5 Reasons to Put the “Text Speak” Debate to Rest

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It wasn’t long ago that the news was full of grim headlines predicting the decline of literacy: “Text Messaging Stunts Writing Skills”; “Has Texting and Email [sic] Ruined Students’ Writing Skills?”; “Texting: Increasing the Risk of Educational and Employment Inadequacy?

Now, in 2012, opinions seem more balanced, although maybe we’ve just become used to constant complaints about acronyms, abbreviations, and short forms and how they’re ruining the language. Texting is blamed for everything from low literacy scores to antisocial behaviour, and it’s not just texting, but texting teenagers who are the focus of this unwelcome attention. Here are five reasons to stop listening to the naysayers and let this debate die a natural death.    

1. Little (if any) research supports the argument that texting is linked to poor grammar, language or writing skills. In the introduction to his book Txting: The Gr8 Db8 (2009), David Crystal, one of the world’s most distinguished linguists, notes that when the alarm was first sounded, texting was too recent a phenomenon to properly research. Essentially this debate has been taking place in the absence of any proof. Crystal and others went on to study possible effects of texting on language skills and found no evidence to pillory texting as a way to communicate. He does, however, comment on the hostile environment and “the extraordinary antipathy to texting.” Indeed, it is as if Chicken Little himself were leading the charge against this very popular practice.
2. When people raise concerns about texting, they are mostly grumbling about youth culture. They see students glued to their phones and they stereotypically assume the kids are up to no good. Go back in time to any decade you like, and you’ll find a substitute for texting. For example: never mind that graphic novels today are literacy superstars. In the 1940s all out war was declared on comic books. Teachers and police declared that comics were “loaded with communist teachings, sex, and racial discrimination,” and a leading psychologist wrote a piece on comics called “Horror in the Nursery.” Comic books and cell phones have in common the potential to “damage” our youth, either by corrupting their minds or debasing their grammar.
3. Guess what? Most text messages are sent by adults! David Crystal estimates that there are about 3 billion mobile phones in the world, that two-thirds of their owners send text messages, and that 80 percent of them are adults. On CBC’s radio show Babel,  Erin Jansen, founder of netlingo.com, explains that many texting abbreviations are created and used by adults but that youth get blamed for writing in code. So, texting abbreviated words is not really unique to youth culture. Is anyone concerned about adults’ declining literacy skills?
4. Students know the difference between standard and non-standard, and formal and informal, English.A student interviewed on Babel explains that for school work she uses correct spelling; in a casual situation, she says, “it doesn’t matter so much.” Another student says you have to be careful: “If I texted my grandfather and he couldn’t read it … there would be no communication.” In a study of the contents of text messages sent by college students, linguist Naomi S. Baron  found that only 3 percent of all text messages contained abbreviations. David Crystal estimates that in all text messages sent around the world, only about 10 percent include abbreviations. So, what really is the big deal with this abbreviated, short-form language? 
5. Noted linguists who have actually done extensive research have found no link between declining literacy and texting. In Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World, Baron says that if language and literacy skills are declining, “the culprit … is not technology.” Crystal goes further, and says not only is texting not to blame for poor literacy, but texting itself is a wonderful tool to support literacy because it allows users readily available, hand-held practice!

Still not convinced? Then listen to Grammar Girl. Last week she tweeted: “Less than 3% of teen texting is ‘textspeak.’ The new study saying texting is ruining grammar is sloppy. Stop worrying.”
Thank you, Grammar Girl. I hope everyone can hear your voice over Chicken Little’s. 

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