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They Learned a New Language — and Then Discovered a Whole New World Online

Here's why immersion in a different culture’s social media is a hot new field in language-learning

When Ariel, a 21-year-old living in California, first began learning Chinese a year ago, she never ventured into Chinese culture outside of the classroom and textbooks. Nothing really piqued her interest, she says — she only wanted to learn the language.

But then, while preparing to study abroad in China, she ventured onto the popular Chinese social media and video-sharing site BiliBili, which Ariel describes as “basically YouTube, Facebook, Yelp, Netflix, shopping sites, government propaganda, Instagram, news media and everything else you could think of, rolled neatly into one domain.”

That was her magic-carpet moment. “It felt like I was entering a whole new world,” she says. “I was exposed to an entirely different side of the internet.”

Ariel describes Chinese social media as “more seamless, modern, quicker [and] cheaper,” but with a few big cultural differences that helped prepare her for her time abroad.

“Exploring a new side of the Internet, one that wasn’t westernized, actually made me rethink some of my worldviews and cast aside previous stereotypes I had about China,” she tells MEL. “For example, in the West, we are very concerned about race and will go to great lengths to avoid making race an issue. It is always on everyone’s minds, and people take care to avoid using the color of a person’s skin to describe them.” Ariel, who is Mexican, says she stuck out quite a bit in China. But she learned people weren’t staring at her out of judgment or the typical Western connotations that come with race — that is, “where pointing out any obvious differences in appearance is hurtful,” she says. “In China, [staring] is just their way of expressing curiosity.”

Learning a new language unlocks a new side of the internet. from Showerthoughts

Dr. Sheri Wells-Jensen, a linguistics professor at Bowling Green State University, tells MEL that the impact of immersing oneself in foreign-language internet culture is a giant, growing topic in the field of language learning.

“For some people, learning a new language is like becoming an additional person,” she tells MEL. “You fit new ways of saying things into your head, and it’s interesting to watch what happens. It’s like tossing new items into a half-filled backpack: You can get them in there, and there is some order, but every time you reload the backpack, things come out a little differently.”  

In other words, when you learn everything about a new language from textbooks, everything fits a particular way. But when you get online to see how people really use language, you’ll see people communicate in totally different ways from what’s on Duolingo.

“Even people who study in the same class at the same time turn out to know different little things,” she adds. “Your circumstances are like shadows cast across your mastery of the new language and what you’re thinking about during the time you learn it.”

Similar to the “positive impacts of traveling overseas for students,” Wells-Jensen says, exploring languages online — through memes, videos and social media — “[can affect] who you are as a person and why you are learning [that language].”

Take Desi, a 25-year-old in India. Although he’s never left his home country, he’s taking the time to learn Spanish on Duolingo. Venturing into Spanish areas of YouTube has helped him get a sense of the culture.

It’s taught him “a few things about Latin American culture,” he says. “Like how despite the objections of older conservative generations, the young generation likes to be free and open-minded.” Desi especially likes reading Spanish speakers’ family memories and other “nostalgic” things.

Anders — who learned English later in life — says his home country of Denmark “would be very isolated if we didn’t communicate well with the outside world.” Therefore, he explains, younger generations are taking special care to learn English, unlike their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

Before immersing himself in the English internet, Anders says, “the only thing I really did on the internet was play mini-games. [But now] I exclusively consume online content in English: Reddit, Twitch, YouTube, Twitter, video games.”

The only native-speaking area of the internet Anders consumes now, in fact, is Instagram messaging with his Danish friends. He now plans to move to an English-speaking country when he graduates college.

“The older generation’s English level is a lot worse than younger people, on average, in my experience,” he says. “Anecdotally, both my grandparents’ English is very basic because they usually stick to Danish-language media. … I don’t think most people over 50 really use the internet much, but if they do, they probably stick to Danish news and email.”  

And for that reason, he says, most of the Danish-speaking internet is “cringy” — kind of like what “Boomer memes” are to us.

“Our ‘national subreddit’ is cringy to me because most of the content on there is either really simple jokes based on some specific dumb nationalistic tradition — bad political humor almost translated from English phrases, so it sounds really bad when written out (like, ‘some heroes don’t wear capes’) — or some old cringy children’s TV shows that people are nostalgic about.”

Similarly, knowing the relatively unbound content on the Western side of the internet, Ariel has become acutely aware of the limits placed on Chinese culture.

“China uses an app called WeChat that pretty much dominates the social media world… like if you didn’t have WeChat, people look at you weird. Literally everyone, and every business, uses WeChat to buy and sell products by using a QR code that you scan. Much quicker than taking out cash or using your card, but also made it possible for the government to effortlessly track every single aspect of your life and cater exclusively to you,” she says.

Ariel adds that Chinese memes are similar to American memes “but are more political in nature and use American references.” For example, the “many memes about Xi Jinping’s resemblance to Winnie the Pooh” — which are so common, “the government has actually banned Winnie the Pooh.”

Ariel explains, “You start to figure out that some of the websites that are critical of the government are only allowed up to provide a semblance of internet freedom for the general populace. The Chinese academia websites are much more focused on the government-approved versions of academics, so it can be hard when searching up anything that is overwhelmingly critical.”