as belonging to one of two categories: play with identity or frame or no play with identity or frame. Intercoder reliability was quite high: the two coders agreed in 97% of cases. However, because of the rarity of these pragmatic play events (3% of the total number of interactions), standard measures of reliability were compromised by a ceiling effect on agreement. Krippendorf's alpha and Cohen's kappa both resulted in a rather mediocre .43 despite the overall strong agreement between coders.


Form-Based L2 Play

The corpus of student interactions contains a number of play tokens. Initially, we focus on what the participants played with. With regard to the first main category, form-based L2 play, the corpus yielded no examples. We can only speculate why no form-based play occurred in the data set; time constraints may have played a role. Whereas Belz and Reinhardt (2004) observed form-based play in asynchronous interpersonal communication, the participants in our study had to complete a timed consensus-building synchronous task. For this reason, they may have tried to avoid any digression. Moreover, lower level learners may show more of a propensity towards playing with the foreign code (see Belz & Reinhardt, 2004; Warner, 2004). Clearly, further research is needed to pinpoint how instructors might be able to foster form-based play in specific contexts.

Pragmatic Play 1: Play with Identity

Whereas learners did not play with L2, they did play within L2 parodying, double-voicing, pretending to speak as somebody else, and flouting the rules of the task. In the following, we discuss play at the levels of meaning and context, which we labeled pragmatic play (following Warner, 2004). Focusing on what aspects of meaning and context learners played with, we begin with identity play.

Identity play is a type of pretend play that allows the speaker to take on a different identity and speak with the voice of someone else. Over the course of the task discussion, one student (Liz) spontaneously assumed the instructor's identity (Ilona Vandergriff) and assumed her voice. Due to a technical problem, Liz was not able to use her own workstation but used the instructor's instead since the instructor had already logged in. It appears that Liz took advantage of this technical glitch. The greater power of the pseudonym allowed her to pressure another student (Frank) to concede on an issue in Example 1 below.


The playful use of the new identity seems to become evident during the discussion in which the two female participants (Liz and Susan) are in the process of reaching an agreement on the five characters they consider the most despicable (lines 1-4). They agree that Sinbad is the worst and that Renate did not have much of a choice and therefore carried less of a responsibility for her actions. Both Liz and Susan are working hard trying to convince Frank (lines 5-9, lines 13-19, lines 23-29).

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Both Liz and Susan are trying to convince Frank but appear to get nowhere. Consequently, Susan utters her frustration Ja, ok genug damit ''Yes, enough already' (line 23). Liz then engages in identity play and overtly cues the meta-message "this is play" (Bateson, 1972, as cited in Danet et al., 1997, p. 3). She uses the word codename 'codename' (line 24) and adds Ha! 'Ha!' (line 25), an exclamation of triumph, and asks Frank directly whether he agrees with her and Susan. While Liz initiates the play move, Susan actively supports the construction of this new identity by referring to Liz as Professor Vandergriff in the subsequent sequence.


This play event is thus coconstructed and sustained by participants. Even Frank appears to participate in the end with Danke Ilona! 'Thanks Ilona!' (line 29). Finally, all three group members participate in the joint fictionalization and play along.

On one level, the play token may serve to provide some comic relief. It seems clear, however, that fun is not the only thing which Liz is after. Her identity play serves to exert pressure playfully on Frank to yield. Previous research has identified many clear examples of play for pleasure and for rehearsal (e.g., Broner & Tarone, 2001). The type of play event exemplified in Example 1 does not fit neatly into these categories. Whereas Liz and Susan appear to be having fun with Liz's new role, the same play event probably cannot be claimed to produce pleasure for Frank. His Danke Ilona! 'Thanks Ilona!' is an instance of loser's humor (Cook, 2000), a way to save face in light of defeat. And even for Liz and Susan, pleasure is merely one aspect of the play event. After all, the play event exerts pressure on Frank to give up his position; play thus becomes a tool of task completion.

