I watched a video this weekend. It was not a comedy or action film, and there was certainly no romance. At the risk of sounding intensely geeky, I will admit that I watched a 30-minute video of linguist David Crystal discussing text abbreviations. I’ve had the link bookmarked in my “Things to read” folder for several months now. I don’t even remember what initially brought my attention to it, but it’s been staring at me daily for far too long, and whatever it was that made me reluctant to watch it was finally put aside as I sat down with pen and paper, ready to watch and take notes.
As much as I tried to go into this with an open mind, my skepticism was already in place before I even started watching. The subtitle of the video is “Professor David Crystal, one of the world’s leading linguistic experts, challenges the myth that new communication technologies are destroying language.” Right away, the bias is revealed. Using the word “myth” immediately implies that any thought that the ideas to be discussed are pure fiction; that there is no truth to these claims of linguistic torture. I feel that it’s a bit premature and arrogant to be so unconcerned at this point, especially since that peace of mind runs counter to the frustrating experiences that my colleagues and I have with students taking our composition courses.
Still, I watched, maintaining as much objectivity as possible, and tried to think rationally about the points Crystal made in his brief talk. He explores four “myths” about texting abbreviations that have taken hold in society since texting became so ubiquitous. In order, he discusses the following concerns:
- Text messages are full of abbreviations and are not understandable if you don’t understand the abbreviations.
- These abbreviations are “new-fangled” and were created purposely by teenagers either to communicate in a system that adults could not understand or…
- …because they can’t spell.
- Kids no longer know the difference between appropriate or inappropriate use of abbreviations and are now using them all the time in their school work.
He says that the conclusion being drawn by many people is that, because of these things, kids no longer have responsibility for the language, they are losing the ability to spell, and the English language is going down the tubes.
At this point, he transitioned to a discussion of what the “truth” is about each of the previous myths. Here’s what he says the facts are:
- Text messages are comprised of only 10% abbreviations on average (figures range from 5-18%). 80% of messages are sent by adults.
- Abbreviations are not “new-fangled” but have been in use in rebus puzzles and the like since the Victorian age.
- Kids can spell, but they use abbreviations because it’s cool. Furthermore, texting is proving beneficial for language skills. “The better someone can text, the better that person’s literacy scores are.”
- Students are not using abbreviations in schoolwork. Teachers report no problems or can think of only one or two exceptions. Students themselves deny using them.
I understand that there’s only so much Crystal could explain in 20 minutes, and that it wasn’t really the forum to discuss details of the research on which he is basing his conclusions. I still, however, ended up agreeing with some of his “corrections” but having doubts about some of the others.
Here’s where I stand on the ideas Crystal brought up:
Myth 1. I never really thought that over-use of abbreviations in texting was a problem because text messages are an appropriate context for those abbreviations. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I’ve always been more of a descriptivist and generally don’t think that language change is synonymous with language destruction. However, I did have a small objection about Crystal’s use of these statistics. He seemed to focus on myths involving children and teenagers, but then shows how the majority of text messages – 80% – are sent by adults. But including that 80% skews the results if the concern is how often abbreviations are used by teenagers. The real story would lie in the data of texts that teenagers send and what percentage of those messages are comprised of abbreviations. Only then could we get a sense of what is happening to the language skills of younger people, not all people.
Myth 2. It’s true that word play and abbreviations have been used for hundreds of years, and even the forms of these abbreviations we use now aren’t their first time in use. I’m sure this generation is not the first to realize that the letter ‘u’ sounds the same as our 2nd person pronoun, or that vowels can be removed from words without affecting their comprehension. My issue with this, however, is that these playful abbreviations were just that: playful, used in puzzles or parlor games. There was a clear context which was outside the realm of every day communication. Sure, it was fun to work out what a rebus was, but would anyone dream of using these puzzles in letters they write to friends, family, or work colleagues when real communication was required? Would a gentleman leave a calling card that said “tlk l8r pls” and really expect his lady friend to be impressed?
Myth 3. The link between texting and literacy skills is really the most contentious of all of these claims. The real concern is that overuse of texting abbreviations will cause a decline in reading comprehension and writing skills. Crystal made the statement that,“The better they text, the better their literacy scores”, referring to research he claims to show that good texters perform better on literacy exams. This implies a causality: better texting leads to better literacy skills. I don’t understand how he can be so confident in the direction of these events when there is still not enough evidence either way to assume that relationship. Perhaps it’s the opposite: their texting skills are high because they are better readers and writers to begin with. In a very quick scan of internet resources on this subject, I found several articles of the issue (here’s one), a dubious study (tiny sample size, imprecise methods) showing a positive link, a more credible study (harder evidence, more reliable technique) that shows a positive link, and some concerns of cognitive scientists of a negative link.
Basically, the jury is out and it seems that Crystal is very quick to assume the positive causality based on rudimentary data, while other equally accomplished cognitive scientists are reaching opposite conclusions, also on rudimentary data.
Myth 4. Crystal says that he bases his conclusion that kids really aren’t using abbreviations in school work on visiting schools and talking to some teachers and students. Again, given limitations of time and venue, he didn’t elaborate on how many visits, how long the conversations were, or how many teachers or students he talked to, though he did at least mention that the students he talked to were “6th-formers” (about equivalent to U.S. 10th graders). I can’t help but get the feeling that he is indulging in a little armchair quarterbacking. It seems to me that of course teachers would say that their students do not use texting abbreviations inappropriately; they want their students to look good. And students would also say no; they too want to look good, but more importantly, they may not even be aware of the behavior. It’s become so automatic that they may not even notice that they’ve just typed a “u” into a paper. Additionally, he seems awfully ready to apply anecdotal evidence to all contexts. Were the school visits all in the UK? Were they all similar in terms of quality, demographics, and standards? How sure is he that he would get the same answers from teachers and students at a high-risk area of the Bronx, or in rural North Carolina?
I may be out of line for being so critical of a linguist with so much more experience and expertise than I have, but I also believe that at times, the foot soldier out in the fields can sometimes have a better view of the reality of the battle than does the general calling the shots from his tent. I know what my colleagues and I see from our students, and it’s more than the occasional student who once slips in a texting abbreviation into their homework. I see it more frequently than I did a year ago, and I am even seeing it in handwritten work where the excuse of space or technological limitations are absent. It’s gotten bad enough that I have decided to make it a firm class policy that any paper containing a texting abbreviation will be returned ungraded until the stylistic errors are corrected. Student emails to me contain these abbreviations nine times out of ten, and I’m starting to think that college students are allergic to the idea of capital letters. They even forget to capitalize their own names.
I’m not ready to say that language skills are in sharp decline because of modern communications technology. I know that I feel concern, but it may simply be just the discomfort that comes with any transition, good or bad. Or maybe there is something to worry about that is more encompassing than just language skills: we may be harming our ability to concentrate, pay attention, or process complex information in our need to do everything so quickly, to have instant access at all times.
Ultimately, I know that the only thing I can control is my own behavior, and I will continue in my general refusal to use texting abbreviations. That’s my choice and I don’t expect it to be anyone else’s, but if these linguistic shortcuts turn out to be the demise of our beloved English language as we know it today, then I’m going to go down fighting!