Social media has only been around for the last few decades and, from an historical perspective, it can be seen as a fairly new area for communication. Nonetheless, it is already an essential dimension of many people’s daily activities (Erstad and Sefton-Green 2013) and therefore also of importance for education (e.g., Greenhow and Askari 2015). In social media spaces, English has become the dominant language, serving as an online lingua franca with an increasing number (currently approximately 80%) of users who do not speak English as their first language (Christison and Murray 2014). This means that the varieties of English spoken across the world are no longer the exclusive domain of native speakers; rather, they are emerging as diverse and dynamic codes for communication (Danet 2001). It has been argued that cross-linguistic communication in social-media spaces provides casual learning contexts in which conversational and collaborative qualities enable communication that enhances language learning, particularly for English as a second/foreign language (L2) (e.g., Cook 2012; Kern 2014; Kramsch 2014; Lomicka and Lord 2016; Richards 2015; Thorne 2013). However, the research field so far is predominantly informed by studies departing from existing educational structures of language learning, which implies a focus on assessing, grading, making a certain amount of postings and comments mandatory for the student etc. with an interest in studying particular linguistic features such as vocabulary or grammar (e.g., Blattner and Lomicka 2012; Karal et al. 2017; for an overview see Manca and Ranieri 2013). In the light of this, the aim of this study is to gain insights into the multifaceted nature of communication on the social web by taking a more sensible and open exploratory approach on students’ language use on social media as part of the specific linguistic activities of second language learning, including development of sociopragmatic competence.

Because there is a full array of social media sites and diverse purposes for participating, there is no general linguistic discourse; it varies from a rather formal and factual language use to a more colloquial discourse. Even so, one significant characteristic of social media communication is the changed conditions for language practices or linguistic repertoires that are characterised by the hybrid nature of the texts, which fuses oral and written communication (Androutsopoulos 2011, 2014; Kramsch 2014). As reflected by an increasing number of research studies, this communication characteristics transforms the conditions for written language to such an extent that it has been argued that it represents emerging forms of literacies (e.g., Davies 2012; Kern 2014; Kramsch 2014). Linguistic repertoires are in this study defined as the variety of language choice that participants are able to use in different social contexts. Moreover, following Androutsopoulos (2014), linguistic repertoires are conceptualised as participants’ repertoires-in-use (p. 7) that are understood to be shaped by the networked writing, which can vary from formal interactions to socially situated vernacular, sometimes limited to single words. This means that in relation to institutional language learning, the diverse and unplanned linguistic repertoires used online represent new modes of language use. As expressed by Androutsopoulos (2011), these linguistic repertoires consist of:

a change of scale in the volume and publicness of vernacular writing; a diversification of old and new vernacular patterns; an extension of written language repertoires, and a concomitant pluralisation of written language norms. (p. 9)

Traditionally, a clear distinction between written and spoken language has been made in the classroom, where written language is negotiated in terms of a more linguistically complicated product, while spoken language has been regarded as a mediating process. However, the unplanned and informal style of writing in many social media spaces – comparable to oral speech but in the mode of written language – suggests that the traditional distinctions between the forms and functions of writing and speech become less useful (Kern 2014). Instead, interactions in social media spaces can be seen as conversational practices where participants make pragmatic use of various linguistic repertoires on a “communicative playing field” (Kramsch 2014, p. 305). One example of the hybridity of the linguistic repertoires in online interaction involves the use of emoticons. The word emoticon is created by a combination of emotion and icon. It refers to graphic symbols, such as smiley faces, as indicators of affective states. Emoticons often graphically mirror facial expressions, although numerous signs represent other objects—for example, a heart or a hand gesture. However, Dresner and Herring (2010), argue that emoticons do not necessarily mirror the writer’s actual facial expression; instead, they align with conventional, situational and intentional aspects of the interaction. In other words, emoticons interplay with the linguistic utterance they are attached to and can include nuances of playfulness. However, they can also be used neutrally, with little intention of impacting what is written. The meaning of the emoticon is, thus, not seen as inherent in the sign, but must be understood in relation to the message and context (Walther and D’Addario 2001). This points to the situatedness of communication that implies a sociopragmatic competence; that is, to be able to appropriately use linguistic repertoires in specific contexts, which often is subordinated in L2 practices of schooling (Blattner and Fiori 2011; Harlow 1990; Lomicka and Lord 2016).

Sociopragmatic competence implies not only linguistic and lexical knowledge, but also having the ability to “vary speech-act strategies according to the situational or social variables present in the act of communication” (Harlow 1990, p. 328). Social media spaces allows students to play with self-presentation and manipulate images and text in a kind of uncontrolled and dynamic situated vernacular writing therefore it is an environment in which students can develop their sociopragmatic competence by creatively communicating with out-of-school digital vernacular and self-expression before a broader audience (Lantz-Andersson 2016; Lomicka and Lord 2016; Thorne 2009). Parts of this kind of situated vernacular writing can be conceptualised as language play (Cook 2000; Crystal 1998; Danet 2001), characterised by casual, often humorous and experimental linguistic repertoires.

