LOL. What Exactly Do You Mean?

There are certain ‘truths’ which become established through simple repetition; if we see and hear them often enough they must be true. One such truth is that the more technological society becomes, the less literate its citizens will be. This is the kind of thinking which had the crime-writer Ruth Rendell claiming in a Daily Telegraph article this week, without a shred of evidence, that reading was becoming a minority activity, something which she said ‘strikes terror into her heart’ (thereby employing the kind of hyperbole which I hope she is able to avoid in her writing).

SMS usage in Pakistan from 2007-2013

The number of text messages sent by phone users in Pakistan 2007-2013

This is the same near-hysterical reaction which greeted the advent of text-messaging or Short Message Service (SMS) in the 1980s, and which has accompanied it ever since. Developed in the Franco-German GSM corporation by Friedhelm Hillebrand and Bernard Gillebaert, the idea was to transport messages on the telephone signalling paths when there was no other traffic, and in so doing make optimum use of existing resources. In order to fit existing formats, message length had to be restricted to 128 bytes (later improved to 160 seven-bit characters), though based on his personal observations of postcard and Telex messages, Hillebrand argued that 160 characters were enough to express most messages succinctly. Today, SMS is the most widely used electronic data application across the globe.

In this TED talk from April 2013, the linguist John McWhorter argues that not only is it a myth that texting is destroying the English language, but the mistake we make is in thinking of texting as a form of writing at all. In his opinion, it is more closely associated with speech, and as such its informal structure is quite appropriate. Far from being a dumbed-down form of language, in the ‘fingered speech’ which we call texting we are seeing what McWhorter calls an ‘emergent complexity’ in the ways that writing and speaking overlap. Another important theme which emerges from his talk, and which he shares with David Crystal (see later), is that most reasonably-informed people, including young people, are still quite capable of distinguishing between formal and informal language, and recognise the need to switch between them for different purposes, something which traditional grammarians used to refer to as ‘appropriate register’.

If McWhorter believes that ‘texting’ is a kind of sophisticated amalgamation of speech and writing, the eminent Professor of Linguistics David Crystal goes further in a way, by arguing that texting is also good for the development of language skills: in order to express yourself precisely and unambiguously in a very limited space, you need to understand something of the structures of formal grammar and the rules of spelling. In the most definitive study of the phenomenon to date, Txtng. The Gr8 Dbt., Crystal shows how to interpret its mix of pictograms, logograms, abbreviations, symbols, and wordplay, looks at how it works in different languages, and explores the ways similar devices have been used in different eras. It will surprise many to discover for example that the texting system of conveying sounds and meaning goes back a long way, all the way in fact to the origins of writing – and he concludes that far from hindering literacy, texting may turn out to help it. Here he is on the BBC TV programme It’s Only a Theory in 2009, debunking a few of the myths about texting,

A few common misconceptions about text messaging, according to David Crystal:-

1. Texting is done by kids only. It doesn’t take much time or effort to demonstrate that this just isn’t the case.

2. Kids fill their text messages with abbreviations. In fact, only around 10% of words used in text messages are abbreviated.

3. These abbreviations are ‘a modern thing’, invented by kids. Not true.

4. Since kids are leaving letters out, they don’t know how to spell. As Crystal sees it, if you don’t know how to spell it, you don’t know what to leave out.

5. This poor spelling finds its way into essays and examinations, leading to a generation of illiterates. Again, not true. Most young people recognise that text language is inappropriate in the context of formal assignments.

6. Most text messages are pointless. Think about it. Even the  proverbial ‘I’m on the train’ text has a point, and the point may not be explicit. ‘I’m on the train’ can often mean ‘I’m thinking about you at the moment’.

