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Sorry, Emoji Doesn't Make You Dumber

Emoji is an empowering addition to digital communication.

The new and now ubiquitous phenomenon of emoji—the colourful glyphs, like smileys, winks, and the thumbs up symbol—has, in less than three years, taken the world by storm. Recent research that I conducted, and describe here, commissioned by TalkTalk Mobile, demonstrates that emoji is the fastest developing form of communication in the UK. 80% of smartphone users are now regularly using these visual symbols in their text messaging, and over half of us are using emoji more than we did a year ago. Why not test your emoji IQ, by taking the test below, based on my research:

The phenomenal adoption of emoji is not a phenomenon confined to the UK, however. In April, a report by Swiftkey, based on over a billion pieces of data, across 16 language groups, demonstrated that emoji, just like words, trend and peak in response to current affairs topics. They also reflect cultural differences: The French post more heart emojis than anyone else, while Australians use the most alcohol-related emojis. And a recent survey by Instagram revealed that 40% of messaging on the popular social media platform involves emoji. Today, the world’s 2 billion smartphone users send over six billion emoticons in text messages alone, every single day. It is no exaggeration to say that emoji represents the fastest growing communication tool in history. For the emojinally-challenged, see my video guide to becoming an emoji-master:

But not everyone is happy. Writing recently in the The Guardian newspaper—a UK national daily--Jonathan Jones commenting on my recent research, suggests that emoji is taking us back to the dark ages of illiteracy: “With its poodles, noodles and happy poos, Emoji is now the fastest growing language in the UK. What a huge step back for humanity” (May 27th 2015). And this is not an isolated perspective. I’ve often been told, sagely—being a Professor of Linguistics, I should, presumably, know better—that emoji really is a substandard form of communication; that it self-evidently leads to a drop in spelling and/or reading standards; that it may, in fact, be damaging our ability to communicate; and, get this: it may even be making us dumber. Unless you’re an adolescent, or deranged, so the insult seems to go, stick to the language of Shakespeare.

But not only is such prejudice unfounded, it fundamentally misunderstands the nature of human communication. It also radically underestimates the potentially powerful and beneficial role of emoji in the digital age, as a communication and educational tool.

In the spoken medium, gesture, body language and intonation provide a means of qualifying and nuancing the message conveyed by the words. A facial wink or smile nuances the language, providing a crucial contextualisation cue, aiding our understanding of the spoken word. And intonation not only ‘punctuates’ our spoken language—there are no white spaces and full-stops in speech that help us identify where words begin and sentences end—intonation even provides ‘missing’ information not otherwise conveyed by the words. For instance, rising versus falling pitch signals whether something is being marked as uncertain, or an assertion of fact. “I love you”, with falling pitch may be a declaration of undying love. But with rising pitch, the same utterance may be an ironic, even derisive counterblast—the pitch contour entirely reverses the meaning of the words.

Much of the meaning of our words, paradoxically, comes not from language itself. Our gestures are minutely choreographed to co-occur with our spoken words. And we seem unable to suppress them; indeed, if gestures are suppressed, in lab settings say, then our speech actually becomes less fluent. We need to gesture to be able to speak properly.

Many of us have experienced the apparently angry email, where someone who, we know to be otherwise calm and sane, comes across as a complete jerk. Email, and other forms of digital communication, seemingly possess the power to strip all forms of nuanced expression, even from the best of us. But here emoji can help: they fulfil a similar function in digital communication, to gesture, body language and intonation, in spoken language. Emoji, in text messaging, enables us to better express tone, and to interpret what the words are meant to convey.

It is no fluke, therefore, that I have found that 72% of 18-25 year olds in the UK believe that emoji make them better at expressing their feelings. Far from leading to a drop in standards, emoji are making younger people better communicators.

Emoji is a powerful tool for enhancing text-based communication precisely because of its visual nature: it matters not a jot whether your correspondent is English, French or Japanese: a smile looks the same in any language. Psychologists have long been aware of the power of visual representations in more effectively enabling us to express or identify our thoughts and feelings. Forward-thinking programmes have begun harnessing the semantic clarity of the visual-based emoji for educational therapy, and those at risk. One such programme has been developed by the Swedish Children’s Rights Society, BRIS, which helps victims of domestic abuse. Another has been developed by the Emotes project, which makes use of emoji-like images to help children explore and better develop their ability to express emotions.

Far from emoji dragging us back to the dark ages, their advent has helped recalibrate our emotional intelligence: digital communication is catching up with the repertoire of communicative tools we have in the spoken medium. Emoji is an empowering addition to the hitherto, primarily, textual format in the digital arena. As the nature and practice of using emoji continues to develop and evolve, its significance will, I predict, become less contested. You don’t have to choose between the language of Shakespeare, and emoji: use both!

Related: Read my article on the extent to which emoji is language-like, in the context of their use to make an alleged terror threat in January this year.

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