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What’s the Problem with Texting?

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Eugene Gan - published on 09/18/14

Studies show that texting does not harm children's grammar and spelling, so why are we so concerned?

OMG! A series of studies has concluded that texting isn’t 2 blame for poor spelling or grammar skills. Is this gr8 news for teens and teachers alike, or does it still fly in the face of conventional wisdom? After all, wouldn’t extended and repeated use of abbreviations, emoticons, truncated grammar, and phonological spelling vicissitudes during texting (sometimes referred to as the injudicious use of “textese” or “textisms” or even “txtspk”) predict poor spelling and grammar use in regular writing and speech as well? For that matter, how many opportunities do I really get to use fun multisyllabic words like “vicissitudes” in 140 character tweets? And how might I abbreviate “vicissitudes” or its cooler tongue-twisting sibling “vicissitudinousness” so someone else still recognizes the word?

The mention of texting seems to conjure images of young teens hunched over their smart phones, oblivious to the rest of the physical world and the happenings around them. The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project reports that 78 percent of teens now have a cell phone and 74 percent of teens ages 12-17 say they access the internet on cell phones, tablets, and other mobile devices. Texting is an important part of that mobile experience, and the numbers of text messages sent continues to increase annually. It’s an universal phenomenon, with concomitant concerns amongst educators worldwide for how texting slang impacts literacy development.

The findings of a joint study by Coventry University in the UK and the University of Tasmania in Australia were recently published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology. They indicated that textisms do NOT appear to negatively impact children’s literacy, and may additionally benefit their learning to spell as well. The study included 83 primary (elementary) school students, 78 secondary (middle and high) school students, and 49 college undergraduates. These students were asked to copy down the text messages they had sent within a recent two-day period, exactly as they had written them. These texts were then analyzed for textisms and other “grammatical violations” including the use of emoticons, incorrect use of standard punctuation, missing words and letters, and word abbreviations and reductions. The study concluded that for this group, there is a slight correlation between the use of textisms and increases in students’ test scores.

This is just the latest in a string of studies affirming the same. For example, a 2011 study looking at 10- to 12-year-old children reported significant and positive relationships between textism use and general spelling ability, providing “further evidence that children’s use of textisms is associated not with declining standards of literacy, but with better spelling skills.” Another 2008 study conducted with British children reported that the children who used more textisms tended to have better performance on a measure of verbal reasoning ability and in their reading and writing.

Speculations abound as to why all these findings seem to contradict earlier media-reported fears about how texting is wreaking havoc with children’s literacy skills. It could be a matter of increased exposure to the written word which is a positive predictor for reading success, or it’s possible that experimenting with language increases overall fluency and improves reading and writing skills simply because the sheer fun of texting friends and playing around with words increases the overall enjoyment of reading and writing while at the same time, provides practice with linking sounds and letters. It’s also important to acknowledge that using textisms doesn’t necessarily mean that young people don’t know proper grammar. It could be a simple matter of saving time: the inefficiency of typing long, formal sentences on tiny mobile screen keyboards, for example. Textisms could well be a viewed as an additional casual style that can be added to one’s writing repertoire.

Email has already blurred the lines between the informal and formal styles of language. I admit that I too have fallen prey to this. In an effort to respond to huge loads of daily emails, I’ve marginalized proper punctuation and capitalization in my emails. My e e cummings-esque messages are also littered with abbreviations like BTW (by the way) and FWIW (for what it’s worth). Our age is one of textualized-speech because the current limitations of bandwidth and technology support this form of communication better. Truly, the medium is the message.

Look, too, at how we no longer say “I searched for it on Google,” but instead use the noun as a verb as in “I googled it.” Shakespeare was fond of verbalizing nouns. In doing this, did he weaken or enrich the English language? We speak now of tabling the issue or chairing the meeting. Tables and chairs have been made into action words. Other words have been merged together to form new words. Our current usage of the word “meld” is really made up of the words “weld” and “melt”. Look up “meld” in a good dictionary and you’ll see that it originally meant “announce”. Self-appointed guardians of grammar, take note.

Recall too that not so long ago when telegrams were the order of the day, limited bandwidth and cost led to a constant struggle to minimize the number of characters or words which needed to be transmitted to properly impart a message. Check out this 1928 booklet on “How to Write Telegrams Properly.” As far as I can tell, the telegraphic coded expressions and abbreviations created, as well as the dropping of articles (“a,” “the,” etc.) and other words didn’t engender fears that their generation’s language skills would be sorely compromised. Apocryphally, there’s a story about Oscar Wilde sending a “?” message to his publisher inquiring about the sales of his book, to which the reply from his publisher was an equally succinct “!”

The use of emoticons and emojis (from the Japanese word meaning “picture letter”), the small images formed with text characters or pictures that are used to express emotions, ideas, or concepts, bears special mention too. ;-) If you really wanted to, you can write sentences completely with emojis: check out this website with first lines from classic novels written entirely with emojis. Undoubtedly, pictures alone cannot communicate all the abstract thoughts, fears, dreams, and hopes that we hold so dear in our hearts (it’s sometimes not so easy to express them in words either), but it should also be acknowledged that pictures are universal and, so, able to overcome language barriers. In fact, a set of religious emoji pictures, including three kinds of crosses and a dove of peace, have recently been added to the Unicode 7.0 standard that companies like Apple and Microsoft adopt. However, because it’s up to the companies to decide which emojis they will make available on their devices and what these emojis will specifically look like, you won’t be able to use these emojis until those decisions and implementations are made. Meanwhile, you can turn to websites and third party tools like Holy Emojis or Pic Christian to copy and paste emojis into your texts.

Our language is a living language. It’s constantly in flux. As new things are made, as new technologies are created, we will verbalize them, truncate them, empower them, twist them, lend emphasis to them, decontextualize them, culturalize them, and even infuse them with new meanings and connotations. For the English teachers reading this, yes, I made up a word in that last sentence, but that’s precisely my point. English itself has its roots in multiple cultures and languages. That’s the beauty and joy of a living language. Communication and, by corollary, language, is here to meet our needs as much as it disciplines us when we learn its rubrics. The sheer joy of playing with it denotes our comfort with it and signals that we have made it our own.

There’s only so much, so deep, and so far texting will take a relationship. No text on a glowing screen nor emoji however animated will ever replace the quiet presence of a supportive friend or the warm hand-over-hand of a loved one empathizing and sharing your burdens and joys with you. We already know this. Should the concern be more about whether and how such rapid and fragmented forms of writing promote reflective and critical thinking? Perhaps the fears surrounding texting is that one generation doesn’t quite comprehend what another generation is saying. Compounded to this is the technology-supported sheer speed at which these language changes are made across nations and across cultures. Perhaps it’s the rapid change that makes some feel out of place, a stranger in their own place. Whatever the reason, the approach to communication must be one of love, of recognizing the inherent dignity of the human person at the other end. Are we communicating our attention, our care, our respect, and our patience with one another? Ultimately, are we communicating Christ throughout the world?

Dr Eugene Gan is faculty associate of the Veritas Center and Professor of Interactive Media, Communications, and Fine Art at Franciscan University of Steubenville in the United States. His book,Infinite Bandwidth: Encountering Christ in the Mediais grounded in Scripture and magisterial documents, and is a handbook and practical guide for understanding and engaging media in meaningful and healthy ways in daily life.

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