Based on these conditions, it can be established that social media provide opportunities for practicing and preparing students for everyday communication in English as a second language. The potential of social media communication for L2 learning is also emphasised in several research studies, but it is argued that more empirical research is needed to examine ways in which social networking can enhance language learning (e.g., Kern 2014; Kramsch 2014; Lantz-Andersson et al. 2013; 2016; Lomicka and Lord 2016; Richards 2015; Thorne 2013).

1 Focus and aim of the study

This study is part of a research project called Linguascapes, which investigates L2 learning activities in social media contexts as part of institutional learning (Bowen et al. 2016; Lantz-Andersson 2015; 2016; Lantz-Andersson et al. 2013; 2016; Vigmo and Lantz-Andersson 2014). The theoretical underpinnings of the study incorporate a sociocultural perspective, where learning is understood as developing in social activities that cannot be predefined, because they are created, recreated and negotiated by participants in the practice. Language learning is thus regarded as being participatory, socially constituted and inseparable from social context (Vygotsky 1939/1978).

Drawing on the Vygotskian view of play as part of human learning, which implies a way of trying out and practicing new ways of expressing oneself, empirical material will be analysed in regard to how the participants frame and adjust to invisible situational norms and the other people involved in the activities (Goffman 1974). The ongoing and dynamic framing of an activity is understood as repeatedly reshaped in interaction and transformed or keyed by shifts in context, for example, from being serious and truthful to being playful by invoking jokes or irony (Goffman 1974). The analysis of the different linguistic repertoires is further based in the notion of language play, which is regarded as central to language development (Cook 2000).

The aim of this study is to gain insights into students’ language use on social media as part of the specific linguistic activities of second language (L2) learning, including development of sociopragmatic competence. The study explores (a) how the students frame the activity by their use of linguistic repertoires and (b) in what ways students combine features of the language variety derived from out-of-school social media use in a playful manner in their textual interactions. The empirical material consists of the written interactions of two Facebook groups that were introduced in English-as-L2 classes that were part of an international collaborative project involving secondary schools in Colombia, Finland, Sweden and Taiwan.

In the sections that follow, the conceptual distinctions of language play are reviewed, as are ways in which language play is related to L2 language learning and social media interaction.

2 Language play

By embedding language play into a wide sociocultural perspective, Crystal (1998) and Cook (2000) argue that playing with language is a natural part of developing and learning a language. Language play integrates form, meaning and function, and is managed by manipulating the language by, for instance, taking linguistic features and doing something unusual with them. In Cook’s (2000) view, language play includes both play in and with the language. Playing in the language implies a ludic use of language playing with sounds, rhythm, rhyme, grammatical structure, etc. Playing with the language means playing with the units of meaning, creating words that do not exist or combining them in playful ways. Playing with the language is performed by, for example playing with the message through irony or mockery.. Thus, language play integrates form, meaning and function. Cook (1997) argues that language play is a basic form of being a member of a community:

Many conversations between friends and intimates contain little information, and maybe regarded as instances of play and banter. These discourses are not used to solve a practical problem. They are not ‘task based’. They are language for enjoyment, for the self, for its own sake. And they are often fantasies - not about the real world, but about a fictional one in which there are no practical outcomes. (Cook, 1997, p. 230)

Language play comes about when the “the rules governing literal discourse have been suspended” (Crystal 1998, p. 4) and, when language play is employed, participants feel inspired to join. This description of language play parallels Bakhtin’s (1941) carnival concept that derives from notions of the medieval carnival as a place in which the rules and regulations that determine the course of everyday life are temporarily suspended, allowing a playful language use filled with fantasizing and mockery (cf. Lantz-Andersson et al. 2013; 2016).

Danet (2001), one of the pioneers in the study of online language, showed great interest in playful on-line communication. She argues that the frequent occurrences of language play in online communication are due to four factors: a) the dynamic nature of digital interaction implying that we receive instant feedback; b) its immersive nature characterised by the ease in which we become absorbed in a flow and lose track of time; c) the hacker culture that introduced a play with symbols and typography which spread to other online communities and; d) masking of identity (physical appearance, ethnicity, gender, etc.).

In her studies, Danet (2001) found that in language play sequences, one of these factors was frequently dominant, but all four factors were almost always involved in some sense. Furthermore, Danet argues that young peoples’ language play is related to identity negotiation and, as such, it is precisely the kind of language use they value. It is well known that young children use language to play via rhymes, certain poetry, rap, puns, constructing new words, etc., which are common features of language learning in the early ages. However, much less attention is paid to the fact that adolescents and adults are also fond of language play (Bell et al. 2014; Cook 2000; Danet 2001).

2.1 Language play in L2 learning

The roles of language play in L2 learning have mostly been studied in traditional face-to-face classroom contexts. One such example is a study of joking events in L2 classrooms, by Čekaitė and Aronsson (2004), who found that playful language use was employed by intertextual play and role appropriations. The researchers argue that in instances of language play, students were temporarily freed from the monotonous business of language learning, resulting in more vivid conversation. The findings revealed that language play cannot simply be explained by interactions involving laughter; rather, they include complex gags, teasing and repetition. The conclusion was that language play is a collaborative activity that sensitises students to pragmatic, formal and communicative linguistic aspects of second-language use, offering them possibilities for developing sociopragmatic competence.

Research on online language use is often discussed in positive terms when it comes to bringing authenticity and collaborative aspects to language-learning contexts. However, researchers also point to the need to theoretically ground the language use which otherwise risk being perceived as merely rather primitive and simple (for an overview see, e.g., Manca and Ranieri 2013). Several studies have shown that language play as a conceptualizing lens for studying students’ linguistic repertoires online functions to display otherwise lost nuances such as the previously mentioned ability to adjust the language use to varying situational aspects (e.g., Bell et al. 2014; Fusaroli and Tylén 2012; Harlow 1990; Hattem 2014; Vandergriff and Fuchs 2009). Fusaroli and Tylén’s (2012) study is one example in which the analytical concept of language play enabled them to highlight the communicative and collaborative aspects of the students’ language use. Based on a review of recent experimental studies mostly performed in language labs, it was shown that language, above all, is a joint activity in which participants use language play to continuously accommodate local coordination needs, performed through the words, expressions and jargon chosen.

Fusaroli and Tylén (2012) maintain that practicing a language by means of interacting is not about information sharing; “it is rather the very act of constructing and attuning to shared information in local contexts of coordination” (p. 104). Similar findings are presented by Bell et al. (2014), who studied the use of language play across a large number of communicative activities in L2 learning. They show in their study that the students aligned to other students’ choice of linguistic repertoire despite their differences in style, and displayed awareness of the ways humour functions as a social practice in the communication.

In a study that compared language play in L2 education in online spaces versus face-to-face discussions, Vandergriff and Fuchs (2009) observed that language play was part of both contexts. They maintain that the online context, as such, was only one aspect that promotes foreign language play; it works in concert with contextual factors such as individual characteristics of the learners, their previous experiences with different genres and the group’s shared history. The importance of the shared classmates’ experiences was also shown to be an important aspect of playful language use in Lantz-Andersson's (2015, 2016) studies of L2 learning activities on social media.

Two studies that resemble the present study were conducted by Warner (2004) and Hattem (2014). Warner (2004) based her study on Goffman’s (1974) framework theory to scrutinise how students play with framing and language use. In her research on language use in a synchronous network-based medium that was implemented as part of L2 education in a German context, the students were not only playing with the language but also playing within the language. Playing with the language implies, in Warner’s (2004) interpretation, that meaning was being negotiated, while playing within the language involves negotiating the relations between the participants, the medium and the context. Warner suggests that play must be regarded as a legitimate and conventional use of language, and communication theories must be expanded in relation to aspects of language use online. Hattem’s (2014) study of students’ tweeting during a school task was also grounded in the frame theory by Goffman (1974). The findings of Hattem’s (2014) study show how the students responded to the task by qualitatively transforming its context by playing with the framing. The contextual transforming entailed that the students framed the communication by using language play that was related to their previous experience of interactions in social media spaces, which created new learning opportunities.

The next paragraph outlines the way Goffman’s (1974) theory of framing is used in this study to guide analysis of the students’ linguistic repertoires in textual interactions.

3 Theoretical underpinning and analytical framework

As previously mentioned, this case study draws on sociocultural perspectives on communication and learning, foregrounding interaction as central for human learning (Vygotsky 1939/1978). Learning is further understood as constituted in social activities embedded in the context where the learner participates. From this standpoint, what kind of interaction takes place is not something that can be predetermined, but is dynamically negotiated in the social context: this view conforms with Goffman’s (1974) framework theory. Goffman emphasises that participants always try to understand what kind of activity they are part of. They then frame the activities in accordance with their understanding and adjust their communication thereto, which in turn co-determines how the activity proceeds. Thus, the framing of the activity is constantly redefined by the participants in the communication.

The framework theory is based on the notion that interactions always involve a primary framework and also include different layers of framing (Goffman 1974). In sequences of interaction, participants transform or key these primary frameworks, for example, from being serious and truthful to being playful by means of jokes or irony, which implies that the practices change. The most common way of keying, according to Goffman, is make-believe keying, in which playfulness is the central component, often achieved by playing with the linguistic repertoires used in communication. Thus, when participants use language play in communication, it entails a way of upkeying the activity performed by adding, for example, humorous, satiric or ironic layers to the interaction. Danet (2001) argues that online communication is especially apt for language play, because the identity of the participants in some sense are discussed and therefore they can “enjoy reduced accountability for their actions, and can engage in ‘pretend’ or ‘make-believe’ behaviours of all kinds” (p. 8).

Framework theory originated before the introduction of computer-mediated interaction, but in his late writings, Goffman (1981) also included aspects of media communication, such as TV and radio, and I maintain, in accordance with Danet (2001), that framework theory lends itself well for analysing online interaction (cf., also Pietraß 2009; Ytreberg 2002). In studies of social media interaction, small shifts in textual utterances become signs of how communication is framed and keyed. Online interaction provides linguistic repertoires that are distinct from those of face-to-face communication. An example of this is emoticons: by adding an emoticon to a serious utterance, participants can support an upkeyed framing of the communication. In this sense, all forms of make-believe keying could be viewed as a type of play. The research interest and theoretical underpinning of this study, thus, require a method that enables a close-up examination of the linguistic repertoires that students employ in textual interactions in social media spaces.

4 Method and analysis

Drawing on interactional ethnography (Castanheira et al. 2000), the analysis explored how the students framed the activities in relation to what they considered appropriate literate practices. Interactional ethnography, rooted in ethnography and including traditions of conversation analysis, was useful for analysing the linguistic repertoires as well as the students’ responses to one another’s utterances in the moment-by-moment interactions in the social media spaces (cf. Androutsopoulos 2014).

The researcher was positioned as an observer that visited the Facebook groups as soon as there was any activity (made possible by selecting the ‘on’ option for ‘push notifications’ for group activities). More specifically, the interactional ethnography method required that the interactions were observed throughout the continuum of both Facebook groups to learn about the interactive activities with an attempt to discern nuances of framing in the participants’ communication (cf. Davies and Merchant 2007; Lantz-Andersson 2016; Selwyn 2009).

When the Facebook groups were concluded, the participating students’ textual interactions were logged, and the screen actions were captured using Jing (a free TechSmith software) to analyse the multimodal elements—the links, photos and videos the students used to represent and express themselves. Thereafter, a free, open-source, web-based tool (The NetVis Module that extracts data from different sections of the Facebook platform was used as a first step to systematise the group interactions and to obtain a general summary of the postings and comments, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1 Overview of the postings and comments in the groups

This initial, elementary survey of postings provided an inventory of the number of postings and comments, enabling us to examine, in greater depth, those with two or more comments. By investigating the broad patterns in such postings, the focus was the linguistic repertoires the students chose and what that implied in terms of how they framed the activity (Goffman 1974). In both groups approximately 60% of the FB groups’ postings have two or more comments, as shown in Table 1. In one sense the interactive pattern could be seen as rather low in relation to general social media communication that are interaction characterized by people interacting with users already known. However, the institutionally implemented Facebook groups of this study imply that the students are encouraged to communicate with distant others and the interactive pattern need to be understood on the basis of that (Manago et al. 2012).

The next step of the analysis was categorization of the interaction into two categories of play, inspired by Warner (2004), who based them on Cook’s (2000) notion of different types of playing utilised through the linguistic choices: play with the form and play with the content. Warner (2004) uses a third notion, or category, play with the frame. The way framework theory is understood in the present study, play with the frame or upkey the frame is, however, seen as intertwined with language play and, therefore, this category was omitted. In the continuing analysis, it was found that the two categories involving form and content in language play were integrated most of the time; nonetheless, the categories are still used to explicitly display this integration.

4.1 Description of the settings and ethical considerations

For the purpose of studying social media interaction contact was established with teachers in Colombia, Finland, Sweden and Taiwan. The reason for choosing these countries was primarily that English was not the native language and that social media groups could be implemented as part of the students’ learning of English as a second language taught in school. Facebook was chosen as one example of a social media application partly because most of the students already had an account but mainly due to Facebook’s possibilities to create private groups where only invited members can interact, which matched the ethical considerations of the study. First one private Facebook group (FB group) was introduced into existing English L2 learning practices for the purpose of this research project. The first private FB group for the study was formed in October 2011 and remained in communication until June 2012. This group consisted of 60 secondary school students, 14 in Colombia, 21 in Finland, 17 in Sweden and 8 in Taiwan. The group contributed with 106 postings (see Table 1). One year later the teachers taught different classes, which formed the second private FB group lasting from November 2012 to May 2013. The second FB group consisted of 71 secondary school students 21 in Colombia, 12 in Finland and 38 in Sweden who contributed with 109 postings (see Table 1). In the second group the teacher in Taiwan chose not to be involved with his class on the grounds of lack of time.

The aim of the research was discussed via email with all participating teachers who, in turn, introduced the activity to their students. The social media group participation was voluntary, and the students’ postings and comments were not quantified or assessed in an attempt to afford participants a hospitable space for everyday communication. Students joined gradually, and some chose not to participate at all. However, because the Facebook groups were organised in school contexts with teachers present, it becomes an intertwined context between an out-of-school activity and an in-school activity, which obviously also interplays with the students’ language use.

The activities in the social media groups were started by an initial trigger from the researcher asking the students to post a picture of something they like or a place where they like to be. The students were encouraged by their teachers to interact, but the social media group interactions were not a part of classroom activities. The teachers were free to interact as much as they wanted. They did so from time to time, and they occasionally posted triggers, including suggestions for discussion topics such as favourite music, films and sports.

The research adhered to the ethics code of the Swedish Research Council and was approved by the regional ethics board before the studies were introduced. The study is also conducted in accordance with guidelines established by the Association of Internet Researchers (Markham and Buchanan 2012) and the Norwegian National Committee for Research Ethics in the Social Sciences and the Humanities”’ (2003)/2010). The students were informed about the aim of the studies, and it was stressed that participation was voluntary. Written informed consent was obtained before the study started, and the participants’ identities were kept confidential. Importantly, even though the social media groups in this study were private, questions concerning publicly accessible content online and the integrity of individuals in such research continues to be a central issue from an ethical perspective and has been carefully considered throughout the study (cf., Ess 2014; Markham and Buchanan 2012).

5 Findings

The overall findings show that the initial framing of the interaction in the two groups presented a pattern largely related to the institutional traditions of L2 learning. One of the first postings of each group illustrates this in Fig. 1.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Initial framing of the social media interactions in FB Groups 1 and 2

Figure 1 shows that the traditional use of linguistic repertoires of written English, in line with English as a foreign language as taught and learned in school, is initially predominant in relation to a framing with colloquial language used on social media (Kern 2014). Thus, a framing according to solving a school task takes precedence, which is seen in the genre of self-presentation and the linguistic repertoire that adheres to traditional conventions of writing, such as complete, grammatical sentences, the use of parentheses and starting sentences with capital letters and ending with punctuation. The only indication of a more casual linguistic repertoire is the emoticon “:)” that completes the posting in FB Group 2 (to the right in Fig. 1). However, the emoticon is not seen as language play in the sense that it changes the meaning of the posting. Instead, the emoticon in this posting is merely used to finish a statement which, in line with arguments by Walther and D’Addario (2001)), is regarded as an indication of a social media convention with little intention to upkey what is written. The postings from the initial phase indicate that using social media in an English L2 class does not by itself imply that the students frame the activity in line with the conventions of social media interactions of socially situated vernacular writing (cf. Androutsopoulos 2011; Vandergriff and Fuchs 2009).

As the interactions continue in both groups, a variety of linguistic repertoires was used, entailing different framings that include language play. Figure 2, from the first FB group, is from a context in which the students introduce themselves by including whether they have pets or play any instruments.

Fig. 2
figure 2

Posting from FB Group 1

The content of the posting from a Finnish girl is a presentation that includes her age, where she is from, what instrument she plays and that she has a dog. This way of framing her introduction is in line with a common exercise in language classes. However, the posting also includes linguistic repertoires of social media interactions. For example, “Heey” involves adding extra letters to words, and the use of emoticons signifies the shared convention for linguistic coordination in social media spaces that supports a more colloquial everyday communication style in relation to solving a school task (cf. Androutsopoulos 2014; Boyd 2008). The first comment answers the question on pets in a polite tone, but the student posts before having finished the comment and embraces the sign *, a convention that marks a correction. Thereafter another student asks about the age of the dog. This receives a proper answer, which also is finished by a multi-nosed emoticon, again understood more as a social media convention than an intention to upkey what is written (Walther and D’Addario 2001). The thread is completed by two comments that play with language by repeating the word “AWESOME!!!”. By embracing the convention of multiple capital letters followed by numerous exclamation marks, the students play with the form of the language with a typographical choice signalling either a loud screaming voice or just attention (cf. Danet 2001). The word “awesome” is used continuously in this FB group as playful jargon that involves exaggerations, relying on the shared repertoires-in-use (cf. Androutsopoulos 2014). This kind of repetition is common in the learning of a second language and is discussed by Čekaitė and Aronsson (2004)) as recycling of prior participants’ utterances, which is not seen as imitative in any mechanistic way. Instead this involves some kind of perspective-taking, teasing, joking or parody. Furthermore, recycling, as language play is not only understood as playing with the language, but also as a way for the students who make these comments to acknowledge one another in a kind of verbal duel (Cook 2000). This posting and the comments, thus, display an intertwined framing in which the language play with content and form accomplishes an uokeyed interaction in relation to schooling. A similar combination, in which the emphasis on playing with content is performed partly by playing with form, is displayed in Fig. 3.

Fig. 3
figure 3

Posting from FB Group 2

The posting in Fig. 3 presents disparate framings of the activity. On the one hand, it is a response to a teacher’s trigger about the students’ music preferences; on the other hand, it is framed in line with social media conventions such as the use of multiple lowercase letters where uppercase letters would be expected in formal contexts and the common ending with emoticons (cf. Boyd 2008; Dresner and Herring 2010; Thorne 2013). The comment (spela över), is a slang Swedish expression that means “overact” or “show off” in English, and is followed by a sceptical emoticon and the exclamation “(ohhh reaaaaaally)” in parentheses. First, language play can be seen in the mixing of languages (Androutsopoulos 2014). Second, the use of English as L2 becomes part of the language play and not only as a means of expression (cf. Warner 2004). The two boys are from the same Swedish class; thus, the upkeyed, mocking framing is brought about by the students’ shared history. The framing is done both by playing with the content in dismissing the validity of the statement and also by playing with the form where (ohhh reaaaaaally) is written in a way that could be understood as imitating a specific pronunciation. The reply is a proper answer, beginning with a plain emoticon, in which a reprimand is given for the use of Swedish and a clarification of the music taste, but it also ends with an emoticon that sticks its tongue out, possibly signalling some kind of revengeful play. Thus, the specific emoticon that completes the posting is not only understood as a social media convention; it also implies a continuation of the teasing framing in the comment (cf. Walther and D’Addario 2001). This kind of ironically or mockingly framed language play is also shown in Fig. 4.

Fig. 4
figure 4

Posting from FB Group 1

In the context of music preferences, a student from Finland mentions a favourite song by Justin Bieber and provides a link to the video of the song. The first comment is an ironic way of disagreeing seen in the utterance “:/ no comments._.”. The phrase “no comments” is an expression commonly used to imitate responses to journalistic inquiries that respondents do not wish to answer. The first emoticon: / signals scepticism, and the second,. _., is a sign for looking down. The choice of emoticons here interplays with the framed intention of the utterance (cf. Dresner and Herring 2010). This is shown by the Finnish student’s understanding of the comment, who starts the reply with onomatopoeic laughter “haha” and a response that could be understood as a deliberate misunderstanding “you think he is soo good youre speechless?;)” following the tone in the previous comment, and ending with a winking emoticon, framing the comment as playfully ironic (cf. Androutsopoulos 2014). The commenter, who is from Colombia, replies with onomatopoeic laughter in Spanish: “jajaja” and “no!”. The thread is then completed with a comment with laughter and an additional emoticon including a wink from another student aligning with the established framing. This is an additional example of how an upkeyed framing is managed by playing with the form with onomatopoeic linguistic repertoires in choosing emoticons and certain expressions that interplay with the content. Here, the students show signs of sociopragmatic competence by sensitivity in conforming to the way the activity is framed (cf. Harlow 1990) and, as shown in the study by Fusaroli and Tylén (2012), this is a negotiated, joint activity. Another example of an upkeyed framing is shown in Fig. 5. (In Figs. 5 and 6, the comments are numerous and are, therefore, numbered.)

Fig. 5
figure 5

Posting from FB Group 2

Fig. 6
figure 6

Posting from FB Group 2

Figure 5, involving Swedish boys from the same class, presents a thoroughly upkeyed framing compared to the initial framings of the interactions in the social media groups. The posting consists of a picture of a well-known character, Gandalf from the film Lord of the Rings, with the statement “Gandalf is not My Dad”. The posting is framed as an out-of-school activity by using the social media space as a “communicative playing field” (Kramsch 2014). The linguistic repertoires of the students’ out-of-school digital vernacular takes precedence, entailing nonsense, playful framing that deviates from conventional forms of writing in an L2 learning context of schooling.

The playful use of a picture of Gandalf with that statement attracts the other students to continue and even heightens the humorous framing (cf. Crystal 1998; Hattem 2014). This is linguistically accomplished by playing with content and form—and by making comments about the picture and the statement. The first comment, “He’s your mother,” is a playful content response to the statement. The second response, “Duckface,” and the third comment, “Bortom det du ser,” are addressing the picture. The third comment in Swedish, which means “beyond what you see,” is also one of the few instances of language play that involved mixing languages in these groups. Thus, the language play is mainly in English, even in threads that consist of only students from the same country. The fourth comment, “HAHAHAHA you’re sick… < 3”, displays how the content of the onomatopoeic laughter, together with the rude message and the final heart, can be understood as an encouraging framing. Thereafter, there are three comments on the statement and a final comment referring to a popular meme based on that line from the movie; “They’re Taking the Hobbits to Isengard”. The interaction that involves only students from the same class demonstrates that they have sufficient substantive knowledge and their communication is dependent on their shared history, which enables them to tease in a very local language play (cf. Lantz-Andersson 2016). Following Bell’s (2009) argument, it is shown here that humour arises from comments that could be seen as rude, but through the known common ground for communication, the comments are perceived as playful. Figure 6 is an alternative example of upkeyed framing where a language play, far from the institutional framing, is performed.

Figure 6 is initiated by a socializing posting from a male Colombian student asking the other participants how they are doing. The first comment is a response to the request for chit-chat that indicates he should be doing schoolwork: “don’t u have homeworks?” Then the second commenter states “ice-cream.” The initiator responds with “wa?,” which is understood as a request for clarification. Then, in the fifth comment, another student enters the interaction by texting “perp,” which is understood as short for Purple Haze, a marijuana plant (definitions from the Urban Dictionary, The sixth comment is understood as a clarification from the boy who posted “ice-cream”, with the slang expression “piripitiflautica,” (explained in the Urban Dictionary as a relaxing word to use when frustrated or mad). The communicative context points to an interpretation of “ice cream” to be understood as a slang expression for crack. In comment 7, the initiator repeats “perp” followed by a more direct claim in comment 8, “you like acids dont’ya?” The interaction that follows between the two Colombian boys—“no never,” “are you sure dude,” “yeah nigga” and “ok fella”—is performed by the use of linguistic repertoires with jargon words, as well as by picking up and reusing each other’s comments in a way that could be seen as norm-breaking and far from the traditions of L2 learning in the school setting.

As in the previous excerpt, the space is used as a “communicative playing field” (Kramsch 2014), but it also resembles chat-like interaction, performed by single words and popping in and out of the conversations (Boyd 2008). Such language play could be regarded as a verbal duel (Cook 2000) or as a kind of freestyling (Hattem 2014), which is interaction that resembles the lyrics in hip-hop music, where rappers meet in battles. Here there are also a lot of identity negotiations going on in which the students creatively try out different approaches of how to deal with language play that allude to the use of drugs (cf. Danet 2001).

As in Fig. 5, the students who contribute to this conversation are mostly classmates, and the language play, both related to content and form, performed here is in large part dependent on their shared history (cf. Lantz-Andersson 2016; Vandergriff and Fuchs 2009). However, interestingly, comment 13, “derp” (a typical online word used when someone makes a mistake or does something stupid or ridiculous), is posted by a Swedish boy, who is able to align with the Colombians students’ repertoires-in-use. By his word choice, the boy demonstrates his sociopragmatic competence by attentiveness to what linguistic choice to make to attune to the local coordinated framing (cf. Harlow 1990) and also includes a playful rhyme in the words perp/derp. In line with earlier research (e.g., Bell et al. 2014; Fusaroli and Tylén 2012; Hattem 2014; Vandergriff and Fuchs 2009), the way the students in this thread frame the interaction brings about a sophisticated conversant language play that, by their choice of slang expressions and jargon, displays an awareness of how humour and mockery function as a communication practice in a second language.

6 Discussion

This study has explored student’s framing (Goffman 1974) of the interactions in two FB groups by analysing their use of linguistic repertoires. The overall findings show that when the students frame the communication by including features of the linguistic repertoires of their out-of-school social media use, language play with both content and form is performed. The analysis of the interactions revealed both playing with form, for example, shown by the choice of linguistic repertoires, including rhyming, punning and repetition and playing with content, related to meaning and often involving some kind of irony or ridicule in the message (cf. Cook 2000; Danet 2001). For example, in Fig. 4 the students played with the form of language by choosing certain expressions and emoticons that became intertwined with playing with the content in the discussion of whether a song by Justin Bieber is good or not.

