Saving the English Language Is Not as Scary as It Sounds



With great technology comes great advances, but there is always a cost that comes with progress. The rise of texting and communication via social media has generated a new language, invented by the young and highlighted by abbreviations and intentional misspellings to create expediency while disregarding grammar and punctuation for ease of typing. Although language is constantly evolving and changing, driven by changes in the society that uses it, professors and employers are seeing evidence of “textisms” and “cyber slang” within the formal writings of students and job hunters who have either not been taught the fundamentals of grammar, punctuation and diction, or have not been instructed as to the correct application of each. Saving the English language is not an either/or proposition as scary as it sounds; it is, instead, an acceptance of a new form of communication while at the same time an education of young people as to when it is appropriate to use it and when the formal rules of standard English are best applied.

Saving the English language is not a movement based on the histrionics of scared writers and professors bemoaning the lack of an Oxford comma or a misspelled word. Without a good working knowledge of formal, written English, young people are sent into the world without the tools needed to do the single, most important thing to help them succeed – effectively communicate. Teaching students to do just that does not mean the shorthand developed for texting and for use on social media must be eradicated in favor of responding to memes with “I am laughing out loud” in lieu of “LOL.” Instead, the two must coincide. Young people must, of course, be taught the rules of how to properly communicate in educational, business and other formal settings, but of equal importance is the need to instruct them as to which situations warrant the use of formal language is warranted and when a more casual “text speak” will suffice.

Although the necessity to save the English language seems overwrought, professors and employers can attest to seeing the language used by students and recent graduates disintegrate  from proper, formal English to papers and resumes littered with misspellings, grammatical errors and text speak. A report by the Pew Internet and American Life project called, “Writing, Technology and Teens,” found that the abbreviated words, symbols and incorrect grammar prevalent in texting have begun to pop up in educational and formal writing.

However, according to associate professor of English at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), Cynthia Ryan, Ph.D., “what constitutes literacy changes over time,” and in order to effectively communicate, people “have to be able to adhere to conventions that others share.” Assistant professor of curriculum and instruction of the UAB School of Education, Tonya Perry, Ph.D., agrees that texting has become another method of writing with its own conventions and rules which teachers and parents need to accept. Furthermore, it is their duty to instruct their children and their students when it is appropriate to write using texting guidelines and when it is proper to use more standard language.

Although young people are adapting their own shorthand when texting and when engaging others on social media, unless they are also able to communicate using the same language as educators and employers, they will be dismissed as being unintelligent and/or illiterate. While cursive has fallen by the wayside in education due to the proliferation of computers, it is unlikely that professors and CEOs will start to communicate with students and employees using cyber slang such as “LOL,” “IMHO” and “BFF.”

Texting will not go away, of course, and language has always been fluid. New words are added and old words are dropped from common usage at a constant rate. Technological terms such as “laptop,” “tweet” and “selfie” did not exist mere decades ago, while words such as “appetency” (fixed and strong desire), “beldam” (an old woman), and “weasand” (throat, trachea) were once commonly known and are now considered to be archaic.

There is an argument to be made that texting does not indicate a lack of English skills, but is rather a way for young people to communicate with more secrecy and in a language not understood by their parents. Such an argument might be better explored in a follow up to this report.

Teaching the basics of formal English may be more difficult than in prior decades. A 2012 study conducted by a University of Calgary master’s candidate found that texting has a harmful effect on the ability to read and interpret words. Joan Lee found that frequent texters were more unwilling to accept new words than those who frequently read newspapers, magazines, etc. Lee posits that the sheer variety of words encountered by readers of print media allows them to more easily interpret the meaning, or at least tolerate, an unfamiliar word, while those who frequently texted were more likely to outright reject an unfamiliar word. In her study, Lee notes that reading helps to develop the skills needed to interpret what an unfamiliar word might mean. Those who texted more, however, generally operated under a less inclusive base of words with less linguistic variety. To combat this, saving the English language must entail a heightened focus on reading, which could include assigning reports that require research of written texts, forming book clubs as a part of educational instruction and the revision of peer reviewed printed texts.

Revision need not only be done on paper. The act of reading one’s work out loud is vital, perhaps even essential, in order for students to learn how to recognize mistakes in their writing as well as to hear for themselves the way their writing will be perceived and heard by its intended audience. In Revising by Reading Aloud. What the Mouth and Ear Know, Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Peter Elbow, details the advantages gained when students read their own works out loud, either to another or to themselves. Reading one’s written text aloud carefully and with meaning allows a student to not only discover typos, misspelled words and awkward constructions within their writing; it also helps them to hear their message as it will be perceived by its intended audience. Doing so will allow students to determine for themselves, based on their own learning, if the tone of their work is appropriate to the situation for which it was written.

It is inherent in the duty of parents and educators to teach students how – and when – to effectively communicate using formal language. Only in this way can they learn to recognize and correct errors. According to Dr. Ryan, the act of teaching students how to “communicate with a specific audience for a particular purpose” helps to give written works context, which keeps students involved and interested in being able to effectively communicate the thoughts they wish to convey.

Further evidence that the role of educators and parents has become vital to saving the English language comes in a 2008 Duke University study and a 2010 study by The United Kingdom Literacy Association, both of which found that “textisms” and the associated grammar/punctuation shorthand of text messages do pop up in more formal writings and speech of young people. The co-author of the 2010 study, Nenagh Kemp, believes this finding does not signal the end of formal language as long as young people can remain aware of the distinction between the formal language and the language they use when texting or on social media.

There is room, and a need, for both forms of communication in modern times, but only if students can be taught proper grammar and punctuation as well as when it is necessary to use either approach. It may be easier to abbreviate words through omission of letters and intentional misspellings, but doing so in a senior thesis, resume or corporate report before a board will most likely have disastrous consequences ranging from failure of a class to inability to find employment or the end of a promising career. Saving the English language is not as scary as it sounds, and it does not have to mean that English ceases to evolve. Indeed, it would be impossible to rein in the cultural and social changes every language undergoes in order to maintain its relevancy. Young people have always developed their own language when communicating among themselves, and older people have always taken this habit as a sign that standard English was falling by the wayside. However, now more than ever, it appears as though what is lacking is education as to how important it truly is to learn to use standard English in order to advance personally, academically and professionally.

Editorial by Jennifer Pfalz

Edited by DiMarkco Chandler

Sources: 10 Reasons Nonreaders Don’t Read — And How to Change Their Minds Texting affects ability to interpret words Archaic words Could texting and autocorrect affect kids’ writing skills? Do Texting and “Cyber Slang” Harm Students’ Writing Skills?
[email protected]11. Revising by Reading Aloud. What the Mouth and Ear Know, Peter Elbow
Wiley Online Library: Text-message abbreviations and language skills in high school and university students
Medical Daily: Can Texting Ruin A Child’s Grammar And Spelling? The Impact Of Learning To Write On A Cell Phone

Article Image Courtesy of Nikos Roussos’ Flickr Page – Creative Commons License

3 thoughts on “Saving the English Language Is Not as Scary as It Sounds

  1. Hey,
    Thanks so much for this post! I think that technology has certainly had an impact on the English language and how we communicate. You can even see the changes when watching tv from the past versus today! I love that you pointed out that language is fluid! English is ever-evolving!

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