Has CMC and texting led to the dumbing down of literacy? ELEANOR WEBSTER investigates

THE EVOLUTION of technology over the last decade or so has been rapid, not only introducing innovative gadgets but also popularising what linguists have referred to as a ‘new language’ among young people. Texting as a form of communication is particularly prominent, with Vosloo (2009: 2) stating that it ‘is the written lingua franca of many youth today.’

Features of electronic language include the shortening of words, such as ‘probs’ meaning ‘probably’ and initialisms such as ‘LOL’ which translates to ‘laugh out loud’.  According to Varnhagen (2010:719), ‘electronic communication appears to have generated a “new language” of abbreviations, acronyms, word combinations, and punctuation.’

Although such textisms are harmless when used in informal contexts, the worry among many is that such language will infiltrate into other forms of language and will become acceptable in our everyday communication. As textisms are particularly popular among children and young adults, the concern is that texting and computer-mediated communication (CMC) will have a negative impact on literacy skills and how effectively young people learn to read and write in school.

The idea that electronic language is detrimental to the development of children’s literacy skills is encouraged by some linguists, with Woronoff (2007) stating that texting is a ‘habit forming menace [and] can influence kids to spell incorrectly or get confused about the correct usage’. However, much academic research suggests that texting and instant messaging (IM) could in fact, be a beneficial aid to learning.

The general consensus among those who believe that texting and CMC are harmful to the development of literacy skills is that the more you communicate in this way, the poorer your reading and writing skills will be. A study carried out by Varnhagen et al. looked at IM communications between adolescents and found that ‘spelling ability was not highly correlated with new language use’ (Varnhagen 2010: 729). In some cases, those with better literacy skills used textisms more frequently than those who were poorer in terms of their spelling ability. These findings relate to the idea that ‘children who are comfortable with writing – those with good literacy skills – will be experimental and use textisms more than other children’ (Vosloo 2009: 3).

So, should teachers and parents be worried about the affect texting and CMC is having on the literacy skills of children? Crystal (2008: 158) claims that ‘any form of writing exercise is good for you’ and also conveys that communicating in a variety of contexts encourages students to understand more about audience and styles in terms of the academic writing that they produce. Furthermore, Crystal (2008: 156) has stated that ‘it is crucial to recognise the various causes of inadequate literacy’ which relates to media representation of texting and CMC as detrimental to literacy learning. Perhaps reports in the press should investigate wider issues surrounding education – are other factors, such as teaching methods, socio-economic background and attitude to learning more entwined in literacy learning than previously thought? Or, is the development of electronic language a ‘new linguistic renaissance’ as Tagliamonte & Denis (2008: 27) have suggested?

Language has always developed according to changes in the society in which it is used and so it is possible that textisms and electronic language are simply a continuation of this.

ELEANOR WEBSTER, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

 References

Crystal, D. (2008) Txting: the gr8 db8. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tagliamonte, S. & Denis, D. (2008) Linguistic ruin? LOL! Instant messaging and teen language. American Speech (83) 1, pp. 3-34.

Varhagen, C K et al. (2010) LOL: New language and spelling in instant messaging. Read Writ 23, pp. 719-733.

Vosloo, S. (2009) The effects of texting on literacy: Modern scourge or opportunity? An issue paper from the Shuttleworth Foundation. [Accessed 2 November 2013] Available at: http://www.siu-voss.net/Voslo__effects_of_texting_on_literacy.pdf

Woronoff, P. (2007) [Accessed 23 October 2013] Available at: http://www.articlesbase.com/cell-phones-articles/cell-phone-texting-can-endanger-spelling-276413.html

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3 thoughts on “Has CMC and texting led to the dumbing down of literacy? ELEANOR WEBSTER investigates

  1. Jo Close says:

    Eleanor, this is a very interesting blog, but do you think ‘textspeak’ as Crystal defines it still exists? Most of the text messages I send and receive contain very few abbreviations for two reasons: (i) monthly mobile phone contracts often have an ‘unlimited’ allowance for texts so there’s no need to stick to a character limit, and (ii) smartphones are typically shipped with autocorrect enabled which means it is quicker to use non-abbreviated forms. What effect (if any) do you think this will have on literacy?

  2. Eleanor Rose Webster says:

    I agree that ‘textspeak’ is not as popular as it used to be and believe this is largely because of the reasons you have suggested Jo. People can now communicate without worrying about character limits and this has encouraged people to text in a more standard form of English, which in turn can only be beneficial in learning and developing one’s literacy skills. As for autocorrect enabled devices, again I believe this is a positive feature in helping children, as well as adults, improve their literacy knowledge while communicating in a context that they find enjoyable. Combining the development of literacy skills with something that children find fun and purposeful should encourage them to embrace writing in different contexts and for different audiences, which I believe is constructive.

  3. Clare Louise Smith says:

    There are some very interesting points made about texting and literacy.

    Adding onto the point made about textisms being harmless in informal contexts, what are your thoughts on textisms being used in more formal contexts, and whether this is right or wrong?

    There are some English words that were shortened a long time before texting was invented although they are acceptable in formal contexts, for example ‘bus’ for ‘omnibus’ and ‘pub’ for ‘public house’. Would you say this has had a negative impact on literacy skills? Or are shortenings a natural part of language change with or without the influence of texting?

    Relating to the point about children with good literacy skills using textisms more than other children, can it be argued that using textisms leads to laziness in spelling?

    For both adults and children, it can be suggested that after being exposed to misspelled words, even if the correct spelling is known, laziness can take over and the misspelled word will be used automatically over the correct form.

    I believe this should be of concern to the texting and literacy decline argument as adults and children will continue to use the ‘lazy’ spelling, therefore it will be detrimental to the future of Standard English.

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