Volume:6, Issue: 3

Dec. 15, 2014

The Impact of Facebook Chat on Swahili Essay Writing
Kyeu, David [about]

KEYWORDS: Dyad, essay, writing, interactive communication, interaction, collaboration, kiswahili, computer chat, negotiation of meaning.                                                  
ABSTRACT: In foreign language learning, for a long time it has been assumed that essay writing is an individual task, a situation that researchers are proposing should not be the case (Weissberg, 2006). Weissberg (ibid) proposes that essay writing is a social process that requires concerted efforts, just like other social undertakings. This process is what I term interactive and collaborative. The participants in this study were ten second-year students of Swahili language. The participants had five fifty-minute computer mediated pair interactive sessions that was followed by individual essay writing in Swahili for a period that did not exceed 30 minutes. My findings revealed that students were able to transfer various elements of communication and infuse them into their essays.


Interaction and collaboration are often used in foreign language teaching including writing. However, they are applied to varying degrees for different languages. The methods have been used especially in the writing of English as a second language [Berg, 1999], but have rarely been used in Swahili. In this paper therefore, I investigate the effects of Facebook chat on essay writing in Swahili. I specifically try to find out (i) the nature of interaction and collaboration that students have when they use Swahili during their Facebook chat and (ii) the type of language that students transfer from their Facebook chat to their essay writing in Swahili.

This study and the writing of this paper is guided by interactionist [Long, 1996] and collaboration theories [Vygotsky, 1978] so as to gain a better understanding of the communication of such a structure and how this impacted the essays that the students wrote.


Participants were invited to participate in the study to do the following: (i) fill out a simple questionnaire in English about their study of Swahili, (ii) participate in five fifty minute Facebook chats in Swahili scheduled throughout the duration of the spring semester on a bi-weekly basis, (iii) write for no longer than 30 minutes about the topics discussed in the preceding Facebook chat. Discussions topics that I adopted for this study are listed in table 1.0 below:

Table 1.0 Topics assigned during the five Facebook chat sessions

S-CMC Task
S-CMC 1 Types of food in East Africa. Vyakula vya Afrika Mashariki
S-CMC 2 The presidents of countries in East Africa. Marais wa nchi za Afrika Mashariki
S-CMC 3 Cities of East Africa. Miji mbalimbali ya Afrika Mashariki
S-CMC 4 Religions of East Africa. Dini za Afrika Mashariki
S-CMC 5 Visiting animal parks and game reserves. Ziara ya safari katika Afrika Mashariki

The time that I used in this study is similar to a study that was conducted by Mali [2007], and thus may allow comparison. I assigned twenty minutes for the Facebook chat sessions while I allocated the individual essay writing thirty minutes.

For the instructions that accompanied each topic, I crafted instructions for the Facebook chat sessions and the individual essay writing sessions. I wrote instructions in both English and Swahili so that they were clear to the study participants.

Accurate transcription was necessary for the data that I received from the chat sessions. There were two primary transcription conventions from Dubois’s revised discourse transcriptions (DT2) that I adopted for this study [Dubois 1992]: Table 1.1 below summarizes the transcription conventions that I adopted in this study.

Table 1.1 Conventions adopted for transcription

Transcribing indication Category
### Sections that were unintelligible
‹ L2 › WORD ‹ / L2 › Words written in another language

There were two raters in this study, myself and an independent rater. The independent rater and I were both college-trained near-native speakers of Swahili.

Findings from the Facebook chat transcripts

I used quantitative analysis methods in order to find out the learning that occurred in the Facebook chat sessions. I look at (i) how much language was produced by the participants, (ii) what their focus was when they interacted, and (iii) the degree of interaction and collaboration that the participants had.

In order to find out how much language the participants produced during the interactive sessions, I further employed quantitative methods, to find out (i) the length of the conversations, (ii) the number of turns per participant, (iii) the length of each turn, (iv) the contribution of language in terms of number of words that each participant made during the interaction, and (v) the focus of the discussion. The quantitative data that I obtained from these four undertakings facilitated an understanding of the connection between the interactive performance and subsequent individual performance. Table 2.0 presents the mean numbers across all twenty-three Facebook chat sessions.

