News about the influence of mobile phones on children can be read everywhere. Since the rise of text messages, the ‘new language’ users have been labelled as being “vandals who are doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours eight hundred years ago … pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary” (Humphrys, 2007). The way it is presented, it seems inevitable that in the near future pupils will not only use this style in writing but also in speaking. The question is, does texting lead to a decay in literacy?
Woronoff (2007) claims that when spelling skills are not yet established, heavy use of texting will harm the ability to spell. On the contrary, what about all the abbreviations, acronyms and initialisms that we use regularly in our writing and speaking? Seldom people make the effort to say “North Atlantic Treaty Organization” for NATO or “British Broadcasting Corporation” for BBC. Nevertheless, they are accepted and fully integrated in the English language. As the world is developing, the demand for more vocabulary rises, and it needs to be quick to write as we live in a fast-paced society.
On the one hand the problem seems obvious. There is a proverb – “a three must be bent while it’s young”. It’s not unusual to assume that children who first learn to write text messages will stick to the spelling later, which worries parents and teachers. However Prof. Crystal (in Kleinman 2010: 3) states that “in fact only 10% of the words in an average text are not written in full.” This is just the tip of the iceberg. Pupils don’t seem to be able to differentiate between informal texting and formal assignments in school. According to Lenhart et al 2008 (cited by Vosloo 2009: 2), “64 percent of US teens confessed that some form of texting has sneaked into their academic writing”. This opens an opportunity for teachers to speak about the right usage, says Professor Sterling (in Lewin 2008).
On the other hand there is history. More specifically, there have been many changes and shifts in languages during centuries. Today, no one could imagine speaking like Shakespeare or not having a standard dictionary. Why is it that modern texting is feared? Back when you needed to send a telegram for long distance communication every character was required to be spent wisely. One of the reasons for abbreviations in the last 20 years was to keep messages under the 160-character limit (Crystal 2008: 5-6). In times of smart phones and constant internet connection this is no longer required but it still saves a lot of time.
Kemp and Bushnell (cited in Verheijen 2013: 590) argue that fluent texting leads to better literacy skills. It seems that composing, understanding and replying to a text message correctly can only be achieved by people with great literacy skills. In contradiction to Woronoff (2007), Crystal (2008: 162) suggests that those skills are mandatory as “children could not be good at texting if they had not already developed considerable literacy awareness”. Without the knowledge of their offspring, parents lack the skill of decoding a text message. Can it be called decay if one requires better literacy skills?
Should we be worrying about our language? For now no clear results are found in case studies. Before we jump to conclusions there is a need for more research. Up to this point past studies are not comparable. Possible topics could include longitude studies with the same children during primary school or if the same impact of texting occurs in other languages. If there is decay, one way of slowing it down is to improve other parts of literacy. One possibility would be giving children books for Christmas instead of the newest gadgets!
CHRISTIN KLUGE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK