Textspeak: not a threat to literacy

The three articles about computer-mediated communication (CMC) sparked my interest in netspeak and led me to seek out the linguist all three cited: David Crystal. As a linguist, Crystal differentiates between CMC and “textspeak,” which far from being a distinct language, as Aliza Sherman claims in her blog post, is rather an “idiosyncratic variety” of speech that is driven by the constraints of the technology which spawned it. Textspeak is not the demon spawn of standard written English, but rather a useful play on written language. In his own writings, Crystal debunks many myths related to textspeak, including the ones related to texting’s corrosive influence on children’s literacy. In fact, Crystal argues, kids who text use language more than non-texters, and thus have more practice writing. Texters, he continues, must have an awareness of standard rules of written English, which they purposefully subvert. In addition, according to his own research, ninety percentage of text messages are written in standard language; only ten percent contain the abbreviations that so enrage critics. These abbreviations, far from being subversive neologisms coined by contemporary texters, are for the most part common abbreviations in circulation for centuries already.

Reading Crystal, I am convinced that standard language is not in peril, and that we should not snatch cell phones from our kids to protect them from the pernicious effects of textspeak. In fact, Crystal points out that the popular story about a student who turned in an entire essay written in textspeak turns out to be an urban legend; no one has been able to track down the source. That this textspeak story is apocryphal seems logical to me; kids are remarkably perceptive about audience and purpose, particularly when it comes to homework – I just don’t think a student would use textspeak on an assignment as anything but a lark.

Tyler Clark’s comment to Aliza Sherman’s blog post on how email, SMS, and social media communication tools are changing both written English and communication in general echoes the spirit, if not the words, of Crystal, at least when it comes to considering textpeak as a putative new language:

“[Sherman wrote:] They are effectively speaking a new language entirely — so who is to say if it is “right” or “wrong”?”

Who is to say? Me. I am to say…I think that the internet has largely killed good writing.

It is not the abbreviations that kill me. It’s the lack of coherence, proper spelling and punctuation. The biggest problem is that this grammatical wasteland is not limited to social media. It has bled into emails, blog posts and writing of all kinds. I often receive inarticulate, punctuation-free, misspelled, verb-less emails from coworkers. Coworkers! Sometimes I need a decoder ring to figure out what they are trying to communicate.

Writing for the digital age should not require sacrificing clarity and the beauty of language.”

Hear, hear, Tyler! You took the words right out of my mouth, which is why I felt compelled to cite these comments so extensively.

Carelessness and linguistic transference from Spanish to English are more of an issue for my students than textspeak, which is why I will continue to stress coherence, clarity, and the appropriate use of conventions (grammar, spelling, etc.) in my classroom.

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