Friday 26 September 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Prestissimo)

- Why can't I have a mobile phone like my cousin?

- Because you're only ten. That's why.

- But with a mobile, you will always know where I am and if something happens, I can call you. And also my cousin's mobile can play videos and take pictures.

- I will always know where you are, you're ten, remember? And as for videos and pictures, how do they compare to a real video or photo camera?

- But...

- Enough! I've had it! We're not going to buy a mobile phone, and that's that!

That was Son, Wife and Me in the car recently. One of my biggest fears had arrived home and turned into the monster featured in Salman Rushdie's novel 'Shame' (review to follow soon). We had just been to his cousins' and whilst there he had come across the latest technology in mobile phones. The one function this little gadget was not capable of performing yet was taking your shoes off and ushering you to your seat in the lounge.

As modern, forward-thinking parents, Wife and I try to give Son and Daughter as much freedom as possible. We have set up family meetings on Sundays where serious issues are discussed without any fear of backlash (are you listening 'you know who'?). But this particular topic unnerves me no end.

It's not just the act of possessing an unnecessary accesory for his age, it's the fact that Son is a very articulate young child for a ten-year-old. And the biggest threat I see looming on the horizon is a linguistic debacle.

Back in 2003 there was a media scare about an exam essay that had been allegedly written in textspeak (txt spk). Within days, it had been picked up by both the tabloids and the broadsheets, and commentators and analysts alike were heard bemoaning how academic standards had slipped further down. The future of language, and specifically the English language was doomed.

The story turned out to be a hoax, but that fact still did not deter most people, including John Humphrys on BBC Radio Four, from arriving at the conclusion that the kids had really taken over the asylum.

And so, as a defender of language, not just the ability to speak it well, but the freedom to do so, I found myself in an interesting quagmire. Is text speak the new Esperanto, or is it a paltry excuse for the poor use of our rich vocabulary (I'm talking mainly from a Spanish- and English-speaking person's point of view)? Hv the kdz rlly tkn ovr the asylum? Is txtspk the ftr?

Well, according to David Crystal, one of the UK's leading linguistic academics, the debate (or should that be db8?) is far more complex than what it appears. In an interview with The Guardian he states that "almost every basic principle that people hold about texting turns out to be misconceived. Misspelling isn't universal: analysis shows that only 10% of words used in texts are misspelt. Nor are most texts sent by kids: 80% are sent by businesses and adults. Likewise, there is no evidence that texting teaches people to spell badly: rather, research shows that those kids who text frequently are more likely to be the most literate and the best spellers, because you have to know how to manipulate language,".

Fine, David, thanks, but sorry, mate, that still leaves out the fact that when you're texting you're compressing language, a process that occurs in the English lexicon every nanosecond, leaving us latecomers with the disadvantage that what we learnt back in Uni (and spent an awful lot of time wrecking our brains to figure out) is not applicable anymore due to a more laissez-faire linguistic attitude.

Don't get me wrong. I'm in principle with David that technology need not be a four-eyed green monster that spews yellow saliva everytime it utters a word in text speak, but I think that the long-term effects will be more damaging as the next generation will have very little or almost no contact with the beauty and vagaries of language as such.

As an example I bring to the fore the case of a young student who contacted me once in regards to a work experience opportunity we had at the company I used to work for until recently. His e-mail was peppered with text speak words which left me confounded and befuddled. As a consequence his correspondence went to the bottom of the pile, not without first (cruelly, I admit, but what can I do, I'm a Scorpio!) summoning my work colleagues to laugh our heads off at the content of the message, which, I am sad to say, we all struggled to understand.

That's why my biggest fear is not just that Son will become a zombie, walking around the streets of London texting left, right and centre, withouth paying any attention to the traffic (always perilous!) or without interacting with his fellow human beings; but it's also the apprehension that his well- and hard-earned linguistic skills will evaporate like molecules escaping in a mist of kinetic energy.

In the meantime, no mobile phone. And that's that.

Copyright 2008


  1. this is one of the most articulate commentaries on texting that i've read. you're good.

    i have witnessed what i assume to be the effects of constant compressing of language, as you put it, in tangible, hard copy papers composed for school.

    whenever i do text, i can't help but type out every single word and use proper punctuation. something....uuuh....a deep seated tendency that i have to be as accurate as i can just won't let me let me take those shortcuts when sending a text message to someone. yeah..the message ends up being really long, but afterwards i feel like i've gotten the most out of all that stuff i learned in school, lol!

    well, every now and then i do substitute the word "to" with the number 2 and feel bad enough about that, ha!

  2. Your passing reference to Esperanto may suggest that it has become a living language Can I therefore suggest or

  3. Text seems to be here to stay.
    As long as you don't let them substitute real reading and writing of full fledged Language I don't see why using text messaging would ruin your language. On the contrary I would say it should help improve it.

  4. 'something....uuuh....a deep seated tendency '. That was class, fly :-)

    I do tend to write long messages and would you believe it? We're not the only ones in this world who do this. I know many a person who goes to the same lengths to make themselves understood in text speak. Cheers.

    Thanks for the link, brian. My passing reference to Esperanto was more based on the promising future it once had than on the real effect it has now. Text, as Al, mentioned, is here to stay and has become a more immediate and practical way to communicate with other people. I know a few words in Esperanto and my own father dabbled in it for some time. Thanks.

    Ta muchly to all for your comments.

    Greetings from London.

  5. very well put.
    you rock.
    i'm back in town, and i hope i can finish those illustrations.

  6. Thanks, man, you rock, too, bro. I look forward to the illustrations.

    Greetings from London.

  7. Very good post. I'm one of those who refuses to indulge in text speak. I type everything out and use correct punctuation and as a result send extremely long text messages. No one seems to mind though and most of my friends will reply in same. I don't think it's an epidemic (not yet anyway) but I definitely see where there is potential for it to be.

  8. Thanks, karma, I agree with you, when people see you using the language correctly, they tend to do the same.

    Greetings from London.

  9. Absolutely. He will grow up fast sense in pushing the envelope.

    I agree with you entirely. Our language has such marvelous abilities to inform, shade and suggest things. In the interests of merely getting information across in the quickest way possible, we lose some of our humanity in communicating.

    But then again, I don't text either. ;-)

  10. mine is 11...and I have surrendered. It has more to do with social practice than communication, environment has a powerful influence, no doubt, but you have to "fight" on counter-measures, i.e. reading committment for at least on hour a day, restricted time at PC...looking for balance, kss

  11. Thanks, betty and TB. Predictive text (or whatever you call it) attempts to bring some balance to the situation, but the upshot is that sometimes what you want to write is not what the text predicts. Go figure!

    Greetings from London.



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