Other tokens of identity play in the corpus were not accompanied by overt self-identification. Rather, the new temporary identity is communicated by manner of speaking or by conveying attitudes or behaviors associated with certain groups, that is, groups to which the participant does not belong. In Example 2 "Heino" below, Sam pretends to like Heino, a folk singer of the older German generation, who is much despised by the younger generations. When parodying Heino (lines 14-15), Sam is double-voicing or speaking like another person but does not conspicuously change roles. It is the deliberate flouting of hearers' expectations, the sense that the speaker would never say this in a serious way that provides the true intent: the speaker is double-voicing in order to poke fun. Dana originally initiated this interpersonal communication, after the group had completed the task by asking her group members what they were thinking about Woran denkt ihr? 'What are you thinking about?' in the first line.

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The play sequence is not directly tied to the previous topic strand. Sam sets it up by asking his coparticipants whether they know the McDonald's jingle (lines 2-5). The success


of this play event crucially depends on the shared reference. Only after he receives an affirmative response from Dana does Sam move into the play mode by writing Es ist ganz cool 'It is awesome' (line 11). Instead of responses from coparticipants, the transcript shows a next turn by Sam. With the even higher praise Heino ist ein echter Superstar 'Heino is a real superstar' (line 12), Sam heightens the sense of incongruity between his real identity (i.e., a young urban student from the US) and his playful disguise when he is parodying Heino fans. In other words, the shift to play is not flagged overtly by stating "I am a Heino fan" but rather by speaking with the voice of a Heino fan. The shift to play frame in Example 2 is therefore much more subtle than in Example 1.

Another factor is responsible for this subtlety. While in Example 1 the real and play identity (Liz and Professor Vandergriff) are incongruous, it is theoretically possible for Sam to be a Heino fan. Knowing that these two identities are incongruous requires knowing Sam and knowing the Heino frame. Perhaps because she lacked the knowledge of either or both, Dana did not respond to the play token at all. Of course, it is also possible, though less likely, that Dana does not find this kind of joke funny (see Bell, 2005), perhaps because she was a serious Heino fan or because she finds such play inappropriate in classroom contexts. Tom reacts by maintaining the play frame but does not acknowledge it as a play frame. He asks the Heino fan to sing the jingle and is thus playing along, encouraging Sam to go further with the play mode (line 13). When Sam responds with virtual singing (as indicated in the marking of extra vowel length and "yeah") Tom challenges him to sing loud in what appears to be a game of one-upmanship (line 16).

The off-topic play episode "Heino" occurred after the group had reached consensus. Under the 30-minute time limit, group members may have felt pressured to reach consensus or even "beat" the other groups. Once the task was complete, they were free to play. Then again, play tokens did not only occur after the work was done. In fact, the majority of play tokens in the corpus occurred in the middle of task discussions and served to move the task discussion forward.

Pragmatic Play 2: Play with Frame

The corpus also yielded examples of a different kind of L2 pragmatic play, which we categorized as playing with frame. In task two of the project, the group is supervising a government program that allocates bomb shelter slots to various research stations. The director of one of the research stations has turned to them for help deciding which four of the six people will be allowed in. In other words, group members must make decisions on characters based on the relatively sketchy information provided in the worksheet. Liz, Susan and Frank are discussing how to rank the characters and why. Just before the play token, Liz, Susan, and Frank are negotiating the exact nature of their roles as supervisors who are to allocate slots for the bomb shelters. They proceed to discuss the pros and cons of allowing in some of the six characters, for example, the biochemistry professor or the student. In Example 3 "Wisdom," Liz and Susan temporarily and conspicuously flout the rules (Belz, 2002b) by coconstructing a satellite fictional world that inherits all the features from the fictional world described in the task directions with one exception: They imagine what it would be like to build a fictional character by combining the "wisdom" of the biochemist and the policeman. Note how the new play frame is initially marked as unreal by Liz (via negation and subjunctive use, lines 1-6), but in the next turns further details are added in the indicative (lines 11-14). In this way, Liz and Susan are coconstructing the play frame.


