Editor’s Note: Facebook, the web-based Socratic dialog, deserves intense and critical analysis. What forms of knowledge and awareness will evolve from this ubiquitous sharing of a learning canvas?
Facebook in the Language Classroom:
Promises and Possibilities
Geraldine Blattner and Melissa Fiori
The recent outburst of students and educators becoming active members of social networking communities (Stutzman, 2006; Tufekci, 2008), drew attention to the potential of such a web resource to foster positive relationships among students, to enhance the credibility of teachers engaged in contemporary student culture (Garrison & Kanuka, 2004), and to provide constructive educational outcomes, and immediate, individualized opportunities to interact with peers, instructors and native speakers of a variety of foreign languages. Little is known about how online social networks such as Facebook can develop a sense of community in language classrooms or how they can impact the development of socio-pragmatic competence in language learners. In this article we highlight how this website can provide language learners with opportunities to enhance both aspects by observing and participating in ‘Group’ discussions from various regions of the world where the target language is spoken natively.
Keywords: Facebook, language learning and technology, socio-pragmatic awareness, social networks, sense of community, Computer Assisted Language Learning, CALL
Computer use has become increasingly embedded in everyday life. Today’s students rely on technology for information gathering, to stay updated on social concerns and national issues, for inter-personal communication, and as a way to learn. It is not surprising to find a similar trend in the academic world; in the last decade research has illustrated how the Internet and various communication technology support meaningful educational experiences (Belz & Kinginger, 2002, 2003; Garrison & Anderson, 2003; Sykes, 2005; Arnold & Ducate, 2006; O’Bryan & Hegelmeier, 2007; Lord, 2008; among others) to learners deemed Digital Natives (Prensky 2001; 2006). There is a general consensus that Digital Natives enjoy computer- and Internet- based resources in their classes (Luke, 2006). Consequently, e-learning tools are more prominent than ever in higher education as they have been acknowledged to meet the connectivity demands that today’s students expect. It is imperative that second language (L2) classes plug into the network, and the student body that operates it, to capitalize on the social and academic opportunities that high-tech learning has to offer. Unfortunately, e-learning tools have yet to be viewed as a mainstream component of foreign language teaching and have yet to become a foundational element used in L2 classes.
Much L2 classroom use is of the low tech variety (Ertmer, 2005). While basic applications such as Word, Excel, or Power Point are accepted and adopted by most educators, and while educators appreciate that high tech applications (i.e.: synchronous chat, discussion forums, social networking websites) have transformed the way students approach, manage and complete assignments (Windham, 2005), much of what has been adopted in L2 classrooms remains low tech. In addition, educators have come to recognize that internet-based activities can involve quality learning experiences through specific communication technologies that are transforming society (Garrison & Kanuka, 2004; Luke, 2006). Nonetheless, skepticism and resistance to classroom integration of the high tech tools remain important even though these tools can facilitate lifelong learning (Garrison & Kanuka, 2004). From a pedagogical perspective, Ertmer (2005) pointed out that low level technology uses are generally associated with teacher-centered classrooms, whereas high-level technology usually promote constructivist practices in which the students have to collaborate. Thus, High tech e-learning technologies require professors to adapt to a new way of communicating with students and to modify classroom methodologies (Dillon and Walsh, 1992; Smith et. al, 2000). Administrators, faculty, and policy makers need to acknowledge and accept this significant evolution in societal communication norms because the technological innovations that underlie these changes cannot be ignored. Educators need to adapt their pedagogical posture to incorporate useful and versatile e-tools that will enhance the quality of their classrooms, guide learners to utilizing various e-tools for academic purposes, create a dynamic learning environment, and promote critical thinking, authentic second language (L2) learning opportunities and deeper connections with the culture of the native L2 speakers. High-tech e-learning technologies are the way of the present and the future and, as Prensky (2007) noted, the twenty-first century will be characterized by even more enormous, exponential technological change.
First, this article situates today’s Social Network Communities within the broader context of Computer Mediated Communication and community building with the intention of shedding new light on the importance of implementing high-tech e-learning tools such as Facebook into the L2 classroom. Next, it addresses the powerful resources and learning opportunities that this social network has to offer when implemented in a pedagogically meaningful way. Effective didactic practices are discussed, because, as Prensky (2006) accurately pointed out: “it’s time for education leaders to raise their heads above the daily grind and observe the new landscape that’s emerging”. We also address the importance of student understanding of the societal impact of such a website in this era of ubiquitous computing.
