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FOCROFLOL: Is Texting Damaging Our Language Skills?

Does texting result in deteriorating grammar?

Text messaging and Twitter messaging are quickly replacing email and telephone calls as the favored form of communication, particularly among young people. Does the truncated form of communicating affect our language skills, particularly our use of grammar? Recent research seems to support this proposition.

Drew Cingle and S. Shyam Sundar, who conducted research at Penn State University, and which was published in the professional journal, New Media and Society, argues that young people write in techspeak, using shortcuts, such as homophones, omissions, non-essential letters and initials, to quickly and efficiently compose a text message. They argue that the use of these shortcuts may actually hinder a person’s ability to switch between techspeak and the normal rules of grammar.

Cingle and Sundar based their findings on a survey of over 500 students in middle school.  They concluded “there is evidence of a decline in grammar scores.” Cingle cited a personal example from his two younger nieces, indicating that their text messages were “incomprehensible,” and that he had to call them and ask them what they were trying to tell him.

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In another study on the impact of texting on language skills, Joan Lee at the University of Calgary conducted a study for her Master’s thesis in linguistics, which showed that those who texted more were less open to new vocabulary, whereas those who read traditional media were more open to expanding their vocabulary. “Our assumption about texting is that it encourages unconstrained language,” Lee argues, “but the study found this to be a myth.” Lee contends that reading traditional print media exposes people to variety and creativity in language that is not found in colloquial peer-to-peer text messaging predominantly used among youth.

College students who frequently text message during class have difficulty staying attentive to classroom lectures and consequently are at risk of having poor results, according to a study by Fan-Yi Flora Wei, Ken Wang and Michael Klausner at the University of Pittsburgh, published in the journal Communication Education. They concluded that most college students believe they are capable of performing multitasking behaviors (such as texting) during their classroom learning, but research does not support that proposition.

Other experts don’t agree. Jessee Sheidlower, principal editor of the U.S. office of the Oxford English Dictionary, says that text messaging is going through the natural progression of language. Carole Adger, director of the Language in Society Division of the Center for Applied Linguistics agrees, saying “innovating with language isn’t dangerous.” American University linguistics professor Naomi Baron doesn’t agree, commenting, “so much of American society has become sloppy or laissez faire about the mechanics of writing.”

Laura M. Holson writing in The New York Times cites the research by IDC, a research company in Framington Massachusetts, which claims that as of 2010, 81 percent of Americans ages 5 to 24 own a cellphone. Holson also cites the arguments of Sherry Turkle at MIT who argues that “for kids it [smart phones] has become an identity-shaping and psyche-changing object.”  Holson argues that text messaging has become the younger generation’s version of pig Latin, citing the fact that AT&T offers a tutorial to parents that decodes acronyms meant to keep parents from prying into teens’ private conversations.

According to a Pew Internet and American Life Project entitled “Writing, Technology and Teens,” texting abbreviations and acronyms are now showing up in formal writing. Out of a study of 700 youths aged 12-17, sixty percent don’t consider electronic communications such as messaging to be writing in the formal sense; 63 percent say it has no impact on the writing they do for school, and yet 64 percent report that they inadvertently use some form of shorthand in their formal writing.

Does the kind of grammar and language used in texting and similar social media applications forecast our language of the future, which will also creep into traditional media? Will texting damage our language and further deteriorate the use of proper grammar? Or is the trend just the natural progression of our language in a digital age? Only time will tell.

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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