Negotiating meaning in a foreign language

MOOCs attract learners from many different geographical, linguistic and cultural backgrounds. This means that a large part of MOOC participants may not be native speakers of the teaching language. In the discussion forums, native and non-native speakers of English from around the world may meet, debate and discuss successfully or with some friction. This subproject is interested in how a mixed group of native and non-native speakers tries to communicate amongst each other.

Many of the LouvainX MOOCs in humanities and social sciences focus on topics that may give rise to debate and socio-cognitive conflict. We expect learners to engage in forum discussions on these topics to gain further insight in the course material by trying to understand each other's points of view. A non-native speaker's lack of language proficiency could however limit their ability to learn by discussing these contentious topics, and may mean that non-native speakers use discussion forums more to resolve difficulties with the language or with the course content. With the following research questions, we set out to see how non-native speakers behave compared to native speakers within MOOC forum discussions, and what aspects could explain significant differences:


Research Questions :

1. To what extent are non-native speakers present on forum discussions? What role do they take? How does this compare with native speakers’ presence and assumed roles?

2. To what extent do non-native speakers negotiate meaning with a view to resolve a misunderstanding due to language problems vs. content-related and cognitive problems?

3. To what extent do non-native speakers take part in the richer content-based interactions that can potentially give rise to socio-cognitive conflicts and learning?

4. To what extent does language proficiency impact non-native speakers’ online presence, the range of roles they assume, the type of discussions they are involved in, and the types of posts they write?


To answer these questions, a large and expanding corpus of forum posts is being built based on all LouvainX MOOCs in the fields of humanities and social sciences that may feature relevant discussion and conflict, enriched with metadata from surveys supplied to learners. This invaluable dataset makes it possible for us to use both quantitative and qualitative methodologies to answer our four research questions.

Combined with the findings of the other subprojects, our results will be used to formulate recommendations for increased interactivity in the LouvainX MOOCs and all MOOCs in general, as well as inform the field on differences between native and non-native speakers within MOOC forums. Beyond academic achievement, we aim to reach out to teachers and help them understand the needs of their non-native learners through the conclusions of our analyses.

Contact person:

PI: Prof. Magali Paquot, Centre for English Corpus Linguistics; PhD candidate: Bert Van de Poel