Computer Mediated Communication & Social Network Communities
In the last decade much research on emerging technological tools in the context of second language acquisition has surfaced. Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) in the form of asynchronous communication (ACMC) and synchronous communication (SCMC) has transformed learning. Pre-CMC assignments, such as hand-written and word-processed work, were limited in audience, scope and communicative purpose, and were approached by learners as permanent, formally written assignments which garnered ideas, analysis and criticisms into a static document meant for a limited readership. ACMC and SCMC transformed coursework by expanding the intended audience and the range of communicative purpose. They placed a new emphasis on swift, concise communication for an expanded readership in a space conducive to development, reflection, and analysis in a dynamic interface either in delayed- or real- time. CMC studies have investigated the linguistic and the affective benefits that such an interactive environment presents. Chun (1994) found that CMC can positively modify teacher-centered models of interaction in L2 classroom, and encourage students to interact with each other and rely on the L1 less as a consequence. In addition, Chun (1994) and Warschauer (1996) reported benefits for shy and introverted students. CMC environments level the playing field and allow shy students a comfortable setting in which to make their contributions. This level playing field not only fosters student-centered learning, but also encourages community building. As Knobel et. al. (1998) state:
“It is important to recognize that learning networks are much more than mere infrastructures: they are also relationships. What makes for a computer-learning network is both the existence of hardware and software wired together, and the “coming together” of people in learning relationships mediated by the network as infrastructure.”
Today, the learning networks referenced by Knobel and colleagues have taken the form of Social Network Communities (SNC). Facebook is a large SNC that boasts more than 100 million members, and it is one of the fastest-growing and best-known sites on the Internet today (nyVerdana.com). Established by Zuckerberg in 2004, a network that initially targeted high-school and college students went global and is actively gaining in popularity with adults of all ages (Tufekci, 2008). Two years later, Stuzman (2006) suggested that university students are still the largest users of Facebook. He reported that ninety percent of undergraduates surveyed and twenty-two percent of graduates surveyed use this SNC website. Vander Veer (2008) deems it a “hip, hot and happening site” (p. 158) on which members get to witness life-in-progress with access to viewing and sharing countless quantities of information. Given the variety and types of applications that are embedded into its platform, Facebook is far more sophisticated than many of its SNC counterparts, both social (MySpace, Friendster, etc.) and academic (Blackboard, Angel, WebCT, etc.). Facebook is a powerful learning tool that is not only built off of the synchronous and asynchronous technologies that has transformed learning but has also extended the reach of those communicative tools.
Just like a regular email program, Facebook allows its users to exchange private messages. In addition, Vander Veer (2008) points out that in an effort to imitate the various interaction patterns observed in real life, account holders can: Poke other friends, (give a virtual “hey, how ya doing’?” (p. 59); write on virtual message boards, which is commonly used for performing various social tasks, such as wishing happy birthdays or making light-hearted remarks; and can send cyber gifts. Staying in touch with the friends-network is also facilitated by a series of notifications that users can receive informing them for instance of friends’ status or profile changes, new wall postings, new pictures, or new link to stream video from around the world, to name a few. Another popular application is The Marketplace. This sort of forum where students can find jobs, roommates or even text books for their classes emphasizes even more dramatically that our students are increasingly living their lives online. Facebook also offers an application named Courses that directly targets university students. Students or instructors can create a course link and invite fellow students to join a particular course at any institution. This application offers several attractive opportunities to collaborate, exchange knowledge with its members, and help guide the class in the engagement of the material and key concepts addressed in class. Students can set up video conferences, sign up for study groups, and post comments for the rest of the class to see. The instructor can list a variety of official data such as the place and time of the class, office hours, email address, assignments, announcements, and can post documents and discussion topics. These applications join students to each other, and faculty to students, in an unprecedented way. Finally, joining Groups in which users share similar interests is another feature that is extremely popular on this Social Network Community (SNC) and it is the pedagogical potentials of this particular application that is the focus of this article. Vander Veer explains that some groups exist only in cyber space; however, other real-groups utilize Facebook to keep in touch. Any user can create a group which can be open to any users or restricted to a targeted, pre-selected audience. The very nature of the site is rooted in community building, social networking, and inter-personal relationships but the Group application can be utilize in language classes in a varieties of constructive manners. As Garrison & Kanuka (2004) pointed out, a sense of community is necessary to sustain a dynamic and meaningful educational experience over time and is a valuable asset to promote higher level thinking and the construction of knowledge. In addition, socio-pragmatic awareness can be boosted by using the same application in pedagogically meaningful ways. This makes Facebook and its Group application a very noteworthy learning tool ripe for introduction into the L2 classroom.
