Second language vocabulary acquisition through fan fiction on the Archive of Our Own

Júlia Zen Dariva

Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, Florianópolis, Brazil

[0.1] AbstractWith the widespread diffusion of the internet and online archives, fan fiction is increasingly consumed by fans who do not speak English as a first language. It is therefore relevant to argue that fan fiction, especially as found on the fan-run Archive of Our Own, may work as a space for second language vocabulary acquisition. The high motivation and extensive engagement with forms of reading of fans who read and write fan fiction helps with vocabulary acquisition.

[0.2] KeywordsEnglish language learners; Extensive reading; FLA; Foreign language acquisition; SLA

Dariva, Júlia Zen. 2021. "Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition through Fan Fiction on the Archive of Our Own." In "Fan Studies Pedagogies," edited by Paul Booth and Regina Yung Lee, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 35.

[1] Fan studies scholars have expanded on the potential of fan fiction to support queer female spaces (Lackner, Lucas, and Reid 2006), women's writing (Derecho 2006), and queer imaginations (Rodenbiker 2014), as well as of retoolings of masculinity (Penley 2014) and of identity performativity (Busse 2006), among a plethora of similar issues. Few scholars, however, have regarded fan fiction as a tool for language acquisition, and the present work aims to discuss the ways in which fan fiction may support language acquisition within the context of a globalized internet. This work is concerned, in particular, with the possible role of fan fiction posted on Archive of Our Own (AO3) as a highly motivating form of extensive reading (Krashen 1989; Coady 1996) aiding the acquisition of vocabulary in an additional language.

[2] Fan fiction was cemented as an object of scholarly relevance by Joanna Russ's (1985) Pornography by Women for Women, with Love, as well as by Camille Bacon-Smith's (1992) Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth and Henry Jenkins's (1992) Textual Poachers, all three of which are dedicated to discussing and defining the fan practices that developed in the sixties in the United States around cult television show Star Trek (1966–69). Bacon-Smith (1992) and H. Jenkins (1992) alike consider the emergence of fan fiction to have resulted from the active negotiation of meaning between fans and television text, an interpretive shift that positioned fans as active media consumers rather than passive spectators. Their research focused mainly on Western media and fan practices in Western, anglophone countries. The authors recount that fan fiction was published and distributed in zines and was thus regarded as a subcultural, niche activity, mostly undertaken by educated, English-speaking women who created networks in which to share fannish materials and enthusiasms. Throughout their works, Bacon-Smith and H. Jenkins understand the reading and writing of fan fiction as a collaborative endeavor—fannish activity is particularly marked by the existence of a community, of and around which the rules and specific consensuses are set and traced by the fans themselves. As such, reading and writing fan fiction are connected to both personal expression and the development of a collective identity.

[3] Although plenty has changed about the distribution of fan fiction since the publishing of Bacon-Smith's (1992) and H. Jenkins's (1992) seminal works, the notion of community remains central to fandom. It was through this collaborative lens that AO3—an online, unrestricted archive that hosts over 6.5 million fan works and 2.5 million users (note 1)—was created. Part of the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), a nonprofit organization established by fans in 2007, AO3 hosts a large number of the fan works published online, including works published before it was created. In light of the aforementioned numbers, as well as of H. Jenkins's (1992) assertion that sharing fan fiction is a social process connected to the development of identity, it seems fair to infer that reading and writing of fan fiction are both extensive and deeply motivating.

[4] In addition, the reading and writing of fan fiction has, in the last twenty years, become a global endeavor. While both Bacon-Smith (1992) and H. Jenkins (1992) assert that early fan fiction was consumed by educated, English-speaking American women, nowadays, readers and writers access digital fan fiction from around the world. However, a substantial proportion of the works on AO3 are in English, with nearly 6 of the over 6.5 million works archived there published in English.

[5] Regarded as a global language, English is often used as a lingua franca, that is, as the common language used between speakers of different languages and with varied cultural backgrounds (J. Jenkins 2009). Because of this, it works to broaden the communicative possibilities within fan communities. Nonetheless, Angelina Karpovich (2006) asserts that a large number of fans do not have English as a first language. One of the first to study this in depth was scholar Rebecca Black (2005, 2006, 2008) who claims that a substantial part of fan fiction readership is now composed of English language learners and users of English as an additional language. Further studies have shown the central role English plays for fans with other mother tongues, such as Švelch's (2013) "The Delicate Art of Criticizing a Savior" and Duggan and Dahl's (2019) "Fan Translations of SKAM." Earlier examples include the work of Leppänen and colleagues (Leppänen 2007; Leppänen et al. 2009), in which they recount how Finnish fans usually opt for writing in English, recognizing that it allows their practices to reach a broader audience. Anne Kustritz (2015) similarly discusses how speakers of other languages identify as "fans," often using the English term to describe both transnational and local practices as well as using English in transnational fan spaces (¶ 3.1).

[6] Among the few scholars to have explored the potential of fan fiction as a tool for English as a second/foreign language (ESL/EFL) acquisition, Black (2005, 2006) argues that online fan fiction communities can provide English language learners with significant opportunities for language development. Black's work focuses on English language learners' involvement with anime-based fan fiction posted on the website and how this fan fiction allows English language learners to interact extensively with the English language. Online fan fiction communities are particularly valuable spaces of learning because they are rich with authentic, meaningful use of language and literacy (Warschauer 2000) and feature numerous discussions in which both meaning and identity are negotiated. Indeed, identity is performed through many choices within these communities: the inclusion of specific characters, pairings, tropes, and writing styles are all ways through which fans' identities can be negotiated. Fans' choice of language, too, can be considered a mode of identity performance as language can be used to demonstrate specific expertise, cultural affiliations, or personal values (Thorne, Sauro, and Smith 2015). Thus, Black (2005, 2006) concludes, online fan fiction communities are environments in which reading is deeply embedded in social interactions with other fans, often using English as a lingua franca, and this provides both content and motivation for English language learners.

