The speed and shorthand of SMS has irreversibly changed our use of English, but is this a good or bad thing?
Ready to take your English to the next level? Visit our website and find more about or Specialised Online English Courses and Private lessons
A UN poll in 2012 found that at the time of polling just over a year ago, there were as many mobile phones as people in the world: over six billion. When you consider that around half of that global population lives in a state of subsistence or poverty which makes owning a mobile phone unlikely, those statistics are even more incredible.
Mobile phone usage and telecommunication has been one of the runaway successes of the twenty-first century. But the question which puzzles us at EF English Live is – has it affected the way we use the language of English? And if it has, is it for better or for worse?
In this blog we’ll take a look at a few areas that might help us navigate this tricky problem. Hpe u tnk it’s gr8!
Mobile phone usage: a few quick facts
– The country with the highest density of mobile phones is…Panama! This Latin American state has an average of over 202 phones per 100 people; meaning each person has at least two mobile telephones.
– The country with the lowest density of mobile phones is North Korea – this is perhaps a combination of economic factors and the regime’s secretive policy towards foreigners and communication.
– The country with the most mobile phones is China, registering just over 1.2 billion (with a population of 1.3 billion) – with the exception of India (over 800 million mobiles) this is more than double every other country’s number.
About the communication our mobile phones are capable of
Most phones run off a network that is described using a number followed by the letter G. As mobiles have developed we have been able to use them for more and more modes of communication – writing, speaking, filming, image sharing; and this has profoundly affected our use of English.
– the ‘G’ in 3G/4G networks stands for ‘generation’; 1G was used to describe the very first mobile telephones introduced by Motorola in the mid-1980s. 1G phones used analogue technology
– 3G phones (introduced in the late 1990s) were the first to go beyond simple voice technologies and introduce digital technologies including internet communication
– with the advent of 3G and 4G, live messaging and other forms of ‘instant’ writing have become the norm for mobile users
Talking vs texting
One conflict that has been produced by the surge in mobile phone use is a rift between people who like to talk and people who prefer to text. Sending text messages has become a medium of choice for mobile phone users.
Young people are increasingly prone to texting and shy away from making calls, which are more direct – but also less permanent forms of communication. Ironically, the speed at which instant messaging or texting takes place means that mistakes and shorthands are common: but we often let each other get away with them because we know what they mean.
Many teachers in primary and secondary schools have expressed concern at the number of children whose literacy levels are dropping; and who are not even able to write by hand, so accustomed are they to computers, tablets and mobiles.
Some texting terms have even made it into common parlance: ‘lol’ (laugh out loud), ‘omg’ (oh my god), pls (please). The craze for shortening words, absorbed from texting, is also changing how we speak – ‘amaze’ for ‘amazing’, ‘totes’ for totally, ‘blates’ for blatantly: these are all largely teenage usages that are becoming mainstream.
But does this mean it’s turning us all into inarticulate blobs?
This house proposes that text messaging is ruining the English language
You only need to look at recent education statistics to see that text messaging is completely devastating the English language. Recent findings have suggested that schoolchildren in the 1960s and 1970s were far more literate than children of today. In 2013, the average schoolchild struggles more with spelling, grammar and essay-writing: essential skills which before now were considered key to a good grasp of the English language. Text messaging is alienating English speakers from their native tongue and confusing non-natives who wish to learn the language. It promotes mis-spelling. English is a beautiful tongue with a rich literary history which does not deserve to be overshadowed by phrases like ‘c u l8r’ and ‘megalolz’.
As any linguist knows, language is not a static thing. Change and development is the one constant in life, and the changing sounds and phrases of a language are merely reflections of the changes in a particular society. You cannot expect the English language to remain the same while the world around us – and particularly the way we communicate – is subject to so much variation. Text messaging can be a fun and playful way to communicate – the important thing to remember for education is teaching children how to employ different ways of communication. Writing an essay and writing a text are different things; children can learn both. What is more, texting is being used to actually help literacy in developing countries: a UN SMS-based literacy program in Pakistan aims to help women in Islamabad to read. Now what’s so bad about that?
What do you think? Does text messaging make it harder to learn and speak English? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Call me a traditionalist, but it doesn’t look like a revolution to me. Instead, it looks like a simple decline in proper language skills, born out of a digitally literate culture that has grown too comfortable in an age of abbreviations and spellchecks.
Yes, recent studies from Coventry University and the University of Hawaii have reported that children can still distinguish between formal and informal speech. They also note that frequent use of text-speak doesn’t necessarily correlate with poor essay writing skills.
So students are still capable of developing arguments, writing thesis statements, and structuring their thoughts. They’re just doing it with “u” instead of “you.”
It’s a problem of productive language skills. Though children learn proper English in school, they’re not applying it outside the classroom, and the lessons aren’t sticking.
Experts say that children write more these days than they did 20 years ago, because of texting and social media. Most of that writing, however, is in text-speak, and that form of language becomes a bad habit. Students are now so used to writing in text-speak that they can’t easily remember (or apply) proper language rules.
Communication is becoming more global in scope and more electronic in form. By the time these children finish school and enter the workforce, this decline in the spoken word will become greater. Written communication, in a formal report, an email, or even a text, isn’t just happening on the colloquial level anymore, and children need to be educated on how to use technology in formal, professional contexts.
Teachers and parents need to encourage children to discern the right time and place for casual language. Children also need to hone their proper English skills so that they can call upon correct spelling and grammar when it’s needed. Text-speak in pupils' essays may be amusing, albeit cringeworthy, nowadays. It’s not as amusing to imagine our children 10 years from now, as adults, texting “can u plz c me?!?” to their bosses.
Top 10 bizarre text-speak spellings
After – Rfd
Tonight – 2nite
Great – Gr8
Before – B4
Tomorrow – 2moro
Cool – kwl
Mate – M8
Pizza – Peetsa
True – Churoo
That – Dat
(source: Mencap/Del Monte Fruit Burst poll)
Anne Merritt is an ESL lecturer currently based in South Korea.
More by this author:
Will a new phonetic alphabet catch on?
What motivates us to learn foreign languages?
Learn a foreign language for free: top five resources
Foreign languages: how to memorise vocabulary
Learning a foreign language: five most common mistakes
Foreign languages: the 10 easiest to learn
How to avoid embarrassing foreign language faux pas