Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, and Digital Fluency

I was weaned on an Apple IIe.

Think I'm not native? I was weaned on an Apple IIe.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Marc Prensky’s Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants analogy.  Perhaps this is because I teach English, my native language, as a Second Language.  I help students to become more fluent in English every day, so I tend to see technological savy in terms of fluency.  And this analogy is a pretty good attempt to describe how different people react to new technology.

Prensky’s analogy is by no means complete.  It has been criticized as being ageist and xenophobic, which is fair, given the way he has described both groups.  (See a fuller rebuttal.)  But, in terms of fluency, perhaps technology has a critical period of acquisition as well.  After the critical period in language learning, it is extremely uncommon for a person to learn a second language to native-like fluency.  Is the same true for technology as well?

In some ways, technology, or at least tech-savvy, can similarly be viewed as a language or, perhaps, culture.  When someone is immersed in information technology from birth, that person has a different relationship with it than if he had become more familiar with it later in life.  For example, a student who works in my office recently found a credit card.  Her first reaction was to look for the owner on Facebook.  Although I use Facebook, I’m on Facebook, and I communicate via Facebook, my first reaction to finding a credit card would have been to either call the bank that issued the card or to turn it over to the campus Lost and Found Office.  Despite my familiarity with Facebook, I still use Facebook; I don’t Facebook.

Perhaps Digital Fluency, then, is a more subtle and satisfying analogy to describe a person’s incorporation of technology.  In my opinion, technological and linguistic fluency have nativeness in common; someone not born immersed in it will never use it in quite the same way as someone who was.  Of course, with both technology and language, there are exceptional cases and counter examples, but differences and accents remain.

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