Opinion is currently divided about the effects of Instant Messaging (IM) and Text Messaging (TM) on writing standards, but that is perhaps not surprising. After all, the technology is only about fifteen years old, and it is only in the last ten or so years that short messaging has become popular with teenagers. Right now, much of the evidence about the impact of cell phones on literacy is anecdotal, and definitive proof – one way or another – may be many years off. However, the research is mounting up, and for those who see the potential for devices of this sort to dramatically affect the way that language is used, the answers can’t come quickly enough.
There is widespread concern over school-age writing standards. Tests repeatedly show that levels of spelling and grammar among young adults are not where they should be, and that students are increasingly having difficulties in constructing literate and thoughtful essays. Cell phones, with their easy to use shorthand and predictive text, are an obvious scapegoat. Many teachers report that abbreviations commonly used in phone messaging are creeping into formal English assignments, and research indicates that some students may be unaware they are even doing it. While there are arguments to suggest that language is a fluid construct – modern English is very different from that used in Shakespearean times, for instance – the formal demands of high school English currently offer no place for shortcuts in spelling or syntax.
Texting, like all forms of word processing, is likely to have a long term effect on the ability of students to write longhand (cursive writing), but this may not be its only impact. A number of studies indicate that the proliferation of messaging among students is detrimental to the way that their formal writing is constructed.
A 2007 report from Ireland’s State Examination Commission noted that text messaging “seems to pose a threat to traditional conventions in writing.” Based on a survey of exam responses, the Commission noted that students “often rely on short sentences, simple tenses, and a limited vocabulary.” This may be as much due to a decline in reading as it is to messaging, but the mirroring of text type syntax under exam conditions should be a cause for alarm.
A similar study conducted in England in 2008 also found a decline in the standard of written English. More than 2000 students from 26 schools were surveyed by Cambridge Assessment, an important examination board, and many simple misuses of formal English were identified. The National Teachers Association responded with claims that, “their daily use of English is in new media, where non-standard grammatical constructions are more acceptable. That’s inevitably going to lead to an increased lack of awareness of more standard constructions.”
Significantly, for supporters of these new media, the students did display a better grasp of grammar and punctuation than did students from a decade earlier. The reasons for this may also be tied up with the use of cell phones.
Although it may be counter-intuitive to many parents and teachers, there is evidence to suggest that, in some ways at least, text messaging might be beneficial to students. To begin with, it does encourage written communication, albeit of the simple kind. Students who would never have written an old-fashioned letter are prepared to read and write real words – as well as abbreviations – to and from friends via cell phones or Facebook. Messaging is acting as a replacement for normal phone conversations, rather than for other styles of writing. Furthermore, it may be actually stimulating students to share their news and ideas.
According to studymode.com, “It has been found that text messaging is less intimidating to begin communicating because you have more time to think of what you are going to say and how you’ll express yourself.” This view is endorsed by Coventry University, whose study concluded that text-speak improves literacy by giving young people opportunities to compose words beyond the classroom.
Messaging may also increase phonological awareness, leading to an improvement in spelling. Although there is a belief that messages are peppered with ‘textisms’ – abbreviations and smileys, for instance – studies indicate that the proportion of these, compared with the number of complete words being used, is actually quite small.
David Crystal, a Professor of Linguististics from Bangor University, has claimed that textisms are evidence of innovation rather than laziness, and that, furthermore, the way that they are used generally follows widely accepted conventions of grammar and punctuation. Rather than being sloppily constructed, texts are commonly checked and edited by their authors, which, for students, may lead to better proofreading skills. Crystal, like many advocates of this new form of communication, believes that messaging may be reshaping the way we use language, but it is not necessarily devaluing it.
Two things seem certain: that the shorthand language of cell phone messaging is here to stay; and that it is having a positive effect on students’ willingness to read and write. Modern young people are unquestionably writing more often than students from a decade earlier, but whether they are producing more eloquent or more profoundly meaningful communication is far less certain.