MEGAN IRVINE asks: ‘Can we blame texting for a decline in literacy?’

TEXTING, since its advent in 1992, has become well rooted in our daily lives. It started as a useful communication tool, as well as a bit of fun, being used between friends and writing in ‘secret code’. But now fears of a decline in literacy have become more prominent, and a lot of the blame has been attributed to texting. Is this really fair?

It is common to adapt our language when texting or communicating via an electronic device, also known as CMC (computer mediated communication). When people send texts to friends they may write something like ‘wuu2’ instead of ‘what are you up to’ or ‘c u l8r’ for ‘see you later’. Texters usually want to send messages quickly, and shortening words or purposely misspelling for ease does this. This is also done to fit in with peers who text this way too. There is the fear that this ‘new language’ may replace Standard English and young people will become unable to use our language ‘properly’.

So, is this really a problem? Woronoff (2007) thinks so. He describes texting as a “habit forming menace [which] can influence kids to spell incorrectly”. There has been evidence to support this claim. For example, The Daily Telegraph (2004) published an article entitled “Pupils resort to text language in GCSE exams”. It explained that some teens misspelt words and used textisms in their GCSE papers. Despite this, The Daily Telegraph then later published an article in 2011 supporting the opposite point of view. The heading read “text messaging ‘improves children’s spelling skills”.

Tagliamonte & Denis suggest that “computer-mediated-communication […] is not the ruin of this generation at all, but an expansive new linguistic renaissance” (2008: 27).  They are suggesting that this new variety of our language is an exciting development.

Crystal (2008: 162) also claims “children could not be good at texting if they had not already developed considerable literacy awareness”. Being able to write in text language comes after mastering standard writing. We should therefore see texting as an addition to our language, not a replacement.

There have also been studies conducted on the topic over the years. Varnhagen et al. (2009) studied 40 adolescent texters between the ages of twelve and seventeen and measured their spelling ability. In conclusion to their study, they “are optimistic that spelling ability is not adversely affected by instant messaging” (2009: 731).  They suggest that those who used more abbreviations and other features of texting were better spellers.

So, what is the answer? There may always be a divide in opinion, but the evidence is there. As long as it is made clear that text language is not to be used in formal contexts, and is simply an addition to our language, there will not be a problem. Perhaps texting has become an easy target to blame for the decline in literacy. If we look closely, texting and computer-mediated-communication provide additional practice in reading and writing and help children to learn the relationship between spelling and sounds. Although texting has taken off, it will never take over. As far as I can see our language is safe.

MEGAN IRVINE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

 References

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

Henry, J. (2004) Pupils resort to text language in GCSE exams. The Telegraph [online] 7 November [Accessed 3 November 2013], 1. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/3346533/Pupils-resort-to-text-language-in-GCSE-exams.html

Paton, G. (2011) Text messaging ‘improves children’s spelling skills’. The Telegraph [online] 20 January [Accessed 4 November 2013], 1. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/8272502/Text-messaging-improves-childrens-spelling-skills.html

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.

Woronoff, P. (2007) Cell phone texting can endanger spelling. Retrieved 23 October 2013 from: http://www.articlesbase.com/cell-phones-articles/cell-phone-texting-can-endanger-spelling-276413.html

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3 thoughts on “MEGAN IRVINE asks: ‘Can we blame texting for a decline in literacy?’

  1. Dear Megan
    Thanks for your interesting overview of the alleged influence of text messaging on literacy. I am interested in your statement that textisms (I believe this is now an official name for these things!) are OK as long as they are not used in formal contexts. I wonder whether you have considered whether this will always be the case? There are some words in English which are perfectly acceptable in formal contexts but which are actually abbreviated forms of previously longer words. For instance ‘fax’ is a shortening of ‘facsimile’, ‘pram’ started life as ‘perambulator’, ‘bus’ as ‘omnibus’, ‘pub’ as ‘public house’ and so on. There must have been a point when these shortened words started to become acceptable in formal contexts (however you define ‘formal’) and before which would have been frowned upon. I believe ‘LOL’ and many other textisms have been entered into the Oxford English Dictionary (OMG!) so I wonder if it is just a matter of time before RAOTFL becomes shouted out in the House of Commons and reported in Hansard.
    TTFN!
    Matt

  2. Matthew Hawksworth says:

    Hi Megan and others,

    I think you make a range of valid and relevant points on this subject. Although, personally, I do not believe ‘textisms’ are doing any serious, immediate, harm to our language there are definitely barriers to language acquisition that it could cause. Specifically in regards to children and foreign speakers attempting to acquire our language.

    My issue lies in the situation of your first interaction with a word being with its short hand abbreviation. Upon learning the standard form of this word a degree of confusion is going to be caused. This problem only exists outside of a formal learning environment, such as a school, where the standard would be taught. But with so much of our vocabulary picked up in our early years, through listening to those around us converse, and the increasing use of ‘textisms’ in speech it is plausible to believe we may pick ‘textisms’ up at an early age.

    However, I definitely agree with (Crystal 2008:162) point you have you cited, providing you do acquire the standard form first. Once you have acquired a word into your vocabulary gaining understanding of its different meanings and shortening can only serve to diversify your communication skills. As you state ‘texting has become well routed in our daily lives’ and if its current increase in use is anything to go by we should all become familiar with it fairly soon.

    Matt, you make an interesting point and I’m sure someone was having this exact same debate when the examples you offered came to be. Be it may that pub goers probably just found ‘Public House’ too long after indulging in a visit.

    I found the results of (Varnhagen et al 2009) study interesting, as you say ‘the evidence is there’. If texting betters spelling as well as quickening communication then surely the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Maybe one day ‘Textism’ will have its place in formal contexts, but with the current stigmatisms I doubt it will be any time soon.

    Many Thanks,

    Matthew Hawksworth.

    English Language Undergraduate, University of Chester.

  3. Megan Irvine says:

    Hi Matt,

    Thank you for commenting. I suppose language changes and anything is possible, so perhaps textisms will come to be acceptable in formal contexts in time, like the examples you have given. I am tempted to suggest otherwise however; firstly I do not think enough people text with textisms for them to become fully integrated into our language, as nowadays it is common to send a text without textisms, as I do. For me, this is because it suddenly seemed ‘uncool’ to use text language, using numbers instead of letters or missing letters out completely when I got to the age of around 15. I do not believe however that at the age of 15 it would become uncool to use the word bus instead of omnibus!

    When I wrote ”text language is not to be used in formal contexts”, I was mainly thinking of initialisms and homophones such as ATM or gr8, which break standard rules of language and to some do not appear to have meaning at all. I see the examples you gave ; ‘fax’, ‘pub’ etc. as simply abbreviations which still keep the essence of the word, therefore their meanings are obvious, or more so than the meaning of some textisms anyway (I’ve just had to look up RAOTFL now, to me that was a not so obvious example!)

    Megan

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