Text Talk: We Are Not Doomed

Text-talk_infographic

There has been a lot of concern expressed these days regarding the writing skills, or lack thereof, of our current generation of youth. Why? Some simply put the blame on texting.

I saw this article on my twitter feed one day and it grabbed my attention. It’s titled, “Text talk: Are abbreviated smartphone messages proof we’re linguistically doomed?”  The article is followed up by a snazzy infographic that has some really interesting information about texting (above).

This article is not a pessimistic “kids these days…” type of grumbling despite what it’s attention-grabbing headline might suggest. The end of the article, and infographic, seem to defend texting as a sort of evolution of language.

The article (well, I guess the author) also asks some very legitimate questions, such as:

  • Will text talk become our main form of communication in the future? 
  • Will the widespread use of text talk negatively impact the way we communicate? 
  • Are we engaged in the creation of a colorful new language every time we text?

I’m not going to directly answer these questions, instead I will use this article’s subject as an opportunity to write about some ideas that have long been on my mind.

The subject communication technology is really interesting to me because I feel I’m part of the age group that spans this generational gap between the “old school” and the “millenials” in which there has been a great change in the way we communicate. In other words, I remember the days when there were still rotary phones around, no Internet, and if you wanted to hang out with a friend you had to call their home and hope they were around. My age group then saw our communication technology quickly evolve into smartphones by the time we were in our 20’s.

The purpose of this article is to explore and share my thoughts about: the evolution of text communication, why abbreviated messages are hardly a threat to the integrity of language, and finally, why I think there seems to be a lack of good writers.

Communication Evolution

People learned to send messages even before language became text. When messages became text, they always had to be physically delivered. These messages would have to flow through a long chain of land transport, over a body of water (if need be), to yet another chain of land transport, and finally into the hands of the addressee.  If I had to write a letter that might not be seen for months, and require many more months to be responded to, I would take great care in crafting a message saying exactly what I meant it to. It would be absolutely necessary for proper grammar, spelling, and articulate and descriptive language.

It’s obvious to anyone that communication has evolved.

Like never before in history, everyday people now have the ability to send messages instantaneously across the globe. These messages could be a text with a simple ūüôā emoticon, a Facebook wall post asking how someone is doing, or a detailed business email. We no longer have to painstakingly edit and write what we want to communicate…if we even have to write it at all!

Why should I text, “Hello John Smith. How are you doing today? Would you like to arrange a time to meet up?” When I can just say, “sup?” and await a quick response. 

Communication has evolved to the point that there is not a serious consequence if we make a spelling or grammar error. People get the idea behind the message anyway, and if they don’t, it only takes seconds to rectify.

Texting and Abbreviations Are No Threat

When we text, we aren’t working through a long writing process like we would if we were writing for a larger audience (like say, this blog post). When texting, we are likely going through 2 processes: draft and publish (send). This is done because it’s efficient.

Novels, instructions, essays, and reports must still be written in a manner that reduces errors and clearly conveys meaning; it needs to be effective. There’s a writing process required to produce a polished piece of writing; draft, proofread, revise, edit, publish. This process reduces the errors and makes sure the author gets their message across in a manner that is concise and accurate. Readers do not want to stumble through an essay guessing what the author is trying to say. As long as there are novels and reports, there will be a place for technical writing. So don’t freak out, abbreviations aren’t going to be the downfall of language.

If I sent a text saying “C u thr” instead of “See you there”, the recipient still gets the point! It’s like when we used to actually handwrite notes in university. You were in trouble of falling dangerously behind in a lecture if you didn’t know how to shorthand your notes. Although abbreviated, the meaning in my notes was retained, I wasn’t “linguistically doomed” there.

Abbreviated words and messages are efficient, that’s why we use them. When we text using abbreviated messages, emoticons, or “ur” instead of “you are”, we ARE NOT removing anything from the sphere of text and language, we are only adding to it. In fact, we’ve been doing this long before texting, like in my university notes example.

Another example is from when I used to be a server. When recording an order from a table, I had to keep up and make sure I got the details. Therefore, I had to make up abbreviations for things to make sure I recorded the message efficiently. Can you guess what “Stk, mdr, mash, grvy” means? If you guessed “Stakes, murder, Monster Mash, and gravity” you are very wrong.

Abbreviated messges, like texts, are efficient. When we write technically for novels and reports the goal is not to be efficient, it’s to be effective, and that takes time and care.

