Unlocking the Internet with English Language Teaching

“More must be done to enable people whose first language isn’t English to access the truth”

More than a quarter of the internet is written (and spoken) in English making it one of  the most popular languages online. And, given that 94% of the world does not speak English as a first language, it also means that reading English is often the first step to accessing robust, trusted information in a digital first society.

Our recent report, The Matter of Fact, revealed that two thirds of people (67%) globally turn to Google and other search engines when looking for factual information, while 37% turn to social media – rising to 44% of Mexicans, 43% of South Africans and 54% of Indians.

With our devices at our fingertips, we instinctively turn to the web, whether that’s to quickly fact check something we’ve read or to support our studies.

Although the technology available to translate what we read online has improved dramatically in recent years, with ever-heightening concerns around the spread of misinformation, language can still be a barrier when identifying less credible sources.

During the 2020 Euros, we saw this in action. Following the collapse of a player, Facebook claimed that it was banning the promotion of false claims about the health implications of the Covid-19 vaccine, which was being touted by some as the cause. It labelled several misleading posts in English with a warning for readers and viewers – effectively telling them to approach claims with caution. Arguably, it was a good example of a social media platform tackling misinformation. The issue was, however, that similar posts tracked in Spanish were left without such labels.

Indeed, not all mistruths have labels on them. And we cannot expect all English learners to immediately pick up on subtle fabrication. Often, we need an understanding of linguistic nuances that come with speaking a language for years. It’s not just about understanding the literal meaning of a text – what the grammar and vocabulary is saying directly – but also the context it is placed within, and what the intentions and assumptions of the writer or speaker may be.

With this in mind, more must be done to enable people whose first language isn’t English to access the truth. In the long term, this means making the internet more inclusive, no matter what language you speak, but while this transition takes place, English remains a key skill.

Fundamentally, we need to teach English in a way that gives intellectual agency to learners, something which helps them maximise their ability to learn (and think) critically so that they can unpick and effectively assess the information they come across online.

When teaching English, we’ve found it possible to create exercises, even modules, that allow learners to independently research facts about a topic online, consult physical resources, request institutional information, set-up interviews, and look at the origins of content. All these activities can give them the cultural capital to break out of echo-chambers and the skills to verify what they are reading, not only in their own language but in English too. We know these methods work – and that they are being called for by teachers and pupils, alike.

One way of doing this in practice might be asking students to read an article, watch several online videos on the same topic, and analyse social media posts on that subject. They can then to contrast the different uses of language across each platform and summarise what they have learned.

Crucially, if we are to fully unlock the internet for English-language learners, we need to be equipping students, not only with knowledge and vocabulary, but also with the skills necessary for them to distinguish fact from fiction. In a digital age, English language teaching goes beyond just learning the language. It’s more important than ever that, through the language learning process, students are provided with the key cognitive skills to analyse, synthesize, and evaluate information, and ultimately,  think for themselves.

About the author: Ben Knight is the  head of Language, Content, Research and Pedagogy for English Language Teaching at Oxford University Press.