I don’t know how I would survive without my mobile phone. Is that awful? Ever since I got my first one when I was at university, I seem to be incapable of remembering anyone’s phone numbers. I don’t have to – they’re all stored in my phone. The best thing about mobiles, though, is being able to send texts. For a punctuality-obsessive like me there can be no more excuses for not letting me know when you’re going to be late! But with only a hundred and sixty characters, messages have to be brief, and over the years it seems that a texting language has developed. This is inevitably bad for literacy when children do much of their communicating through an abbreviated language… or is it? In his new book Txtng: The gr8 db8 language expert David Crystal argues that this is very much not the case at all. In his blog post below, Professor Crystal tells us why there’s really nothing to worry about.
How on earth does one stop an urban myth? Is it possible? The false picture of texting has so taken hold that I’m beginning to wonder. Here’s an example. Txtng came out on 5th July. On the 6th there was a report in Scotland on Sunday headed ‘Professor spreads the word on joy of text’. That sounds good, and the report did summarize quite well the six main points.
– Text messages aren’t full of abbreviations – typically less than ten percent of the words use them.
– These abbreviations aren’t a new language – they’ve been around for decades.
– They aren’t just used by kids – adults of all ages and institutions are the leading texters these days.
– Pupils don’t routinely put them into their school-work or examinations.
– It isn’t a cause of bad spelling: you have to know how to spell before you can text.
– Texting actually improves your literacy, as it gives you more practice in reading and writing.
At the end, the reporter asked for a reaction from the Headteachers’ Assocciation of Scotland. This is what the spokesman said: ‘Because of the rate in which text-speak is taking hold I shudder to think what letters will look like in 10 years’ time.’
The spokesman obviously hadn’t paid any attention at all to the report. The reaction I would hope to see is something along the lines of: ‘It’s reassuring to hear that things aren’t as bad as we thought they were’. Or even: ‘Well let’s explore ways in which we can utilize the potential of texting for improving literacy in our schools’. But no.
I struggle to find an analogy. It’s a bit like someone saying: ‘an aeroplane landed on a motorway a few years ago, and everyone worried about it happening again. It’s a real problem now, and it’s going to be even worse in 10 years’ time.’
To which the answer is: it isn’t a problem, actually. You’re imagining it. Look at the facts before you comment. It’s a risk, certainly, and we need to be alert. But there are no grounds for panicking.
A few years ago, it would have been difficult to say this about texting, because there were no facts. Things have changed now. The research is building up. My book went to press just a few months ago, and already since then I’ve come across further research findings which reaffirm its conclusions. For example, a recent article (in New Scientist for 15 May 2008) reported a study by Sali Tagliamonte and Derek Denis of the University of Toronto which confirmed that abbreviations are far less frequent in electronically mediated communication than people suppose. For every one instance of u, there are nine of you, they found. That’s exactly what I would expect.
It’ll take quite a while to get rid of the myths about texting. The trouble is that they are well established on the Internet. That hoax essay from 2003, in which a pupil was supposed to have bemused her teacher by writing an essay entirely in textisms, is still doing the rounds. Someone sent me a copy just yesterday as ‘evidence’ of the terrible state we’re in. If it was a regular happening, or (more to the point) if teachers were letting this happen, we might have cause to worry. But it isn’t. They aren’t. And we shouldn’t.