Fanfiction and ELF

The advent of the new digital technology called Web 2.0 has turned the Internet into an interactive environment where social media allow virtual communities of netizens to cooperate and share user-generated content (Lantolf and Thorne 2006). This suggests that a different conception of language education is needed in order for language teachers and students to be able to cope with the changes that are taking place in the area of global communication and social networking, where the use of ELF is very common.

Fanfiction and creative writing were chosen as the core activities of the research project, because Italian high-school syllabuses often include the history of English literature, and fanfiction was felt to be an appropriate link between a conventional study of literature and the new approach to reading and writing which takes place on the Internet. The purpose of the study was to interconnect two groups of volunteer high-school students from different Italian cities. They were asked to use English to produce their own creative texts cooperatively. Therefore, their mutual engagement in online activities turned them into two CoPs, which extended beyond the physical space of their classrooms.

Unlike more conventional creative writing tasks, which are part of the EFL curriculum that aims to support the learner's writing skills, the advantages of introducing Web-based collaborative creative writing and fanfiction as teaching/learning activities are many: a) students can work with fellow students from different social backgrounds and benefit from an experience that enhances their intercultural competence, b) they are more autonomous in carrying out their assignments and can also work from home, as they would normally do as social networkers, and c) with fanfiction, a CoP has the option to be visible to the community of fans (fandom) who share their same interest and taste in literature. In so doing, CoP members can interact with people from outside the school environment. This stimulates their motivation and bridges the gap between schooling and the thriving digital world.

In fanfiction and collaborative creative writing, negotiation springs from a combination of imagination and language play. Cook (2000: 204) believes that language play is crucial in language learning 'not only because it involves adaptation to a new linguistic and cultural environment, but because play and language are so closely intertwined', while Wenger (1998: 203-204) has emphasised the importance of 'negotiability through imagination':

Imagination, too, can be a way to appropriate meanings. Stories, for instance, can be appropriated easily because they allow us to enter the events, the characters, and their plights by calling upon our imagination. [...] As a result they can be integrated into our identities and remembered as personal experience, rather than as mere reification. It is this ability to enable negotiability through imagination that makes stories, parables and fables powerful communication devices.

Today, creative writing on the Internet has given rise to a fresh genre, fanfic- tion, that is being culturally shaped through collaboration and mutual support (Jenkins 2006). Hence, the pedagogical goal of the activities presented in the following sections is to integrate ELF and fanfiction into the framework of the English syllabus.

Phase 1

During the first phase of field research, which took place in the school year 2010/2011, two fifth grade classes from two high schools located in Rome were interconnected online. During organisational meetings, the students and their English teachers were given an outline of the project, their tasks were explained to them and they were trained in how to use the wiki.3 Work began as soon as the students and teachers joined the wiki.

First of all, the two classes were given a reading list that contained a wide choice of novels and short stories, ranging from 19th- and 20th-century classics of English literature to books that were not usually included in school anthologies. Students were asked to choose two books they would like to read and work on. They selected a novel and a short story that were part of the syllabus for the school-leaving examination that year: Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Joyce's short story Eveline, from Dubliners.

The teachers and the researcher agreed on what their roles should be in the project. First of all, they were to schedule their lessons in the multimedia laboratories of their schools (at least one hour per week) and make sure that the students carried out their tasks on a regular basis. Because it was impossible to interconnect the two classes at the same time, we decided that the students would work in an online asynchronous connection. The main role of the teachers was to act as facilitators, who would guide the students and give advice when asked. However, they should neither correct the students' work, nor evaluate it. Instead, they were expected to assess it, together with their students, as a work in progress and improve it cooperatively. When the project was over, students were granted extra credits in English.

The wiki contained five thematic pages that corresponded to five different assignments. The first four were about Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray:

  • 1. If the picture could speak ... Students had to change the original narrator of the story and write brand new passages from the point of view of Dorian's picture.
  • 2. A new preface ... Students had to create an alternative preface to Wilde's novel.
  • 3. A new ending ... Students had to write a different conclusion to the story.
  • 4. The pact with the devil ... Students had to rewrite the episode of Dorian putting a spell on his own portrait.

The fifth assignment was about Eveline, Joyce's famous short story from Dubliners:

5. Eveline. A different ending... Students had to create an alternative denoument.

Working as a CoP, the students could write and share their texts cooperatively, and improve them through their reciprocal advice and corrective feedback. This had rippling effects that turned creative writing into a social event, which in turn fostered language improvement. Interestingly, the use of a facility provided by the wiki called History favoured the creation of a Vygotskian zone of proximal development (ZPD) (Vygotsky 1978; van Lier 2004; Lantolf and Thorne 2006). Through this facility, learners had the chance to compare at any time the different drafts of each text they had produced and provide reciprocal corrective feedback to improve the intelligibility and the overall quality of their creative work. A peer review process was activated, which not only helped to disambiguate opaque or inappropriate lexicogrammar expressions, but most of all promoted a reflexive attitude. Moreover, it should be observed that this kind of social networking reinforced the students' media literacy and their commitment as members of a CoP.

Occasionally, students used online monolingual and bilingual dictionaries, but they hardly ever used any grammar books.

Here is an example of ELF usage from a passage produced by the students:

Only Dorian could open the door of the attic. I could hear his footsteps coming to me. [...] His eyes were full of disgust, a disgust that was painted also in mine.

What is interesting to notice is the creative use of language (Seidlhofer 2011: 97) that results in the use of an unconventional loaded expression: a disgust that was painted also in mine. This seems to be a case of appropriation and adaptation of the English metaphorical expression painted on someone's face, (e.g. a smile painted on my face4) through the semantic substitution of face, the canonical core word of this metaphor, with eyes, referred to anaphorically by the deictic mine. Hence, instead of the hypernym face the students used the hyponym eyes (occhi, in Italian). This reformulation of the metaphor may be considered an example of semantic transfer of the equivalent Italian metaphorical expression dipinto negli occhi, which usually collocates with terrore (terror) and therefore has a negative semantic prosody (e.g. Si svegliava all'improvviso, impaurita, con il terrore dipinto negli occhi5 / He used to awake suddenly, frightened, with terror painted on his face). In other words, the non-standard metaphor used by the students could be considered a calque, which is a lexical phenomenon that is common in situations of language contact. In this particular case, the learners acted as ELF "languagers [who] exploit the potential of the language, [the] focus [of which] is on establishing the indexical link between the code and the context. [This is a] creative process in that the code is treated as malleable and adjustable to the requirements of the moment" (Seidlhofer 2011: 98).

Hence, the English classroom and the Internet provided the multilingual and multicultural context where the friction of Italian and English led to the emergence of ELF as a natural affordance to accomplish the learners' communicative performance.

Let us focus on another interesting case of "creative idiomaticity" (Prodromou 2008: 52) contained in the following example of ELF usage from a passage produced by the students:

The perpetual repetition of the identical and the sense of duty had paralyzed her, had made her unable to take the reins of her life. [...]

This sentence shows that students translated an Italian equestrian idiom that is also used in English, only with a slightly different wording. Both expressions, though, are based on the same dead metaphor: prendere le redini di qualcosa /

keep a tight rein on somebody/something.6 Again, we may assume that language transfer was used strategically, and that the students probably translated the Italian idiom word for word into English, not knowing that a similar idiom is also used in this language. In any case, the result of this process was the creation of an alternative ELF metaphorical expression that ensured the transparency of its meaning, at least within our Italian CoP.

The topic of idiomaticity is central in ELF research (e.g. Prodromou 2008: 39-78; Seidlhofer 2011: 132-142). These studies have essentially tackled the problem of idiomatic usage as regards the role of ENL in the acquisition of English. Prodromou's and Seidlhofer's opposite views can be summed up as follows: a) the "pedagogic deficit" (Prodromou 2008: 45) that has traditionally reduced the learner's exposure to ENL idioms and phraseology - especially to formulaic "semi-pre-constructed phrases that constitute single choices" (2008: 50) - affect the student's fluency and communicative competence, and b) the learner's tendency to incorporate ENL idioms as a marker of authenticity in international communicative contexts often leads to "unilateral idiomaticity" (Seidlhofer 2011: 134), i.e. to lack of intelligibility and opacity of meaning. Therefore, the author (2011: 136) claims, "conformity to a native-speaker norm of usage [can be] communicatively dysfunctional in an ELF interaction".