Table 2.0 Mean overall length, mean number of turns, and mean turn length for the S-CMC chat (N=23)

  Mean Standard Deviation
Number of words 285.17 70.82
Number of turns 25.04 9.29
Turn length 11.16 9.08

Participants during the chat sessions had relatively similar percentages of lexical contribution. The pattern in the language contribution findings was similar to the pattern associated with the mean turn lengths of the individual interlocutors. From these data, I concluded that interaction and collaboration during the Facebook chat sessions was relatively equal between interlocutors in all twenty-three interactive sessions except Abdi/Bibi and Chapa/Dalili’s chat sessions three and four.

Quantitative data about the nature of the interaction for the whole group at the dyad and individual level, however, was not enough to conclusively establish the nature of the interaction and collaboration. I therefore undertook a further analysis of the chat sessions in order to examine (i) the topic of the Facebook chat and (ii) the interactive conversation in terms of (a) the lexical quality of the items that were used, (b) the grammatical accuracy of the interaction, and (c) the content richness complexity of the Facebook chat. I therefore calculated data for individual participants in order to find out how each individual interlocutor performed during the Facebook chat sessions. For that reason, I calculated each participant’s mean turn length and contribution percentage in words in order to find out how each participant performed during the Facebook chat session.  The turn length for individual participants in the Facebook chat sessions ranged from 9.7 to 33.4 words, with the turn length of the majority of individual interlocutors clustering between ten and twenty words. This was a clear indication that participants had similar Facebook chat in terms of their length.      

Because this study was grounded in both interactionist and collaborative learning theories, I was also interested in finding out the manner in which participants used negotiation of meaning, comprehensible input and output, and peer collaboration. I could only explore this kind of information by analyzing the transcripts on the basis of (a) the focus of the discussion as espoused in Storch [2005:159] and (b) the nature of vocabulary, grammar, and content generated by the participants.

I used the focus of the discussion to find out how participants proceeded with the tasks that were assigned to them.  My initial stage of finding out the focus of the discussion was for me to first of all code all the scripts into corresponding focus areas. I coded the interactive transcripts using predefined seven areas of focus that were either pragmatic or metalinguistic. These seven focus areas were: (i) social greetings, (ii) task management, (iii) interpreting task prompt, (iv) generating ideas, (v) lexicon-related episodes, (vi) grammar related episodes, (vii) spelling-related episodes, (viii) taking leave, (ix) talking off-topic, and (x) total number of instances.

My analysis revealed that each of the focus areas had a number of instances associated with it and hence I used them to find out the learning that occurred in the Facebook chat sessions. Participants’ focus was on generating ideas more than on the other activities. Participants devoted over 50% of the possible instances to generating ideas in the five Facebook chat sessions. In all the chat sessions that the participants had, generating ideas had the highest percentages, ranging between 52% and 90%. Besides generating ideas, the participants also had smaller percentages for the language output, concentrating on social greetings, task management, and interpreting the task prompt. I also noted lexicon-related instances where participants inquired about or clarified the lexicon used by their interlocutors. With reference to spelling and grammar-related instances, it was interesting to discover that participants’ language output did not concentrate much on these two focus areas.  Participants, however, did have instances when they took leave of each other.

When I finished examining the focus of the discussion, I used quantitative analysis of the transcripts to examine participants’ lexical and grammatical accuracy, as well as the richness of the content. I calculated an average of the scores that the independent rater and I established in order to produce more objective final scores for the three measures. In Table 2.2 below, I provide a summary of the average scores across participants. 

Table 2.1 Mean scores during the 23 Facebook chat sessions across participants

  Lexical quality score Grammatical accuracy score Content richness  score
Mean 3.7 3.5 4.2
Standard Deviation 0.136 0.188 0.160

While in Table 2.1 I provide the average mean scores for all Facebook chat sessions, it was also important to know how each of the five dyads that participated in the exercise fared in terms of lexicon, grammar, and content. Each dyad had five Facebook chat sessions throughout the study period except for Chapa/Dalili, who had three Facebook chat sessions and so, I calculated the average of the three measures that I mentioned in Table 2.1 for each dyad. 

My analysis of the Facebook chats revealed that all the participants were provided with an equal environment where they could generate ideas, and interpret and manage the different tasks that they had, collaboratively. Participants socialized by greeting each other in Swahili and had instances when they collaboratively held fruitful discussions on the usage of Swahili lexical items. The transcript data also revealed that participants didn’t shy away from chatting off topic. In a number of instances during the discussions, participants brought in their personal experiences, which were not related very much to the topic at hand, but which enhanced their discussions and kept the discussion of the main topics going.

