I have inherited my mother’s habit of pressing my children to acknowledge a gift, but they are not burdened in the same way I was; these days, a brief text message will suffice: thnx 4 ur pres gran, its gr8. Sometimes my mother absorbs the essentials of a message, but sometimes she is left bemused. “I haven’t a clue what she’s on about … ” she will say of a text received from my daughter.
The daughter in question tells me, when I articulate my tentative concerns that her generation may compromise literacy as well as their grandparents’ comprehension, that “the silly fear teens will soon be illiterate with gigantic, mutant thumbs due to their excessive use of mobile phones is demeaning. Just because I am a teen, it does not mean I am unable to switch between text-speak and formal essay writing; it’s as easy as switching between chatting to your friends and speaking to an elderly relation.” Your mother included, presumably.
My anxiety is born of an education that was devoid of technology. When I needed to do research for a history essay, I pulled a volume of the encyclopedia from the shelf, blew the dust from its cover and dove in, my finger trailing lines of type. My son, on the other hand, punches “Stalin, man or monster” into Google and key words appear on a screen, allowing him to quickly identify what needs to be investigated in-depth. When I was a child, if you went traveling in the summer, you kept in touch with your parents by writing letters or postcards — remember those? — which you knew how to address and had to purchase a stamp to send. My children rarely address envelopes. Why bother when you can send a card online? And when they travel they send instant updates and images by phone. They are shocked when I tell them that often my mum waited three weeks for news that I had arrived wherever I was going safely.
But my concern that technology may compromise the written word is dated. My children’s brave new world is exactly that: new. As Guy Merchant, a member of the UK Literary Association, observes, “Language and literacy change over time. Social, economic and technological conditions influence these changes in significant ways.” My children are a product of their time. We don’t just communicate in myriad ways today, including emails and instant messaging; the technology we employ to communicate — mobile phones and laptops — is constantly evolving.
‘These different channels of communication have led to the emergence of new communicative styles, including text abbreviations and acronyms,” Merchant says, and as a consequence “writing, once a relatively conservative mode of language, is enjoying a moment of creativity. The key is getting young people reading, and there doesn’t seem to be any decline in this, just wider opportunity.
“Reading and writing in whatever form is advantageous,” he adds.
His comment reminds me of something I heard a teacher say to a mother who was anxious that her child reads only comics, while his peers have their noses buried in Harry Potter: “Even the back of the cereal packet over breakfast offers an opportunity to explore language.”
And there is no evidence the use of text speak is harming literacy development in children. In fact, many of the popular abbreviations used by children are phonetic in nature (often spelling as they speak). As Diane Barone, a professor of literacy studies at the University of Nevada, observes, “Young children, because of touch-screen technology, can use the screen to help with learning phonemic awareness and phonics. Students who found reading difficult can use technology to help with reading a book as their skills develop, and consider all the implications for students with disabilities of all kinds, and how technology helps.”
She reminds me that there is a huge “shift in the source of text,” so it’s appropriate that there should be substantial change in how that’s handled.
“I think rather than focusing on how literacy is different and somehow deficit from what was in the past, it is better to look at what it has to offer,” she says. And certainly the media by which children access the written word is vast now — many children who might have been overwhelmed when faced with the heft of a book are not remotely intimidated by the single open page on a tablet.
Text talk creates confusion because older generations are often still playing catch-up. Our children, who have grown up with technology, have to teach us what a double tap on an iPad means, and have to translate textisms for us.
“Lol is laugh out loud, not lots of love as it was in your day, Mom,” my daughter reminds me with the teeniest hint of exasperation, and WTF is not, as one mother reacted to her horrified daughter’s excellent test result, Well That’s Fantastic.
Rowan is a freelance journalist. And, obviously, a mother.
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