A new study in New Media & Society suggests that texting — with its abbreviations and grammatical shortcuts — undermines students’ writing skills.
The “Texting, Techspeak, and Tweens” study by S. Shyam Sundar, founding director of Penn State’s Media Effects Research Laboratory, and Drew P. Cingel, a doctoral student at Northwestern University, examined “whether increased use of text messaging engender greater reliance on such ‘textual adaptations’ to the point of altering one’s sense of written grammar.”
The pair tested students in a Pennsylvania middle school. Their conclusion: “Results show broad support for a general negative relationship between the use of tech-speak in text messages and scores on a grammar assessment, with implications for Social Cognitive Theory and Low-Road/High-Road Theory of Transfer of Learning.”
Moreover, the more often a student received text messages using tech-speak, the more likely he or she was to send messages using that language. There was no gender difference after accounting for the amount of texting each student did, though teenage girls have been found in other studies to send and receive nearly twice as many messages per month as boys do: 4,050 texts on average, compared with 2,539.
Mr. Cingel started the project after receiving texts from his young nieces “that, for me, were incomprehensible,” he said in a statement. “I had to call them and ask them, ‘What are you trying to tell me?’”
While texting has caused consternation among educators and parents since the 1990s for distracted writing as well as driving, changing communication technology historically has changed the way people speak and write over time. That journalistic standard, the inverted pyramid structure (write the most important thing first, the second most important thing second, and so on) developed in the telegraph era, when reporters’ stories often were cut off mid-transition. Similarly, the need to respond quickly and briefly in text messages—and the outright character limit in social media like Twitter—puts pressure on students to cut out any unnecessary sounds. In fact, some studies have found students who text frequently are better at spelling and identifying homophones, as they have to, to turn “great” into “gr8.”
“People get creative in terms of trying to express a lot. The economy of expression forces us to take shortcuts with our expression. We know people are texting in a hurry, they are on mobile devices, and so they are making these compromises,” Mr. Sundar said. “It’s not surprising that grammar is taking a back seat in that context. What is worrisome is it somehow seems to transfer over to their offline grammar skills. They are not code-switching offline.”
In that way, students who use tech-speak differ from those who speak multiple languages; multilingual children have been found to switch back and forth easily among their languages in different contexts and may actually be more flexible in other ways of thinking. Tech-speak is similar enough to standard English that researchers believe it may bleed over into different contexts more easily.
“Ultimately it’s not seen as a different language, so they kind of get used to communicating English language this way, the more they try to generalize what they do in texting to the normal grammatical rules of writing,” Mr. Sundar said.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog