Culture, Imagined Audience, and Language Choices


In face-to-face conversations, the audience is typically visible and non-dynamic, so multilingual speakers often choose a language that accommodatesthe audience. They are socially expected to choose a mutually shared language based on the audience that is present, and it can be considered rude to speak in a language that obviously excludes a person from the conversation. However, the situation is different for online communication where the audience is dynamic and invisible. The context collapse creates a new environment where people are exposed to many more languages that they do not understand.

Although some people enjoy the global atmosphere, others may feel left out when major conversations are held in a foreign language. The social obligation of language choice becomes more subjective as people deal with context collapse. This uncertainly of appropriate language choice on SNSs led us to investigate factors that affect the language choice of multilingual users online.

A sample scenario


In this project, we explore the language choice of multilingual Chinese and Korean students studying in the United States on Facebook. We survey the effects of collectivist culture, imagined audience, and language proficiency on their language choice.

Results show that multilingual users use language for dividing and filtering their imagined audience. Culture played two contrasting roles; users wanted to share their culture in English but share their emotions in their native language. Through this work, we hope to portray language choice not as a tool for exclusion but of consideration for the potential audience and adherence to one’s culture.

A graph of the participant's language usage on Facebook


H. Kong, W. Wu, B. Bailey, and K. Karahalios. Culture, Imagined Audience, and Language Choices of Multilingual Chinese and Korean Students on Facebook, SocInfo 2015. pdf


Ha-Kyung Hidy Kong