Findings from the essays

First, I analyzed all the essays that were written in order to get a general picture of group performance. In analyzing the essays, five constructs were used: (i) lexical quality, (ii) syntactic quality, (iii) content quality, (iv) spelling accuracy, and (v) length. Secondly, I did an analysis of essays that were written by each individual participant in order to find out performance at the individual level. Third, I analyzed the essays that were written for each session in order to find out if there was any change in group performance over time.

Participant Bibi produced the longest essays, averaging 280 words. This was interesting because the dyad in which she participated had the smallest mean in terms of the length of the conversations. Participant Chapa had the shortest essays, averaging 151.8 words. All of the participants had high spelling accuracy, with the lowest average score being 95.5%. Among the ten study participants, Huria had the highest average lexical and content richness scores, 57.8%, and 75.3%, respectively. Huria also had a very high average syntactic richness score, surpassed only by participant Dalili by a difference of 0.1%. Going back to the Facebook chat scripts, the Gaidi/Huria dyad had the highest lexical and content quality scores. Although participant Bibi wrote the longest essays, she received the lowest average lexical and content richness scores among the ten participants. Her scores were 56.2% and 69.9%, respectively. With regards to the organization and holistic assessment scores, participant Eleza had the highest scores, of 3.85 and 3.65, respectively. Table 3.0 presents the mean scores of all 46 essays.

Table 3.0 Mean scores of all essays that participants wrote immediately after the Facebook chat sessions. (N=46)

Mean 236.17 96.65% 97.8% 56.87% 91.76 52.39% 71.39% 3.70 3.54
Standard Deviation 58.8 0.822 0.71 1.35 0.91 1.41 1.94 0.18 0.19

Legend: NoW- Number of Words; SpA- Spelling accuracy; LA- Lexical Accuracy; LR- Lexical Richness; SA- Syntactic Accuracy; SR- Syntactic Richness; CR- Content Richness; O- Organization; HA- Holistic Assessment.

Effects of Facebook chat on essay writing

There were a number of elements that participants transferred from their interlocutors during the Facebook chats to the essays that they wrote. Looking at the syntactical structure, for example, the data reflect that participants Abdi / Bibi and Chapa / Dalili already had those structures in their Facebook chat transcripts before the structures appeared in the essays that they wrote afterwards. Grammar structures already existed in their chat before they resurfaced in their essays. For example: In essay 4, Abdi wrote “Alisema kwamba wakati alienda nchini Kenya aliona watu waislamu wengi na waliimba sana wakati waliomba” [She said that when they went to Kenya she saw many Muslims, and they sang a lot when they prayed]. Abdi’s essay references Bibi’s statements in Facebook chat transcript 4 and 12, “Wakati nilienda Kenya, watu wengi ni Islam…Niliona watu katika Kenya, watu Baadhi walienda kanisa na watu wengine walienda mahali na kuomba” [When I went to Kenya many people are Muslims…I saw many people in Kenya, Some of them went to church and others went to places to pray].

In a second example, Bibi wrote the following in essay 4, “wakati watu walienda Afrika, juu ya historia, watu walileta dini mpiya na Afrika.” [When people went to Africa about history, they brought new religion to Africa.] This statement mirrored Abdi’s statement in the transcript, “Na Waarabu wanalete Islam, na halafu, wakoloni wa Ulaya wanaleta dini ya Ulaya, kama Katoliki. Na sasa kuna mchanganyiko wa dini.” [And the Arabs brought Islam, and then, European colonialists brought European religion such as Catholicism. And now there is a mixture of religions.]      

In the essay that he wrote immediately after the chat session four, Abdi transferred content that required the lexical item wakati ‘time’ that his conversation partner Bibi used during the discussion period. On her part, Bibi applied the verb leta ‘bring’ in her essay, which was frequently used by her partner, Abdi, during the chat session.

With regards to how participants transferred lexicon-related episodes from the Facebook chats to the essays, Abdi’s essay 4 included episodes from their chat. He wrote, “Bibi alisema kwamba halijui maana ya neno “dini”…Yeye anachoka sana! Maana ya “dini” ni kwa karatasi na hata katika Kiingereza. Halafu Bibi  anaona karatasi, alikumbuka maana ya neno “dini” na yeye alisema kwamba kuna dini zingine nchini Kenya, kama dini wa Kristo.” [Bibi said that she didn’t know the meaning of the word “religion”… She was very tired! The meaning of “religion” is on the paper and it is also provided in English. And then Bibi looked at the paper and remembered the meaning of the word “religion,” and she said there are other religions in Kenya, such as Christian religion.]  Abdi made the above statement in response to the questions that were posed by Bibi about the meaning of the word ‘religion’ in Facebook chat transcripts 5, 6, 7, and 8. The questions are visible in the exchange that transpires between them, “Abdi: sawa, na kuna dini nyingine nchini Kenya? Bibi: dini ni nini? Abdi: dini ni   kwa kiingereza. unaona karatasi? Bibi: pole, niliona karatasi, ninajua sasa.” ‘Abdi: Okay then, and there are other religions in Kenya. Bibi: what is religion? Abdi: religion is religion in English. Can you see it on the paper? Bibi: I’m sorry, I have seen the paper, I now know.