Community Building via Facebook
Research identified the importance of creating a community of learners in educational environments a few decades ago and defined the term “sense of community” in a variety of ways (i.e. McMillan & Chavis, 1986): mutual interdependence among members, connectedness, trust, interactivity and shared expectations and goals. Psychologists have argued that these positive characteristics create an intrinsically rewarding reason to continue participation in such a group (Kuo, 2003; Whitworth & De Moor, 2003). Recent investigations have pointed out that Facebook can have a positive effect on the student-to-student and student-to-teacher relationship (Mazer et al, 2007). Mazer and his colleagues noted that by accessing a social networking website, students may see similarities with peers and instructor’s personal interest which can lead to more comfortable communication and learning outcomes. O’Sullivan and his colleagues (2004) discovered that students who have access to teacher websites containing self-disclosed information reported high levels of motivation and demonstrated a boost in affective learning. In addition, the results of the same study suggested that students appeared to develop positive attitudes towards the teacher and the course. These findings pointed out that a Social Network Community (SNC) can be an asset in building a community of learners.
What’s more, students and educators do not simply strengthen their relationship in a community similar to the one envisioned by McMilan & Chavis, but they also develop virtual communities which are not limited to linking people to people they already know. Facebook offers a plethora of opportunities for learners to connect on different levels. Researchers have argued that belonging to virtual communities can amplify involvement within people’s face-to-face communities (Wellman, Haase, Witte, & Hampton, 2001), thus providing empirical evidence of the positive social effects of virtual community participation and highlighting its practical importance in educational environments.
Certain Facebook applications have been specifically designed to build bonds between users that share a common interest or activity. As mentioned in the previous section, users can join Groups that already exist or easily create a new ones based on their interests. Therefore, it is extremely simple for an educator to create a Group associated with a particular course. This application offers choices in terms of confidentiality settings that must be seriously considered by any instructor. By a click of a button, Groups can become private and even secret. Consequently, access to a Group can be limited to Facebook members that have been exclusively invited by the course instructor. By tightening the privacy settings of a Group, educators can maintain a certain intimacy typically linked to other educational tools like Blackboard or WebCT, that can only be accessed by registered students. Once a Facebook member is part of a Group, a variety of options are possible for sharing views, ideas, and topics, and engaging in virtual cyber discussions. Again, the tools that keep them connected socially keep them connected academically via email notifications of Group postings of any type (wall postings, audio and video files, event invitations, etc.). In addition, any Group member has the ability to contact other classmates in a variety of ways through the Group application, or in a more conventional manner by using the Message application (if classmates have previously added by choice each other as Friends) to write on their wall or to send a private email.
As Prensky (2006) mentioned, students are fully engaged in 21st century technology, therefore, it is reasonable to assume that they will rapidly take advantage of such opportunities to collaborate and develop a mutual interdependence if they have not yet done so. Instructors need to capitalize on the fact that Facebook is already an integral part of many students’ e-routine. Consequently, if educators decide to provide guidance to the students to use such a site it will be an invaluable asset to their educational and social experience. Recognition of the academic possibilities that a SNC offers is important for faculty and students alike. Students must be aware of the autonomous learning potential and the flexibility of time and place that websites offer and add to their e-routine and learning experience. Garrison et al (2004) noted that learners must accept the technology they are dealing with, recognize the potential in these modalities, and understand the nature and amount of communication with instructors and peers that these networks make possible. For Facebook to become a valuable and constructive tool in language classrooms, students have to make similar realizations. Promoting a community of learners is extremely useful as it often positively impacts affective learning and students’ motivation which, according to Gass and Selinker (2008), is a strong predictor of success in language classes. However, this SNC can also impact important aspects of second language development itself. The following sections suggest several approaches to address the issue of pragmatic competence that is often lacking in second language learners by using the group application in various ways.