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Immediately following their play episode, the three group members are back on task and continue discussing the ranking of the characters. Analyzing the play event move by move shows that in spite of the agreement tokens (ja in line 7 and ja, ja in line 11) Susan and Liz may not be "on the same page." As stated above, Liz is imagining a solution to the bomb shelter problem which involves flouting the rules by taking the characters apart, as it were. She suggests "taking the wisdom out of the biochemist and the policeman." Susan seems to agree with Liz ('well, then- yes') but then digresses to another hypothetical scenario: naja, dann- ja, wenn sie die falsche Pflanze essen dann haben sie Pech gehabt 'well, then- yes, if they eat the wrong plant, they'll be out of luck" (lines 7-11). Her statement seems to show that she either did not understand Liz's statement or that Susan did not have the "particular semantic script" to perceive this remark as humorous (see Bell, 2005, p. 206). Although Liz provides positive feedback to Susan's scenario, Liz moves on to yet another scenario: wenn ich nicht reinkommen kann, dann sterbt ihr 'if I can't come in, you'll die' (lines 11-13). It appears that Susan and Liz are coconstructing a joint fictionalization, but their pretend scenarios do not actually mesh. Nonetheless, they continue to ground the interlocutor's utterance with acceptance tokens perhaps because they understand each other well enough for current purposes (Clark & Brennan, 1991); they are engaging in language play.

In creating these two different play scenarios, Liz and Susan appear at first to represent the two sides: while Liz has put herself into the supervisors' shoes trying to find out a solution, Susan hypothesizes about what could happen to the group of six people who are asking the supervisors for help. In this sense, both Liz and Susan represent all parties involved in the scenario. Then, Liz switches to Susan's scenario by using the pronoun er 'he' to "ventriloquate" the policeman (ja, ja dann sagt er, wenn ich nicht reinkommen kann, dann sterbt ihr 'yes, yes, then he says, if I can't come in, you'll die,' line 11). Although Liz does not go along with Susan's scenario of the group of six 'eat[ing] the wrong plant,' Liz drops her supervisor role and switches to cobuilding a new character with Susan.

In Example 3, the instances of laughter deserve a closer look. Neither Liz nor Susan respond to each other's statements with laughter, but they do laugh in the middle of their own scenarios (lines 5 and 9). These instances of laughter can be labeled as channel cues to signal a shift to play mode in FTF (see Broner & Tarone, 2001, p. 363). The third instance of laughter (line 15) is of a different nature, however. It may be viewed as an acceptance token,


indicating that the participant has understood the humor and is acknowledging it. In this way, Liz and Susan coconstruct a satellite fictional world playing with the frame of the fictional world described in the task directions. The shift to play is signaled on different levels both nonverbally and verbally, including laughter, subjunctive mood, and negation.

While Example 3 illustrates a further fictionalization in the fictional world of the task scenario, Examples 4 "Bomb shelter" and 5 "T-Shirts," excerpted from the computer-mediated discussions on the bomb shelter scenario, show how participants play with frame by moving between the fictional and the real world. In Example 4, Tom suggests building a bomb shelter in the dorm.

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Sam's ludic suggestion comes in response to Tom's query about his group's weekend plans in the final phase of the group's task discussion of the bomb shelter task. Tom's question initiates a second thread alongside the ongoing discussion of the relative ranking of characters. (See Sam's statement in lines 3-4, Tom's statement in lines 7-11, and Dana's statement in lines 12-14). In his ludic announcement (Ich mach eine Luftschutzkeller in den Dorm 'I am building a bomb-shelter in the dorm,' lines 5-6), Sam plays with frame by merging the real world of the university campus with the fictional world of the task scenario. At the same time, one could argue that Sam is engaging in humorous role play by playing the role of a student who builds a bomb shelter in the dorm. In either case, he blends the real and fictional worlds.

Tom's response (Ich wuerde nicht so gern in diesen Studentenwohnungen wohnen 'I would not like to live in those dorms,' lines 15-17) maintains the play frame as though it were serious. His statement acknowledges Sam's language play and maintains the play frame but does not extend it. His contribution allows us to characterize the play event in Example 4 as a joint construction of language play but also highlights the need for a closer look at the quality of responses to play. Compared to the enthusiastic coconstruction of play evidenced in Examples 1 and 3, Tom's response signals that he recognizes Sam's attempt at language play as if to say "I get the joke and it's corny."


Example 5 "T-Shirts" is the continuation of Example 4. It shows a similarly coconstructed play event. Again, it is Sam who initiates the play and Tom who responds. Sam's play builds on the relative ranking of character participants the group discussed earlier (see Example 4).