There were instances when lexicon-related negotiation of meaning didn’t amount to transfer of lexical items to their essay. For example, in both Chapa’s and Dalili’s essay 3, nothing referenced the lexically triggered negotiation of meaning that is reflected in their chat transcripts 21, 22, 23, and 24. The statements are as follows, “Dalili: Safi. Katika miji ya Tanzania kuna mahali pwa (?) basi (bus depots). Mahali pwa basi pani have watu wengi! Chapa: Ndio. Lakini sikutembelea sehemu ya basi. Dalili: Sehemu ya basi ni bus depots? Chapa : sijui @ sehemu ni place. Dalili : @ ! Asante sana. Haukutembelea sehemu za basi nchini Tanzania?” 2 (Dalili: Okay. In the cities in Tanzania there are places for buses (bus depots). The place for buses has many people! Chapa: Yes. But I didn’t visit the place for buses. Dalili: Is the place for buses ‹L2›bus depots‹/L2? Chapa: I don’t know @ place is ‹L2›place‹/L2. Dalili: @ ! Thanks a lot. You didn’t visit a place for buses in Tanzania?)  

Discussion and Conclusion

During the Facebook chat sessions, participants had equal environment for interacting using computers, providing them with a similar opportunity to practice in Swahili during their Facebook chats. The language contribution of some participants appeared similar but their actual roles and interaction were not reciprocal.

In the five chat sessions participants spent most of their time generating ideas for the topics they had at hand. Participants also used the 20 minutes allocated to them to negotiate some of the lexical items that they posed or they received from their interlocutors. Participants wrote their essays with high spelling accuracy, and with accurate lexical and syntactical items. It was, however, important to note that scores that I assigned for lexical and syntactical richness were a little lower.

I also found that participants benefited from the scaffolding that was accorded to them by their interlocutors. The more capable learners provided scaffolding to their interlocutors by giving them ideas and structure for their discussion [Donalto, 1994].

The other observation was that participants became very aware of the audience they were writing for. I could tell from the interaction transcripts that as the semester progressed, the students felt much more at ease interacting with each other.

Regarding the relationship between Facebook chat and the essays that participants wrote afterwards, the analysis did not reveal any significant relationship with the measure of length.  I however noted a fairly high similarity in the lexical, syntactical, and content measures. In terms of essay organization, my analysis revealed that the participants utilized the general ideas that they got from the chat sessions to develop their essays. The participants also transferred lexical items from their chat sessions to their essay writing. It was interesting to note that the participants who volunteered to provide explanations of some of the lexical items that their interlocutors asked during the chat were the ones who utilized those lexical items in their writing and not the participants who asked about them. In general, the participants generated short essays over the five chat sessions.

From the study it is evident that may provide students of Swahili with linguistic resources that they need in the writing of their essays. Collaborative practice, on the other hand, provides students with social skills that they need in learning how to write their essays.  

Second, it is also important for Swahili instructors to take into consideration the language proficiency levels of their students before pairing them up. Students may be more comfortable with Facebook chat because it aligns with their proficiency levels or learning styles.  

Last but not least, there is a need for changes in the structural framework for training instructors of foreign languages. Instructors should be exposed to current research about writing in the foreign languages that they teach, including the connections that exist between Facebook chat and essay writing. 


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1 Kyeu, David, Ph.D., Lecturer, University of California, Berkeley, CA, U.S.A.

2 The Swahili sections of the text contain some errors. The correct version should be, “Dalili: Safi. Katika miji ya Tanzania kuna mahali pa (?) basi (bus depots). Mahali pa basi pana have watu wengi! Chapa: Ndio. Lakini sikutembelea sehemu ya basi. Dalili: Sehemu ya basi ni bus depots? Chapa : sijui @ sehemu ni place. Dalili : @ ! Asante sana. Hukutembelea sehemu za basi nchini Tanzania?”

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