Development of Socio-Pragmatic Competence via Facebook
Pragmatics can be defined as language use in a sociocultural context. Pragmatic competence includes knowledge of speech acts and speech functions, the ability to use language appropriately in specific contexts (Eslami-Rasekh, 2005) and the study of language from the point of view of users. Kasper and Rose (2003) further elaborated this definition by adding that pragmatics deals with the way speakers and writers achieve goals as social actors who respect social norms in order to attain interpersonal relationships with interlocutors. Despite the lack of clarity in defining this term, it has been recognized as an essential component of communicative competence (Bachman, 1990). Development of pragmatic and sociolinguistics rules of language use is a major aspect of language learning (Eslami-Rasekh, 2005). As Bradovi-Harlig & Dornyei (1998) pointed out, even advanced L2 learners have not developed appropriate pragmatic competence to avoid misunderstanding or conveying L2 messages that are considered too forceful, direct or impolite. More than a decade ago, Kramsch (1985) identified the fact that typical classroom-based language learning is composed of “institutionally asymmetric, non-negotiable, norm-referenced, and teacher-controlled discourse”. Similar observations have been postulated by Bradovi-Harlig (2001) who pointed out that textbooks are not reliable sources of pragmatic input for language learners as they usually provide a limited amount of information about conversational norms and may contain language samples that are not authentic. Vellenga (2004) made a similar claim following a pragmatic investigation of specific speech acts in ESL textbooks. Unfortunately, this trend has not particularly evolved, even though some foreign language textbooks attempt to discuss typical ambiguous socio-pragmatic situations, such as the use of appropriate form of address (i.e.: tu/vous in French) in order to reduce pragmatic errors or deficiencies that L2 learners often demonstrate. However, as Kasper and Rose (2003) explained the classroom setting is undeniably linked with an absence of social consequences in terms of appropriate pragmatic competence.
In the early stages of technological tool integration, Kinginger (1998) noted that electronic media can force certain dilemmas of authentic interaction into the classroom. This argument was later empirically supported in a telecollaborative study conducted by Belz and Kinginger (2002; 2003) in which they highlighted the potential of developing pragmatic competence as a result of personal relationship building. Subsequently, Thorne (2003), an expert in emerging tools for pedagogical implications, stated that learning outcomes in the area of pragmatics are substantially enhanced when language learners are embedded in a larger context of significant relationships, such as the various ones provided by Internet-mediated partnerships. These different attempts to integrate technology in language classes were fundamentally successful at establishing meaningful contact across cultures by interacting with individuals of different cultural backgrounds; which is one of the aims of mastering a second language (Dornyei & Csizer, 2005).
Despite the obvious opportunities that electronic tools offer, computer-mediated communication in the context of L2 pragmatic competence is an underexplored area of research. As postulated above, Facebook allows its users to carry out meaningful interaction synchronously or asynchronously with speakers of different languages and also to access an incredible amount of valuable and authentic information on a variety of topics. In other words, this SNC can be seen as an innovative tool to facilitate the development of socio-pragmatic awareness and competence in second language learners through meaningful intervention, and can promote cross-cultural understanding. Similarly to the telecollaboration project (Belz & Kinginger, 2002; 2003), the Facebook website is cost effective and presents L2 learners with opportunities for intercultural communication with authentic native speakers of comparable age. In line with Belz’s (2007) tellecollaboration work, it is not an unreasonable to expect that learners involved in academic applications of SNCs like Facebook will ultimately develop relationships with native speakers who share similar interests and who will interact on a regular basis in the L2.
Various activities can be developed in the language classroom for pragmatic development. Kasper (1997) identified two types of activities. First, activities can focus on raising students’ pragmatic awareness, or second, on tasks which provide opportunities for student to actually practice communication. Both can be accomplished via Facebook. Language learners can easily join groups who exclusively interact in the target language and observe written exchanges between the members on the wall or in the discussion forums. Through legitimate peripheral participation (Lave & Wenger, 1991), a learner can use observation as one of the best tools for understanding the practices of any given community. Furthermore, the same tasks will be an eye opening experience for many language learners who usually have had little exposure to language variation. Groups on Facebook are often associated with linguistic- geographical pride and also present basic images associated with the main concept introduced, such as flags or landmarks, powerful visual cues for certain types of learners. Consequently, language variation and other important linguistic and cultural issues can effortlessly be presented to L2 learners by consulting groups such as:
§ Oui, je parle Suisse et alors (see Figure 1)
[Yes, I speak Swiss and so what]
§ Adieu, t’es vaudois ou bien
[Hi, are you from the canton Vaud or what]
§ Tu es un vrai marseillais quand…
[You are a real inhabitant of Marseilles when…]
§ Seulement les vrais Quebecois
[Only the real Quebecois]
§ Tu sais que tu viens de Mont-tremblant quand ...
