Child development researchers at the University of Alberta reported last week that using common text and IM abbreviations, or “chatspeak,” does not affect kids’ spelling aptitude. My first reaction to the results was dismay. I wanted proof that today’s youth are getting dumber. Dumber, at least, than the youth of, well, my youth. But upon reflection, and with all due respect to the intentions of the study, I think the premise is fundamentally misaligned.
I’ve maligned the overuse of AOLanguage for years, and its epidemic penetration never ceases to annoy. Although it may well reinforce already established bad habits, digital lingo has very little to do with standard spoken and formal written English. It’s a dialect unto itself. Kids likely don’t think that writing a text and taking a spelling test are in any way related. And really, they aren’t. Sure, children might write “UR” instead of “your,” but make them memorize how to spell “definite” and “maintenance” and they’re going to do it. Similarly, they’ll read To Kill a Mockingbird for class, but on their own it’s all Tiger Beat and Mad Magazine. (Kids still read that stuff, don’t they?)
What’s troubling in the wide view is that people use messenger and text and facebook walls as communicative crutches. Not just the youngins; we grown-ups are just as guilty. Social interactions take places less and less frequently in social settings and more and more often in social networks, and our face-to-face muscles are withering in atrophy. I have come to wonder, for instance, how exactly people go from being friends-of-friends to dating without first connecting on facebook (or at least without a little facebook stalking), which is particularly disturbing given the fact that I’m not on the facebook.
According to the university press release,
[Authors Connie Varnhagen and Nicole Pugh] both agree that the results of their study should ease some concerns and even open up discussion on how this language can be perhaps be embraced within an educational or academic context.
“If you want students to think very precisely and concisely and be able to express themselves, it might be interesting to have them create instant messages with ideas, maybe allow them opportunities to use more of this new dialect in brief reports or fun activities,” said Varnhagen.
Thought-provoking idea, but here’s another one. Instead of encouraging malleable young minds to regard IMs as vehicles for academic thought, perhaps it’d be better to set aside cell phones and 140-character limits and make them practice actually talking to people. Like, with their mouths.