A more modern relative of text messaging of course is Twitter, the social networking site which requires users to ‘tweet’ a message in 140 characters or fewer. Much has been written about the benefits of Twitter in the classroom, for both students and teachers, but until now this has focussed on the social aspects of the medium, specifically on the importance of networking, sharing ideas, showcasing work and finding resources. Much less has been said about the benefits of tweeting in terms of language development. If you believe, as I do, that a crucial aspect of reading, writing and speaking effectively is the ability to summarise, you begin to understand the wider significance of texts and tweets. However, that is another post for another day. In the meantime remember that, as educators, our role is to help young people to a better understanding of the medium, not to control the message.

Further Reading:

Download the Creative Education Twitter Guide for Teachers here.

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8 thoughts on “LOL. What Exactly Do You Mean?

  1. I loved this! Both speakers made some great points about texting and its connections to literacy and writing skills. I agree with both of them! I do not believe that texting has a negative impact on the reading or writing skills of a person. David Crystal actually stated that the more one texts the better their literacy scores will be. He also had research to support his statements, which is a huge plus. I am only 25 years old and texting was not very popular when I was growing up in grade school. I have seen a vast increase in texting during my tenor in college and my adult life. I am currently a high school teacher and my students love to text. I have now incorporated texting into my lessons. Every morning, my students are given a warm-up activity. They answer the questions to the warm-up by using their cell phones. The students type their answers on their phone and send them to me in an e-mail. I grade and comment to their warm-ups and send a responding e-mail back to them. Mr. Crystal also made the statement that texting is not causing the English language to deteriorate. This is merely a myth that has been widely spread.

    • Hi Cierra,
      Thanks for commenting, and glad you enjoyed the blogpost. As you obviously recognise, texting is simply another (relatively new) means of communication, not the end of civilisation as we know it! If it motivates your students to get thinking in the morning then it must be a plus. As teachers, we have to use all means at our disposal to engage young people and to develop their communication skills. I can remember how tough that challenge was when I was a young teacher, but believe me it improves with age and with confidence in what you are doing.
      Best wishes,
      Bill

  2. I really like the way this posts opens. “One such truth is that the more technological society becomes the less literate its citizens will be.” I also feel that this statement is a myth and that students are still able to distinguish the difference between formal and informal language. People have used slang words for 100s of years and students before now have always been able to distinguish the difference between informal and formal language. I also appreciated the statement, “…. the mistake we make is in thinking of texting as a form of writing at all.” I feel that this is the main issue with teachers blaming poor writing skills on texting and other forms of social media. Texting is not a form of writing. It is a form of speech and quick communication from one person to another. To me, writing is a longer process that takes time to reach the intended reader. It also allows the reader to reflect what is written and respond at a later time. Texting is meant to be a quick form of communication that expects a fast response without much reflection or thought. I have yet to run across a student that uses texting abbreviations in their writing for a class assignment.

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed this post! I teach in a high school, and there are students (and teachers) on their phone everywhere you look! Whether it’s social media, sending an email, texting, or talking, a cell phone offers up several modes of communication. I teach special education, so I encourage my students to read, write, and speak using multiple modes of communication and texting is one of those. Like the article states, it is important for people to learn this method of communication to fit in to a new social culture, but it is also important that they understand when it is appropriate to use informal or formal language. I reiterate to my students frequently that it is ok to use “lol”, “jk”, or “idk” when texting or using social media, but when writing an essay or formal email, it is important to use proper English. Allowing students to practice their language skills by encouraging social media interaction or texting, keeps them engaged long enough to demonstrate the differences between formal and informal language. One important thing to remember when working with students with disabilities is that many of them have difficulty with pragmatic language (social language). I use texting as an exercise with my class to practice initiating a conversation, using the correct greetings/farewells, and keeping a flow of conversation. We are then able to re-read the conversation and discuss what could have been more appropriate, or identify strengths in conversational skills.

    • Thanks Allison.I would be interested to hear whether there is any merit in using texts to teach writing e.g. having a conversation by text then looking at how that conversation might look if it was written down, perhaps as a drama script or even a piece of dialogue in a story.

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