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As in Example 4, a second discussion thread (lines 8 and 14-16) runs parallel to the language play event, challenging participants to juggle both the ludic and serious. Dana's assumption that the task required ranking of the characters leads to two separate threads in the discussion. Sam's ludic suggestion about ranking t-shirts (lines 24 and 25) is intertwined with a second strand, which is triggered by Dana's statement in lines 1-3. She wonders whether her position is showing gender bias (Ist das Egoistisch? als Frauenseite 'Is that selfish? From a woman's perspective?' lines 8-9). Both coparticipants respond in a serious manner (Sam in lines 14-15, Tom in line 16). These intertwined discussion threads violate the norms of sequential coherence for oral interaction, but there is no evidence that coherence is reduced (see Herring, 1999). By sending two separate messages, participants keep the two discussion threads apart, reducing the potential for confusion.

Example 5 also shows other similarities with Example 4. For example, the language play initiated by Sam in lines 10-13 and Tom's response in lines 17-18 mirror the play event in Example 4: Sam's ludic suggestion blends the real and task-scenario world while Tom's response, though dismissive, maintains the play frame.

In the group's FTF discussion the same type of language play occurs as in the CMC discussions (e.g., Examples 4 and 5), namely one that merges the real and fictional world. In Example 6 "Birthday Party" participants attempt to rank the characters in the task scenario on their moral character. After Tom pressures Dana to yield, Sam interjects a playful comment.


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When Sam says in lines 7 and 10-13 that he would not invite any of them to his birthday party, he blends the fictional world of the despicable characters of the task scenario with the real world of his own life. Both coparticipants support his play with laughter. In addition, Tom is joining Sam in coproducing the play event as though speaking with a single voice. Demonstrating his shared perspective, Tom's laughter overlaps with and anticipates Sam's last word. Common in conversational joking (Coates, 2007), overlapping speech is unavailable in CMC, forcing users to resort to other strategies to coconstruct language play events in synchronous conferencing (see Examples 1 and 2).

In sum, discussions in both modalities show participants playing with the foreign language by taking on other identities, extending the play frame, and/or blending the fictional world of the task scenarios with the real world. In these discussions, participants do what they are assigned to do and thus fulfill traditional classroom expectations. At the same time, the play episodes subvert the structures of the classroom (Cook, 2005). One student is posing as the professor (Example 1) while another is planning to build a bomb shelter in the dorm (Example 4), for example. Neither act is typically sanctioned on a college campus. In this way, language play can be a resource of transgression which allows language learners to break free--at least temporarily--from institutional constraints (Pomerantz & Bell, 2007).

By the same token, the language play episodes observed in the experiment illustrate a meaningful synthesis of the cultural divide between work and play because the students' play does not distract them from the assigned task. Students are not "goofing off." Instead, all play spontaneously emerges from the task scenarios or discussions. In some cases, for instance in Example 1, the play event has a direct role in moving the discussion forward. In other cases, a humorous play episode may have a mitigating effect in a contentious negotiation (e.g., Example 6) and foster group solidarity. Regardless of the specific impact on the progression of the formal language learning activity, all play episodes observed in the discussions emerge spontaneously in the interactional encounters of learners as they try to complete the formal task. Combining or alternating between serious and playful purposes might best be labeled serio-ludic discourse, following Rouzie (2001).


Pragmatic Play in CMC Versus FTF

In both modalities, synchronous CMC and in FTF, learners engaged in humorous pragmatic play. Specifically, interlocutors played with identities and frames/scripts, i.e., conceptual or episodic prototypes. The percentage of play tokens relative to the number of all communicative units was fairly low at 0.93% in FTF and 1.43% in CMC. The two sets of data show no significant differences in rates of spontaneous pragmatic play, perhaps due to the rarity of play events overall (see Table 2).

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The play episodes occurred in the middle and closing sections of the discussions as participants were negotiating for consensus, not in the opening sections when they were comparing their individual lists.

The type of play evidenced in the data, that is, spontaneous play with identity and frame, was not triggered by co-textual factors such as lack of coherence (see Herring, 1999). In brief, the comparative analysis casts doubt on the effect of medium as an independent variable.

We also considered a possible differential effect of the task. Again, the data show that the frequency of pragmatic play does not differ significantly across tasks. Based on our quantitative analysis, we can conclude that neither medium, nor group, nor task produced a noticeable differential effect on the number of play tokens learners generated.

In addition, our results show that identity play (e.g., Example 1 "Codename") was only found in CMC. This could be attributed to the fact that it was possible for students to log on under a pseudonym--in this case a different user name--which is something that is not possible in FTF communication. Consequently, the CMC medium seems to present learners with more opportunities (see Greeno, 1989) for identity play than FTF.

The types of tasks students worked on may have fostered spontaneous language play independent of the medium. First of all, the tasks themselves, especially Task 2 Luftschutzkeller, required students to engage in a fictive interaction, itself a form of language play. This interaction had the structure of a game or competition, forcing participants to compete and cooperate with other group members. In this way, the task requirements appear to foster the emergence of ludic interaction (see Bonaiuto, Castellana, & Pierro, 2003; Cook, 2000). At the same time, language play can mitigate the effects of a contentious negotiation and foster


solidarity (Cook, 2000). However, with its power to establish or affirm the bond among group insiders, language play also accentuates the boundary between insider and outsider. This is especially true if the play event comes at the expense of a participant as in Example 1 as Frank was pressured to yield by the "professor."


Language play is an authentic and legitimate use of language and, as such, an integral part of L2 competency. As Cook (2000) notes, "knowing a language, and being able to function in communities which use that language, entails being able to understand and produce play with it, making this ability a necessary part of advanced proficiency" (p. 150). Building on the formidable body of research in CMC and play, our comparative study examined whether or not advanced language learners play more in CMC. In sum, the data show that learners engaged in humorous L2 play in both settings, in CMC and FTF, and that neither medium had a significant differential effect on the frequency of language play tokens. The findings thus cast doubt on previous studies (e.g., Belz & Reinhardt, 2004) that suggest that the medium alone can promote foreign language play. Even though play primarily occurred in the negotiation phase of the task, we agree with Warner (2004) that "the nature of the activity cannot be considered the sole explanation for the presence of a type of play" (p. 74). Rather, our findings imply that a confluence and interaction of contextual factors such as individual learner characteristics, proficiency levels, experience with different modalities, and the group's shared history might have more of a differential effect on language play than the modality or task alone.

Given the range of factors which may foster ludic language in language learning contexts, instructors will be well advised to experiment cautiously as they design activities. Groups are likely to vary considerably in the amount of play they produce, as suggested by the findings displayed in Table 2. While CMC may foster some types of play (e.g., identity play) other types of play occur in both modalities. More importantly, language learning activities requiring negotiation or debate may foster language play (e.g., Cook, 2000; Pomerantz & Bell, 2007) regardless of modality. We support the call to move beyond utilitarian tasks and not to exclude controversial topics such as sexual relation, religion, solidarity, or aggression between social groups in L2 materials. Moreover, language learning materials, such as the task scenarios in this study, may promote ludic discourse by setting the tone for classroom interaction. If students perceive the language learning activity as a game, they may be more likely to play. Finally, their perceptions of power dynamics and the instructor role can impact students' propensity to play. In order to promote play, instructors are advised to become facilitators in student-centered classrooms in which students work collaboratively in small unmoderated groups. In addition, teachers may wish to model language play just like they would model new grammar structures, thus giving clear signals that language play is appropriate. Although some types of play such as identity play are more likely to occur in CMC, instructors can foster a range of ludic and serio-ludic discourse in different modalities and give it the more central role in the face-to-face and the computer-mediated foreign language classroom it so clearly deserves.



1 The Gricean maxims are: quantity, quality, relevance, and manner.

2 The baseline measure is defined as the "c-unit" (Böhlke, 2003; following Crookes, 1990). The concept of "sentence" is not well suited to spoken syntax because people do not typically speak in complete well formed sentences. Even native speaker speech is full of false starts, repetitions, ellipses, and so on. The c-units, by contrast, fit the data of interactive talk in which utterances may consist of a single word only, such as "yes," a phrase (e.g. "me too"), a clause, or a multiclausal unit. It is often impossible to define these utterances by looking at one utterance only. In fact, they often emerge only in consideration of previous discourse. Moreover, these units had to have a pragmatic discourse function in the context in order to be coded as utterances. For instance, a tag question such as ja? 'yes?' was counted as a separate syntactic-pragmatic unit from the preceding utterance since it functioned as a comprehension check, much as "Do you know what I mean?"

