Texting – the medium of communication most people cannot live without. Whilst texting seems pretty harmless, it has become the subject of an ongoing uproar concerning the impact on children’s literacy. Texting has been placed under scrutiny by those claiming that it is a phenomenon which is irrefutably negative. For example, John Sutherland comments that text language is ‘unimaginative’ (Verheijen 2013: 587). Thurlow (2006, cited by Verheijen 2013: 585) notes that it is also viewed as ‘apocalyptic [and] criminal’. But are these claims true and is texting responsible for the dumbing down of literacy?
Craig (2003, cited by Verheijen 2013: 587) adopts a perspective which recognises the relationship between the use of textisms and literacy as one which highlights the role of texting in establishing language abilities such as the ability to communicate ‘effectively’. Crystal (2008, cited by Vosloo 2009: 4) notes that texting ultimately encourages creativity, through language play, and the ability to communicate concisely in spite of character restrictions imposed upon users of CMC (computer mediated communication). Such limitations challenge individuals to communicate what they intend whilst maintaining a degree of clarity. Striking this balance results in effective communication. As effective communication is also required of alternative written contexts, surely language skills acquired and developed through texting may be utilised in formal contexts for example, written examinations. This therefore suggests that the language skills acquired through texting are not limited in use to the one mode of communication, texting. However, a Guardian (2004) article – Texting ‘is no bar to literacy’ – acknowledged the concern surrounding the intelligibility of messages sent via (CMC) and in particular, those in the form of text messages. The text language adopted by text-messagers proves problematic for those not practicing the sweeping phenomenon that is texting as comprehensibility is believed to be compromised.
Crystal’s (2008) Guardian article, “2b or not 2b?” homes in on the controversy surrounding the use of non-standard forms. He claims that the use of non-standard forms goes back centuries. The process of abbreviation is one which dates back as early as 1618. Despite the current non-standard textism ‘pandemic’, the sustained use of abbreviations may lead us to believe Craig’s (2003, cited by Verheijen 2013: 587) conclusion which states that one day textisms will appear in the Standard English lexicon. The eventual integration of abbreviations and textisms into the lexicon would surely reflect a degree of acceptance by speakers. Alternatively, we may be tempted to adopt a stance similar to that of John Sutherland in claiming that text language and use of abbreviations is simply a ‘mask[ing of] dyslexia, poor spelling and mental laziness’ (Guardian 2008).
Lenhart et al (2008, cited by Vosloo 2009: 2) notes the alarming percentage (64%) of US teenagers pleading guilty to incorporating elements of texting into their academic writing. The concern that children cannot decipher context-appropriate language is often highlighted by the media. The 2004 Guardian article however highlights an initial study comparing the spelling and punctuation of children in given written tasks. The children were studied in two groups: texters versus non-texters. Findings showed that whilst both groups demonstrated grammatical and spelling errors, textisms were avoided, highlighting their awareness of context. If bilingual children are perfectly apt to perform the switch between languages depending on setting, why doubt a monolingual child’s ability to switch their language according to mode of communication?
So, is texting really causing ‘the dumbing down of literacy’? Is there any need to maintain this hostile approach to non-standard forms and in particular textisms? It is important to note that influential and respected writers such as Charles Dickens have willingly adopted examples of abbreviations in their literature. On a final note, whilst there is evidence in support and against the current debate, Plester, Wood & Joshi (2009, cited by Vosloo 2009: 4) conclude ‘that any engagement with the written word […] including reading and writing textisms […] is beneficial for children’.
CHRISTINE GILBERT, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK
Plester, B., Wood, C. & Joshi, B. (2009) Exploring the relationship between children’s knowledge of text message abbreviations and school literacy outcomes. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 27(1), pp.145-161.
Thurlow, C. (2006) From statistical panic to moral panic: the metadiscursive construction and popular exaggeration of new media language in the print media. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 11(1), pp.667-701.