Willingness to Communicate in the Digital Wilds: English Language Learners in Extramural Online Gaming Affinity Groups


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Over the past decade or so, research into language learning beyond the classroom has been gaining momentum in the field of Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL), with factors such as autonomy and learning independence becoming increasingly prominent (e.g., Benson & Chik, 2011; Benson & Reinders, 2011). Stemming from CALL research, Informal Digital Learning of English (IDLE), relates to what has been referred to as extramural English (Lee, 2019; Sundqvist & Sylvén, 2016) or the digital wilds (Sauro & Zourou, 2019), lends itself well as terms to describe participation in online affinity spaces by language learners. Social media has become an optimum place for finding online affinity spaces (Thorne & Black, 2007). Online affinity spaces have provided a rich domain for investigating second language learning, specifically through learners’ utilization of blogs, wikis, and social networking sites with the rising popularity of Web 2.0 platforms (Reinhardt, 2019). Interacting in informal spaces, in turn, has been found to facilitate learners’ willingness to communicate (WTC), though this has received little empirical attention with respect to IDLE (Lee, 2019). Accordingly, focusing on the nexus of online affinity spaces, social media, and digital gameplay, the present study seeks to answer the following question: How does a non-instructed online community facilitate second language users’ willingness to communicate in English? Data were collected from four participants in four separate gaming affinity spaces and included a Participant Informational Survey related to their English language habits; an Initial Interview, guided by the WTC theoretical framework put forth by MacIntyre et al. (1998); a Task Assignment, with 4 prompts for participants to collect screenshots of their participation in their online affinity space; and a Retrospective Interview, to explore the items collected in the Task Assignment stage. The data were then analyzed using qualitative content analysis (Zhang & Wildemuth, 2009; Miles et al., 2020). Key findings indicate that the motivational propensities of the WTC framework were the most salient factors for the participants’ WTC in their respective affinity spaces, specifically the relationship between their English language self-evaluation and their WTC, as well as the motivation to participate in the affinity space provided access to authentic language contexts. These findings suggest that teachers can utilize affinity spaces to help their students find meaningful avenues for language engagement and development.