[7] Although Black (2005, 2006) does not discuss the possible role of fan fiction as a tool for the acquisition of English vocabulary, her conclusions support such a claim. The literature touched upon so far posits that the consumption of fan fiction is a form of extensive reading that is highly motivated, as it is connected to matters of individual and collective identity, as well as part of a specific subculture that uses English as a lingua franca. Within studies of language acquisition, motivation has been considered to have a central role in learners' mastering of an additional language: for example, Dörnyei (2005), in his conception of motivation, speaks of the existence of an ideal self in which all the desired attributes that one wishes to possess are encapsulated, including the mastery of a new language. Similarly, Gardner (2007) considers motivation to be both conveyed through learners' attitudes and ideals and responsible for the way learners relate to their additional language and the cultures of which it is a part. If English, in this case, is the language required for engaging with a community whose culture and activities are deeply connected with the development of individual and collective identity, motivation can be perceived as vital both in the reading of fan fiction itself and in the process of mastering English.

[8] Motivation is an important concept found in Coady's (1996) discussion of Krashen's (1989) claim that vocabulary can be acquired through the extensive reading of texts within learners' areas of interest. Coady (1996) highlights that beginner-level language learners do not have the vocabulary required for reading well enough to acquire new vocabulary through reading, a conundrum that was then named "the beginner's paradox" (229) and which suggests that language learners require a certain amount of language input or instruction before they are able to enlarge their vocabulary through extensive reading. For intermediate-level learners, however, extensive reading can be a key site for vocabulary acquisition—once a learner has mastered medium- to high-frequency words, the acquisition of low-frequency vocabulary can be achieved through incidental contact in the context of extensive reading. Likewise, Nation (2015) contends that the acquisition of vocabulary through extensive reading depends on repetition and a number of encounters with the target words. He further argues that extensive reading should involve the reading of level-appropriate texts, as linguistic challenges in the form of unknown words and structures can hinder word acquisition. However, Coady (1979) demonstrates that interest and motivation can be more relevant to the comprehension of a text than linguistic knowledge and ability, showing that the most effective input for language acquisition is compelling input. More recently, Krashen and Bland (2014, 2), quoting Nell (1988) and Atwell (2007), have argued the same, proposing that ideal input is not only interesting but also so compelling "that the acquirer is hardly aware that it is in a different language, so compelling that the reader is 'lost in the book'…or 'in the reading zone.'" They build upon Krashen’s (2011) compelling input hypothesis, which suggests that compelling input removes the conscious aspect of language learning and rather transforms acquisition into a nearly unconscious, pleasurable process.

[9] Similarly focused on the role of extensive reading in vocabulary acquisition, Pigada and Schmitt’s (2006) "Vocabulary Acquisition from Extensive Reading: A Case Study" describes how French learners participating in an extensive reading program were able to improve their comprehension of target words, spelling, and knowledge of overall text meaning and grammar. Kweon and Kim's (2008) "Beyond Raw Frequency: Incidental Vocabulary Acquisition in Extensive Reading" describes how previously unknown words could be acquired through the extensive reading of authentic texts, while Judge’s (2011) "Driven to Read: Enthusiastic Readers in a Japanese High School's Extensive Reading Program" focuses on the motivations of avid readers inside an extensive English-language reading program in Japan. These findings further corroborate Krashen's (1989) and Coady's (1996) works.

[10] The examples mentioned above work with the idea of authentic texts—that is, texts that were not written specifically for language learners, such as graded readers, but which were instead published for a general readership in the target language, such as novels. Fan fiction, although written by both native and non-native English users (Karpovich 2006), is also a form of authentic text, produced according to its own set of genre-specific conventions (H. Jenkins 1992). A great deal of scholarship on vocabulary acquisition through extensive reading (e.g., Judge 2011; Kweon and Kim 2008; Pellicer-Sánchez 2016; Pigada and Schmitt 2006) reinforces Coady's (1996) claims that English vocabulary can be acquired incidentally through the extensive reading of authentic texts by intermediate-level language learners. It follows, then, that fan fiction, which has so far in this work been established as a form of authentic text that is consumed extensively, can play a relevant role in the acquisition of vocabulary by language learners. Moreover, it is fair to suggest that more scholarly attention ought to be given to fan fiction as a form of authentic text and to its function as a site for the acquisition of vocabulary in learners' additional languages. It is possible that fan fiction may play a larger role in language acquisition than commercially published literary texts due to the inherently motivational aspect of fan fiction, as well as to the ease with which it can be accessed online through archives such as AO3.

[11] Sauro (2020) has reviewed the scholarly attention paid to fan fiction as a tool of language learning in informal contexts and found that the reading and writing of fan fiction have been the foci of case studies exploring how these practices improve reading and writing skills in fans' mother tongues and additional languages. Although the studies reviewed by Sauro touch on vocabulary acquisition and development as a consequence of reading and writing fan fiction, they do not use the lens of extensive reading in their analyses. Future case studies focusing on vocabulary acquisition through the extensive reading of fan fiction, as well on how the high frequency of vocabulary specific to fan fiction (Stasi 2006) might affect vocabulary development and retention, would further develop our understanding of how fan fiction aids language acquisition. Research on fan fiction should include considerations of language acquisition—it can broaden research horizons for scholars all over the globe and provide both fan studies and applied linguistics with valuable interdisciplinary insights.


1. Numbers and information retrieved from AO3 in October, 2020.


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