Electronic mail, also known as e-mail, is probably the most common method of using the Internet. You must have access to the Internet to use e-mail. Many teachers can access the Internet through their home institution. This access appears to be "free," but someone, somewhere is paying for the connection. You can also have access from freenet systems (similar to a public broadcasting operation where user donations support the system) or commercial providers (e.g., CompuServe, AOL, Prodigy). Many of the latter exist, and you need to shop wisely to get the most service and access for your money.
Once you have access, you also need software so that your computer can talk to other computers; this involves sending commands, receiving and sending mail, and any other general communication functions computers do. You need to install the software, set the parameters, and begin sending and receiving mail. Several e-mail programs exist, and the way they function differs, so it is best to (1) read the instructions and, if they make little or no sense to you, then (2) get someone who already knows how to do this to help you set it up.
How does e-mail work? You can send and receive original messages, include parts of messages in other messages, reply to messages, forward messages, and save your messages to a file. These functions are all done by commands, which differ from system to system. It is, therefore, very important to understand how your system works so you do not forward a message to someplace you wish you hadn't. If you hit the "reply" button, make sure you know to what address the message is headed. E-mail addresses are a bit like a teeter-totter with the "@" sign as the folcrum:
On the left (or teeter) side is the information about the user (in this case, Jean LeLoup); on the right (or totter) side is the domain name. Going from right to left makes these addresses easier to read. The first letters on the right are either a country abbreviation (if other than the United States) or an indication of the type of access site (educational setting, commercial site, etc.) The rest of the letters are the address of the host computer system or the subdomain names. Cortland is my home institution, and the mail server is named snycorva. This is pretty long and hard to remember. Many places have simplified the domain names as much as possible, and some subdomain names are no longer included. My e-mail now is:
That's much easier to remember, isn't it? Either address will still work equally as well. The name on the teeter side could be your own name or some alias you give yourself, depending on the regulations of the service provider. Some names are numbers:
some are nicknames:
and some just say exactly who you are (like mine).
A final word is in order about some problems associated with e-mail that are particular to our profession. As you have seen by the country abbreviations, e-mail is all over the world and is used by people in all languages. We FL teachers will want to take advantage of this by putting students in communication with native speakers of our respective target languages (TL). The transmission of accents and diacritics immediately surfaces as a problem. The usual way e-mail is sent (7-bit data path) does not allow for accents. An 8-bit data path does exist and it generally does the trick, but not everyone has this. When people try to send accents over a 7-bit path, the result looks like a typing nightmare (e.g., il a r=E9clam=E9 le retour des pi=E8ces d=E9tach=E9es =E0 Caen). One way around this is using MIME (Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions), which employs a 7-bit coded format for 8-bit character sets (known as Quoted-Printable). Other encoding schemes exist for transmitting non-Roman character sets (such as those for Greek, Japanese, or Cyrillic, for example). Check with your service provider to make sure one of these options is available to you and, if it is not, insist on it. It is a vital part of your profession.