Introducing a New Language Competency: Misinformation Immunity

Introducing a New Language Competency: Misinformation Immunity

By: Curtis Kelly

I remember hearing Prof. Tomoko Yashima speaking on a topic I was not familiar with, “Willingness to Communicate” and I realized that it is related to a particular problem Japanese learners of English have: a tendency to remain silent in group interactions with native speakers. Although MacIntyre (2007) says it comes from a lack of intention, or “willingness,” in all the struggling learners I have worked with (and Tomoko agrees), it is not a lack of willingness as much as a deficiency in the communication skills needed to take part in the group conversation: figuring out when to break in, signaling you will do so, and knowing how to shape your contribution to fit the flow. On hearing Tomoko talk about her own early struggles speaking out to native speakers, it dawned on me that we should identify that ability as a language competence: a measure of proficiency and something we should teach.

In fact, until I heard her speech, I thought vocabulary size, grammar knowledge, pronunciation ability, and other traditional language skills were the true measures of proficiency, but Tomoko changed that. I realized that the ability to hold one’s own in a group conversation is a particularly important skill in our world of rapid exchanges. It was a moment of revelation that drastically changed my notion of proficiency.

Recently, on the Brain Science Podcast, I heard Sander van der Linden talk about our susceptibility to misinformation. Something he said jumped out at me, that we should be “inoculating our learners” against it. And again, it dawned on me that here is another competence that we should be teaching in our language classes. As we stumble through this  age of misinformation, it seems as threatening to our well-being as any epidemic or natural disaster. Since it is threat is conveyed through language, we need a better understanding of language to counter it. So, let’s arm our language students with the ability to judge credibility and identify suspicious information. Resistance to misinformation, a new language competence. I’d say it ranks equal in importance to other culture-based aspects of language that we teach, such as register, critical thinking, and… willingness/ability to communicate. So, how shall we begin this inoculation?

Fortunately, van der Linden has prepared a vaccine for us already with his website for native speaker students on inoculation science. He offers a robust explanation of why we are susceptible to misinformation, some videos on our vulnerabilities to things like emotional language, and three inoculation games. These are wonderful resources, easily understood by the native speaker youth for whom they were written, but they might be a little hard to use in low tech, low proficiency language classes (like most in Asia). So, we have taken Sander’s innovative vaccine, modified it a bit, and made a paper-based lesson for you to try.

Feel free to modify it, share it with other teachers, or add to it[1] for inclusion in a future Think Tank. I’m not really sure we are breaking new ground with this language teaching activity –someone else might have already done so – but if so, all the better!

[1] I only wrote tasks for the 6 techniques in the Bad News Game Sheet for Educators. Also note that I used his definition of “trolling” rather than the more common one.

Identifying Misinformation

Part 1 Credibility

Whenever we read news, we must protect ourselves against misinformation. A good way to protect ourselves is to think about credibility. Whether you agree with the information or not, think about how likely it is to be true. Is the information based on something that is likely to be real (high credibility), or something made up, or just an opinion (low credibility).

Mark this information as “high” “middle” or “low” credibility. (one each per set)

High: It is probably based on real information the speaker or author knows.

Middle: It might be true, but you don’t feel sure.

Low: You doubt the speaker or author really knows if this is true.

Part 2 Five Techniques

Here are 5 techniques the people who spread misinformation use to get people to believe them.

1. Impersonation

Most people pay little attention to the source of the information, where it comes from. You should look for clues as to whether the source is from a real scientific or government group, or someone just pretending to be one.

Here are some news posts. Just look at the sources, not the content. Two are not real groups, but impersonating them. Which ones? What hints did you see?

2. Emotion

The news might be real, but the way it is given makes you feel emotions like fear, anger, or empathy. If you read something and feel upset, the writer is probably manipulating your emotions.

These headlines use emotional language. Underline the emotion words.

Then under each news item, write how it makes you feel, such as “angry” “afraid” or “feeling pity.”

3. Polarization

Polarization means writing about two sides that do not agree with each other, such as the right and left in politics, and making the gap (differences) between them bigger than they really are. It usually involves making one side right and the other side outrageous.

Mark the two headlines that use polarization by exaggerating the differences.

Now write a headline that polarizes differences between teachers and students:

4. Conspiracy

Conspiracy theories try to explain events as being secretly planned and done by some bad group, usually a political group. There is usually a better explanation for why the event happened, one that does not involve a group of people doing bad things.

Which of these statements are conspiracy theories?

Now write a conspiracy theory about your school.

5. Discrediting

If anyone criticizes misinformation, instead of defending their ideas, the misinformation spreader will attack the character of person who criticized them.

Mr. Smith gave Haruo a D in English class. Haruo says these three things. Which two are discrediting Mr. Smith?

6. Trolling

Trolling is really a kind of fishing. For misinformation, it means writing things that pull readers into believing something that is not real. It might use any, or all, of the techniques we saw above.

Which of these two school newspaper headlines are trolling?

Now make a quiz. Write three headlines about your teacher, school, or classmates. Make two trolling and one not, maybe real. Then ask another student to identify which two headlines are trolling.










Curtis Kelly (EdD.) is dismayed by the rampant spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories in his home country, that he recently moved back to, but he is even more worried at how he himself might be a victim of manipulation.

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