[You know that you are from Mont-Tremblant when…]
§ Pour l'union de la Belgique francophone à la France !
[For the union of the French speaking part of Belgium to France]
§ República Argentina
§ Si Naciste en Colombia Debes Saber
[If you were born in Colombia you should know…]
§ Yo hablo el mejor espanol del mundo, “Soy Rolo”
[I speak the best Spanish in the World “I’m a Rolo”]
§ Si pasas por esto…eres Boricua de cora
[If this happens to you…You’re Puerto Rican at Heart]
Figure 1. Oui, je parle Suisse et alors [Yes, I speak Swiss and so what]
The number of discussion forums and participants varies greatly. For example, many of the French Language Groups discuss linguistic characteristics associated with a certain geographical area. Usually the discussions are focused on the use of lexicon and the participants give the standard French equivalent as illustrated in the following example from the afore mentioned
Oui je parle Suisse et alors:
Chenoille: vaurien, canaille [scoundrel]
Cradzet: petit [small]
Encouble: entrave, obstacle, empêchement [a hindrance]
Gouille: flaque d'eau, petite mare [a puddle]
Natel: téléphone cellulaire portable [a cell phone]
Piorner: pleurnicher, larmoyer [to sob]
Poutzer: nettoyer, laver, astiquer, frotter [to clean]
Roille: pluie [the rain]
Ruper: manger gloutonnement [to eat a lot]
Trouille: peur [afraid]
This language variation is of particular interest for intermediate and advanced language learners as it illustrates the richness of the L2 and introduces them to more authentic and colloquial language. In fact, Matthey (2003) pointed out that this variety of French differs at several levels from standard French which is typically associated with the Parisian region (Ayres-Benett, 2001). Differences in prosody, phonology, morpho-syntax have been identified in Swiss French, but the most common type of variations are lexically based. This Swiss group established a clear list of a few words and expressions that are further discussed by Swiss natives; therefore, students have the opportunity to encounter realistic and authentic language through discussion forums associated with the same Group. Scholars (Auger & Valdman, 1999; Auger, 2003) claimed that it was necessary for French learners to be introduced to different varieties aside from standard Parisian French to develop their receptive skills at an early stage of L2 acquisition. They argued that students should be made aware of the extra-hexagonal varieties of that language as early as possible so that they develop abilities to recognize certain local particularities and acknowledge the functional effectiveness of non-standard French.
In a similar vein, the language varieties exhibited by members of Groups from various Spanish-speaking countries exposes learners to linguistic varieties and colloquialisms that language departments and textbooks cannot match. Many higher education language programs recommend that their students spend time abroad; therefore, putting them in contact with authentic language and making them aware of variations is essential to ease the transition which is currently lacking in most curriculums. For instance, Spanish Language text books fail to address the use and application of the subject pronoun “vos” and the verb forms that accompany it, although it is used throughout Spanish-speaking America as an alternative to tú (familiar, singular, you), and alongside both tú and Ud. (formal, singular, you) in some countries. But, where textbooks fall short, Facebook can bridge the gap, helping students to gain insight on a culture prior to spending time abroad:
“viva argentina!!! ... y la forma "voceo" ... porque "Vos sos mi mejor amigasso, che!" [Long live Argentina!! … and the “vos” form… because “you are my best friend, (typical Argentine utterance)!], Not Everyone Who Speaks Spanish is a Mexican.
Information gathering through observations of naturally occurring speech acts in Facebook Groups is not only easily accessible, but also is attractive to students and beneficial for their pragmatic development. Awareness-raising activities provide language learners with the necessary analytical tools to be able to draw generalizations about pragmatic aspects inductively (from data to rules) such as apologizing, greeting, formulating requests among other illocutionary acts. Without such activities L2 learners may never realize and understand that languages treat speech acts differently. This initial experience with regional variation increases understanding of actual language use in context. In addition, accessing group discussions on Facebook can help language learners to comprehend how culture and language are interrelated as well as develop their awareness about the fact that certain speech acts are difficult to translate from their native language to the target one for cultural reasons.
These types of activities are theoretically grounded to the Sociocultural Theory that originated from the writings of Vygotsky and his colleagues. This approach to learning states that development processes happen through participation in cultural, linguistic, and historically formed settings (Lantolf & Thorne, 2006). In other words, in educational settings, peer group interaction and collaboration are necessary and in fact precede and shape learning. Lantolf and Thorne explain that: “language is the most pervasive and powerful cultural artifact that humans possess to mediate their connection to the world, to each other and to themselves (p. 205), but the quality of mediation required for learners to grow and gain adequate ability to function in an L2 autonomously vary. This theoretical framework to learning in general also stipulates that humans have the unique capacity to imitate the intentional activity of other interlocutors and by observing and/or participating in discussion forums, language learners could put this ability to practice.
To conclude, it is important to note that, as Elslami-Rasekh (2005) pointed out, practicing and using speech acts are the next steps for students who have developed the necessary pragmatic awareness of the differences that their L1 and L2 presents in certain illocutionary acts (exposure is insufficient for acquiring pragmatic competence in an L2). In addition, learners cannot be coerced into making choices regarding language choice; however, the knowledge of L2 pragmatic systems empowers them not only in terms of becoming bilingual, but also to appreciate better how their own native language functions.
Technology is an inherent part of our students’ daily activities and as Windham (2005) reported, many students expect technology to be an integral part of Higher Education. Georgina & Olson (2008) pointed out that because of this trend, because more and more research recognizes its importance, and because students have a positive impression of instructors who integrate high-tech e-learning tools in the classroom (Imus et al., 2004) many faculties from a variety of disciplines are discussing how to adjust pedadogical practices to reflect the norms and expectations of today’s learners. The popularity of the social networking site Facebook is indisputable. As Prensky (2007) noted the twenty-first century will be characterized by even more enormous, exponential technological change. As educators it is essential to take advantage of such technological tools to enhance autonomous language education and abandon our pre-digital instinct and comfort zones. As Prensky (2008) strongly claimed: “We must get our teachers – hard as it may be in some cases – to stop lecturing, and start allowing students to learn by themselves” (p. 3).
Various usages of this website can be integrated in foreign language courses. In this article we emphasized the Group application available on Facebook and highlighted the benefits of authentic language interaction and the development of socio-pragmatic awareness (language use in specific contexts, relationship building, and language awareness through observation and/or experience), which is an aspect of language acquisition that is often omitted in textbooks. In addition, increased motivation and improved performance in language classes have been associated with the feeling of classroom community (Rovai, 2002) and Facebook is undoubtedly a tool that can enhance the sense of belonging. What’s more, Facebok has unique features that offer constructive educational experiences while maintaining privacy and safety. The potential of this social website is growing everyday with new applications that we have not discussed in the present article; however, this article provides starting points for the engagement of further investigations in the abundantly promising field of Facebook pedagogical and linguistic research.
Future research should focus on engaging faculty and possibly students in exploring different ways to utilize such a website and other emerging technology possibilities. Additional work is required to refine our understanding of design and support of social network websites not only in language learning, but also in a variety of disciplinary and institutional contexts. Rigorous and systematic research into online learning is needed to enlighten educators as to how to best integrate and utilize tools and applications from Facebook in language curriculum. Ways by which to integrate SNC use with course learning outcomes, the assessment of those outcomes, and the establishment of activities via SNCs which support the achievement of learning activities are ripe for exploration.
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About the Authors:
Geraldine Blattner (PhD) is an Assistant Professor at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, FL. Her research focuses on technology-enhanced foreign language learning and sociolinguistic and pragmatic variation in French language in computer-mediated discourse.
Melissa Fiori (PhD) is an Assistant Professor at Daemen College in Amherst, NY. Her research focuses on technology and language learning with a particular interest in L2 Emergent Grammar.
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 South West part of Switzerland, where French is the official langauge
 Person from Bogotá Colombia