Several experiments have made it clear that both the target language and the native language need to be used.
Rationale for the use of the native language online: The choice of which language to use and in what context, was easily made. It was clear to us, from the very beginning, that the responses to the questionnaires and the forums had to be written in the students’ native language (or rather – since there are international students) in the language of the country where the students are studying.
Word associations, for instance, only have value if they are made in the speaker’s “native” language. Only then can one hope to access the hidden cultural values, which are intrinsically language-bound. To have students write in the forums in their “native” language was also a deliberate choice. We want to make sure that students are able to express their thoughts in all their complexity as fully and as naturally as possible. This often surprises other foreign language teachers who have always thought of online exchanges as a way for students to test their linguistic abilities. But this was not our purpose. And what students may “lose”, by not writing in the target language, is largely offset by the gains they make by getting access to a rich, dynamic and totally authentic language.
When to use the target language: Students constantly use the target language to communicate with their peers in class, to make oral presentations and write their daily and weekly assignments.
When to use both: Depending on the level of your class and your own wishes, both the native and the foreign language can be used for portions of the student journals and the Videoconferences.