Oxford University Press

English Language Teaching Global Blog


3 Comments

Do you speak Emoji | Q&A with Shaun Wilden

Mobile learning with emojisFirst of all, 🙏 to those that attended my webinar. I hope as well as learning a few things about emoji, you had as much fun as I did! The webinar was heavily reliant on audience participation and you certainly all got stuck in with your sharing, answering and questioning. There were a few things that I didn’t quite have the time to go into more detail with, so I’ll try and address them now.

Are ambiguous emojis good to use in class?

The hands together emoji is a good example of one of the main talking points that came up in the chat box during the sessions – the ambiguity of meaning. Is it ‘thank you’, ‘thankfulness’, ‘praying’, or ‘two hands high fiving’?

A number of you felt this ambiguity might be a disadvantage in using them in class, but actually that is one of my drivers for using them. The fact that they can be used with both an ‘official’ meaning and one given by a peer group makes many of the activities workable.  If you think about words, they have a dictionary meaning and often have a meaning given by use. Take the word ‘sick’ for example, which, as well as meaning ‘ill’, is used by teenagers to mean ‘cool’. Emojis are the same in this respect and this is why, in my opinion, they work well for the ‘agree a meaning’ type activities that we did in the session. The more ambiguous an emoji might be, the more the students have to discuss and agree.

Aren’t some emojis too hard to understand?

In answer to this question, just look at how much language generated during the webinar. Is it a name badge? A tulip? Or something on fire? The point is not what it means, but what it could mean, and how that encourages the students to put forward justification of use and negotiate with their classmates to reach consensus. Contrary to what a couple of you said there is every point in “using those which are hard for understanding”. Additionally, how do we decide what is hard for understanding? Like words, some students will know the meaning of some, and others won’t. While, roughly speaking, the 2600 Emoji are the same the world over, different nationalities and different cultures use them with different frequencies. Again, for me this is something to be embraced. Whether I am teaching a monolingual or multilingual group, there is a lot that can be gained from asking about what emoji they use. There is a personal engagement into wanting to tell the teacher something about themselves. This why activities like creating a ‘user guide’ can be successful, a chance for the students to show knowledge in areas they might be ‘wiser’ in than their teachers.

Can gifs or small videos be used for similar activities to those with emoji?

As we touched upon towards the end of the webinar, emojis are evolving thanks to new technology such as Apple’s Animoji. This led some of you to ask whether gifs or even small videos could be used for similar activities to those we did in the session. As I said then, the Emoji is the ‘hook’ on which to hang a number of activities. For example, we used pairs of them to create sentences as a way of practicing grammar. An activity like this is not dependent on the emoji themselves, but a stimulus for the sentence. As such it doesn’t really matter what the stimulus is as long as it can be used to produce language. Certainly, many gifs carry the ambiguity needed for negotiated meaning type activities and, as they are often devoid of language themselves, could be a catalyst for grammar production. I think though developments such as Animojis are in themselves more akin to using an avatar than an emoji. Since they are animated and can contain voice they are somewhat different to the two-dimensional static image of an emoji. Like emoji, there is a lot written about avatar use in language learning, not least in the psychological aspects of students being able to take on a new identity. At the end of the session we saw quick examples of how we can use Animojis – and even with augmented reality – for developing character description, clothes vocabulary, and to create ‘where am I type activities’. Hopefully in a future webinar we can address such avatar activities in more detail.

Don’t emoji erode the quality of language?

I’ll end by addressing those of you concerned about death of language. Whenever I do such a session there is always at least one person concerned that things such as emoji are eroding the quality of language. In my first blog post I mentioned the fact that it used to be text messages that got the blame.  I think it is well documented that language is always changing, and language always finds way to shorten itself or adapt to be effective in the chosen form of communication.  However, I wasn’t suggesting that we should use emojis as a replacement for language or even writing. At the end of the day we are language teachers, it is not teaching the meaning of emojis that is key but tapping into images that can help students generate and retain language.   We use pictures in our coursebook to help us teach meaning, and we use things such flashcards to help reinforce and produce. For me, emoji are simply another image that we can use. If they help students remember a word, produce a sentence or get them engaged in a piece of writing then they have done their job.

Anyway, I set the challenge for the webinar of getting you to speak emoji. I hope now that the session is over, you can happily say that you do.

Until next ⏳, 👋.


Shaun Wilden is the Academic Head of training and development for the International House World Organisation and a freelance teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer.  He currently specialises in technology and language teaching, especially in the area of mobile learning. His latest book “Mobile Learning” was published in 2017 by OUP.  He is a trustee of IATEFL and also on the committee of the Learning technologies special interest group.  He makes the TEFL commute podcast for teachers.