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).
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.