In instances of upkeyed framings performed by language play, the students display sociopragmatic competence in how they use their linguistic repertoire not only with pragmatic intentions but also as a means for various kinds of socializing purposes. This is seen, for example, in Fig. 5 where students from the same class more or less hang out in the social media space and interact by small-talking about and around the theme of a mutually known movie using a very local language play. In such cases, the notions of frame and key can also be compared with the distinction between the overall goal of the activity and in what ways the students align in accordance with that goal or transform the school-introduced activity into new activities that better match their desires (cf., Hattem 2014). The upkeyed framing is even more explicit in Fig. 6, where the norm-breaking language play functioned as a trigger for other students to join a kind of carnivalesque framing (Bakhtin 1941). The analysis of this excerpt also shows a considerable amount of identity negotiations underway, in which the students creatively try out different approaches of dealing with language play that alludes to their presented attitudes towards the use of drugs (cf. Danet 2001). Rather than viewing the language use here as merely shallow or simplistic, the communication are seen as involving rather challenging linguistic choices that expose a certain sociopragmatic competence. By zooming in on how the students use their out-of-school digital vernacular, it can be seen that certain repertoires-in-use bring about that the students feel free to elaborate and play with the language, which enables them to practice youths’ sociopragmatic repertoires of English as a global Internet language, despite the fact that the FB-groups were introduced in L2 learning (cf. e.g., Androutsopoulos 2014; Fusaroli and Tylén 2012; Thorne and Reinhardt 2008). Thus, the findings of this study show that multimodal texts demand symbolic sophistication from students and active participation far away from passive reception (cf. Danet 2001; Kern 2014). In that sense, language play implies that the more familiar a student is with the targeted language, the more he or she can master the linguistic choices and respond appropriately to others’ choices, which is not a trivial activity (Cook 2000). Rather, the changes in media environments imply rapid transformations of communication patterns according to the circumstances, which require quite advanced proficiencies.

An important aspect is that the activity is in the form of persistent writing, which not only enable meta-linguistic reflections, such as deliberate formulations (Danet 2001) but also the evolving demands of written, chat-like turn taking, which is a relatively new practice for language use. Thus, adding to the complexity is the hybrid-genre aspect of oral and written communication, common in social media spaces. This includes use of specific emoticons (or other ways of exaggerating and emphasizing) as indicators for irony, teasing and so on (cf. Dresner and Herring 2010; Walther and D’Addario 2001). Another aspect is that social media interaction often includes the kind of English that flourishes in media such as YouTube clips, movies, music, etc. In all, this is a use of language that can be characterised as the vernacular of younger generations and as a global Internet language, which is seldom part of English L2 curricula because it does not belong to what Kern (2014) calls the authoritative language. An additional aspect of significance is that the communication is done in a second language. Being familiarised with the conventions of writing something spontaneously in a foreign language is different—and considerably more challenging—than saying it, because when the writing is unplanned, the foreign language learner must consider norms (or how to break them) regarding spelling, grammar and vocabulary choices (Lantz-Andersson 2015).

The analysis of this study has shown that social media spaces imply linguistic practice in the targeted language that enable students to learn to adapt to the needs of the differently framed communications, which in turn means that they are presented with opportunities to develop sociopragmatic competence (cf. Lomicka and Lord 2016). Thus, the choices of linguistic repertoires that include language play can be seen as an “index of a sharer’s orientation to new social contexts” (Androutsopoulos 2014, p.17). This orientation implies that a specific relationship occurs between the participants, the medium and the context in social media spaces that enables students to make linguistic choices by using their previous knowledge of the targeted language together with experience of social media interactions and other out-of-school influences on the language. Introducing social media as part of L2 learning therefore also resonates with curricular goals that focus on students’ development of all-round communicative abilities in different situations for different purposes, through the use of the language in functional and meaningful contexts. In this perspective, the communication highlights aspects of language use that have been underestimated both as part of L2 learning practices and in research (e.g., Danet 2001; Kern 2014; Kramsch 2014; Lomicka and Lord 2016; Thorne 2013; Warner 2004).

7 Conclusion

This study focused on the in-depth interaction of two FB groups and is limited insofar that it makes no claims about how frequently or how likely language play is to occur on social media spaces when introduced as part of L2 learning activities. Despite that, the findings provide a contribution to the discussion about expanding the view of language and understanding language play within social media spaces related to its potential value to L2 learning. It is argued here that social media interaction opens up communicative casual learning contexts enabling possibilities for development of sociopragmatic competence, involving the unpredictable nature of open-ended conversations that is desirable when practising a second language. However, writing concrete guidelines for incorporating social media use into L2 instruction is rather problematic for several reasons. First, the applications, as such, do not decide what teachers and students do so if social media become part of the educational environment, it will be used differently. Second, the media ecology changes so quickly that guidelines would quickly become obsolete. Therefore, in this time of constant innovations of media applications that enhance communication, it is necessary for education to develop strategies that integrate social media-spaces (and other recent media applications) in productive ways in the many different teaching contexts that characterise modern education.

To avert that the linguistic repertoires used in social media contexts are perceived as merely shallow linguistic constructions, research must address dichotomies between fluent informal English and formal types and invoke critical awareness of the varieties of textual and oral conventions. This study serves as one example of linguistic activities, which generated possibilities for students to develop sociopragmatic competence but more research is needed on the complex interrelationships between institutional L2 learning practices and the linguistic repertoires of the students’ everyday life.