However, the above examples taken from the fanfiction texts produced by the members of our CoP show that the "idiomatizing and metaphorizing" (Seidlhofer 2011: 143) processes activated by ELF speakers do not necessarily take the ENL idioms and metaphors as a model. In fact, it seems that the students' L1 play a fundamental role in the activation of creative idiomaticity through the strategic use of language transfer. This, we may argue, should not only be intended as an expedient used by learners to cope with their inadequate repertoire of native-speaker idioms and language chunks, as Prodromou seems to suggest, but also as a natural predisposition of ELF users to appropriate English and adapt it to their languacultural identity.

Phase 2

During the second phase of fieldwork, which took place in the school year 2011/2012, three fifth grade and one fourth grade classes from three high schools located in Rome, Palermo and Messina were networked. The students interacted through a new wiki7 and worked on two contemporary short stories: Roald Dahl's Parson's Pleasure (1959) and Ron Butlin's The German Boy (1987).

In each class the students were divided into two subgroups: one was supposed to work on Dahl's short story and the other on Butlin's. Students could work in pairs and once they had finished writing their texts they would upload them onto the appropriate wiki pages. At this point each of the students who had worked on Dahl's short story could choose one of the texts produced by his/her companions from a different city and rearrange it as he/she pleased. The same could be done by those who had worked on Butlin's short story.

Once this phase of the project was over, the two subgroups swapped roles and worked on each other's texts via the wiki. In this way everyone was able to carry out both assignments and cooperate with the whole CoP.

Similarly to the first phase of my field research, the students were asked to exchange peer feedback in a ZPD, using the wiki facility called History. Quite unexpectedly, though, the students tended to focus more on content rather than form in reviewing their cooperative work. This indicates that the use of ELF could well serve the pragmatic needs of the students' CoP. However, since the students shared the same L1, they tended to accept a few expressions which were presumably adaptations of Italian idioms into English, such as the word for word translation of the Italian idiomatic expression: Dio benedica I'ignoranza /god bless the ignorance, which is used twice. This could be considered a reverse case of "unilateral idiomaticity" (Seidlhofer 2004: 220), as long as the students tended to borrow this idiom from their L1 rather than use an equivalent ENL idiomatic expression, or paraphrase its meaning. It should be noted that this process of L1 borrowing into ELF by a monolingual class would be likely to cause problems of mutual understanding in a multilingual ELF class.

As regards teaching and learning dynamics, Figure 4.1 shows a diagram of the processes activated throughout this project. The diagram is based on

Teaching/learning activity model

Figure 4.1 Teaching/learning activity model

Engestrom's (1987) activity theory model in van Lier (2004: 210) and Lantolf and Thorne (2006: 259), and consists of a large triangle made up of smaller triangles. The two-way arrows indicate that the contextual components of a learning activity are interconnected. The white arrow located outside the triangle shows that the interplay of the elements which characterise the ecology of a learning environment contribute to the expected outcome. This, in its turn, may be taken as the starting point of a new learning activity.

Starting from the base of the triangle, the diagram provides a description of the community of participants, which included not only the students and their teachers, but also the netizens who could access our wiki to read the texts produced by the CoP, or post messages through the open forum that was available on the wiki itself. We then have a description of the modality (rules) in which online interaction should be carried out (asynchronous writing) and a definition of the different roles assigned to participants. Teachers were supposed to act as facilitators of the communicative process involved in Web-mediated cooperative writing. They would guide the students when they asked for their support. In addition, teachers and students were constantly involved in a joint assessment of the ongoing process, in order to make all necessary adjustments. Moving clockwise, the subject of this research consisted in bridging the gap (convergence) between the scholastic use of EFL and the use of ELF as an affor- dance to carry out authentic Internet-mediated communication. The other mediating artifacts that were available were a word processor, social networks and a wiki. The object of our activity plan was to enhance the students' cooperative creative writing and media literacy via the use of ELF, to interconnect distally located classes and produce fanfiction texts. Finally, the outcome of this activity plan consisted in fostering intercultural communication within a networked CoP, whereby participants could improve their communicative competence in English through mutual scaffolding in a ZPD.

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