3 The following conventions were used in the coding of the students' transcripts:

(( )) = comment on nonverbal behavior

- = hesitation, w/continuing intonation

, = hesitation, w/end-of-phrase intonation

. = falling intonation, as in end of statement

? = rising intonation, as in a question

= = latching: immediately follows preceding utterance

4 Adapted from Simon, Howe, and Kirschenbaum (1972).


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Student worksheets on the two tasks4 (excerpted and translated from the original German)

Task 1 Krokodilfluss (KF) 'Alligator River'

Once upon a time there was a woman named Renate who was in love with a man named Peter. Peter lived on the shore of a river. Renate lived on the opposite shore of the river. The river which separated the two lovers was teeming with man-eating alligators. Renate wanted to cross the river to be with Peter. Unfortunately, the bridge had been washed out. So she went to ask Sinbad, the captain of the only river boat, to take her across. He said he would be glad to if she would consent to go to bed with him preceding the voyage. She promptly refused and went to see a friend named Ivan to explain her plight. Ivan did not want to be involved at all and offered no advice or help. Renate felt that she had no alternative but to accept Sinbad's terms. Sinbad fulfilled his promise to Renate and delivered her into the arms of Peter.

When she told Peter about her amorous escapade in order to cross the river, Peter cast her aside with disdain. Heartsick and dejected, Renate turned to Schleggi with her tale of woe. Schleggi, feeling compassion for Renate, sought out Peter and brutally beat him up. Renate was overjoyed at the sight of Peter getting his due. As the sun sets on the horizon, we hear Renate laughing at Peter.

Step 1 - personal position (preparation)

Rank the characters in this story (Renate, Peter, Sinbad, Ivan, Schleggi) according to their character. Write a short note explaining your rankings.

Who is the least reprehensible/offensive/nasty? (= 1)

Who is the most reprehensible/offensive/nasty? (= 5)

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Step 2 - Consensus (class discussion)

Discuss your rankings of the story's characters (Renate, Peter, Sinbad, Ivan, Schleggi) with your partners. You have 20 minutes to negotiate a ranking list of these people on which you have all agreed.

Who is the least reprehensible/offensive/nasty? (= 1)

Who is the most reprehensible/offensive/nasty? (= 5)

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Task 2 Luftschutzkeller (LSK) 'Bomb Shelter'

Your group is part of a government program that runs a number of field research stations far from civilization. The Third World War has just broken out, and bombs are falling everywhere. Major cities around the world are being destroyed. All over the world, people are rushing to the bomb shelters. You have received a call from one of your research stations: they desperately need your help.

Six people have come to the station in search of shelter. There is only enough space, food, air and water in the station's bomb shelter for four people, who, according to experts, could only survive for three months on these provisions. They can see that it would be hard to remain rational and calm if they should have to choose by themselves which four people should survive, so they have called you, their supervisors. Your group must decide who is allowed into the bomb shelter. The director of the research station will follow your orders.

You also need to get to your own shelter quickly, so you have very little time--only 30 minutes--to evaluate the sketchy information available on the six candidates.

Important: the four people you choose could end up being the only surviving humans on earth. They alone would have to start a new human race.

You have exactly 30 minutes. Keep in mind: if your group does not reach a decision within 30 minutes there could be more than two people who die, since a deadly struggle among the six could ensue.

Here is the only information that you have on the six people.

1. Accountant (male); 31 yrs. old

2. His wife; 37 years old, 6 months pregnant

3. Young radical activist (Nation of Islam); medical student in his second year

4. Biochemistry professor (male); 55 yrs. old

5. College student (female); 21 yrs. old

6. Policeman with a pistol (he has to keep the pistol); 40 yrs. old

You have no information on the ethnic or racial characteristics of the candidates.



Ilona Vandergriff is Professor of German at San Francisco State University. Her research interests focus on pragmatics, particularly first and second language use in different modalities.

Carolin Fuchs is Lecturer in the TESOL/Applied Linguistics Department at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her research has focused on technology-based language teaching and learning and electronic literacy skills.


Ilona Vandergriff

Foreign Languages and Literatures

San Francisco State University

1600 Holloway Avenue

San Francisco, CA 94132

Phone: 415 338 1106

Fax: 415 405 0588


Carolin Fuchs

Department of Arts and Humanities

TESOL/Applied Linguistics Program

Teachers College, Columbia University

316A Zankel, Box 66

525 W 120th Street

New York, New York 10027

Phone: 212 678 3713

Fax: 212 678 3428