Why the Fuss?

I can understand the reasoning behind the perception that so many people “can’t write properly”. People in general have less reason than before for the need to pay attention to the mechanics and conventions of writing.  Nowadays, anybody can log-in online and rant on Facebook, troll comment threads, or offer opinions on online forums without punctuation or tact. This is technology in action. It’s made something hard, easier. In earlier days, if someone wanted to have their writing seen publicly, it would certainly have to make it past an editor. This editor was not likely to publish a piece of writing riddled with errors. Technology has essentially eliminated the middle-man, but that middle-man was the one who made sure writing was up to par before seen publicly.

In my opinion, the gap in writing ability is simply more publicly recognizable. There are still fantastics writers, I see them in my classrooms, but there’s this huge gap between good writers and poor writers. Has it always been this way? Can we expect everyone to be proficient writers? Can we expect everyone to be proficient basketball players? I don’t think that’s fair. At least more people now have at least some functional level of literacy because of the pervasive use of texting and social media (even though improper spelling and grammar drive me nuts).

There isn’t more poor writing, it’s that this poor writing is more publicly obvious.

Final Thoughts

 This article is heavy on speculation and opinion. These are not facts, just my interpretations of how it is. This article is not meant to stop the conversation or placate the hostility towards texting. I wanted to add my voice to the conversation, so I hope you do as well.

A lot more can be said, but I’ll just end with this. We need to teach students to discern when to write efficiently and when to write effectively. They will need both.

 

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Reading Aloud is Awesome

Who doesn’t like being read to? Really. It’s a grand tradition that we humans hold dearly. Initially we did it orally, passing down stories to another generation of eager listeners, then we started recording stories. We are read to as toddlers and children, but it seems that at some point in our lives, it’s not acceptable anymore. It’s like we think it’s childish to be read to. Well, I think that is wrong.

When in university doing my Arts degree, I took an English course about the legends of King Arthur. The main text we studied was Sir Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur”. ¬†Well, it was written in Middle English, essentially a foreign language, and it was like learning to read again. Luckily we (the class) had an amazing professor to teach us how to read it.

First, the prof modelled for us the proper accent and annunciation, and provided us with commentary to give us a knowledge of the vocabulary and historical background. ¬†When the class had to read, there was a sort of competition between classmates as to who could read best, added pressure to¬†enunciate the words properly, and¬†special attention being paid to the syntax in order to read more fluently. ¬†Great lessons were learned in that classroom because classmates got to learn from one another, we did not have to strictly depend on our own understanding. I know for a fact that I got better at comprehending Middle English from just two classes of reading aloud than I would have just reading it on my own. Yes, there were times I was uncomfortable reading it out loud, but hard lessons aren’t easy. This is something I remembered when I did read alouds with my classes.

With my grade eight classes I¬†recently did a novel study of “The Hobbit” by JRR Tolkien . It is a classic fantasy book that was written in the early 30’s, and it is a challenging read because of the vocabulary, syntax, and complex punctuation. Since there was only one class set of novels, my two classes had to share the books and could not take the books home to do assigned readings. This worked fine because the book was challenging, so I decided to start reading it to them.

I was surprised by how the students were totally engaged. All following along, paying attention to how I paused at commas, changing the intonation of my voice for things that were said in brackets, stopping to talk about things that intrigued me, and changing my voice to match the character’s mood, and so on. ¬†Then some students (the stronger readers) would volunteer to read as well. As the unit went, I gradually made it a requirement for every student to read aloud at least one paragraph per reading session. At first, there were some nerves evident, but I just encouraged and told them how well they did, constantly reassuring them that this was a very hard text and that I also made mistake reading out loud. They had to learn to feel safe with reading out loud regardless of their performance.

As we progressed through the book, I literally got to hear the students improve in their oral reading skills. They were figuring out tough words, using the punctuation to help their fluency, learning about pacing and posture, and best of all, they became confident. One student, who at first stuttered as he¬†read because he¬†were so nervous, eventually was able to read smoothly and effectively. Credit to him for the mental toughness. He wasn’t forced, he wanted to do it.

I love reading aloud. I think a fair number of teachers still do it with their classes. If you don’t or haven’t, I highly suggest you do. I had read alouds with previous classes I taught, but this time was different. I think because I threw the students into the fire; I made them read out loud in class. Yup, some students were uncomfortable and didn’t do too well, but they got better and more confident. One might say they learned something. I think that’s what education is about…