February 6th, 2010
I was interviewed recently by Canadian Press, and subsequently a number of radio stations across Canada, on the effect of social networking on student language skills. The title of the Canadian Press article was Students failing because of Twitter, texting and no grammar teaching, but I don’t necessarily agree with that. Rather, I think what we have is the clash of two worlds and two kinds of language.
We live on the electronic commons of the internet. Our work, school, social, and private lives have become one. This has implications for students who might move from home to classroom to cafe and home again, using the same Facebook and Twitter accounts, interacting with the same set of friends, real and internet, personal and academic, without considering what this entails.
The language of emoticons and SMS (text message) abbreviations might be appropriate for some friends, in some settings, but not for certain contacts and interactions in the academic and career worlds. The problem arises when a person moves seamlessly from one world to the other without considering without adjusting language and style to suit each new situation. Academics don’t want to see informal language showing up in term papers. Hiring managers are bothered by its use in cover letters and resumes, and in a large number of business and media careers, emoticons and text abbreviations are not appropriate in the work the candidate is expected to produce once on the job, so the recruiter rejects candidates who use them during the application process.
Language is both prescriptive (defined by fixed rules in dictionaries, text books, and style guides), and descriptive (defined by current popular usage.) Whereas before, we had, for example, the language of hip hop in one realm and the language of academia in another, clearly separate from each other, the online and offline versions of the language today exist side-by-side, uneasily sharing the same physical and temporal space. The usual lag time and adoption curve has disappeared, and non-users of the latest informal language are expected to instantly comprehend it and speak it fluently, else there is something wrong with them. Eventually, many of these words and expressions may make it into the broader language, but problems arise when we rush this process.
This year, for example, the New Oxford American Dictionary announced that “unfriend” was its “Word of the Year” for 2009. I wonder if five years from now people will be using the word more widely, or not at all. (It would be interesting to see some analysis of the various words-of-the-year from the past and which are still commonly used. I suspect except in the case of the verb “to Google,” the number would be low.)
There are many solutions to this, if you view it as a problem. Students need to show a little commonsense about understanding the difference between social network speak and formal language. This is something that should be taught in basic communications classes. A tactical solution for students is to have multiple social network profiles, one on each site for personal and professional/academic use.
In the meantime, students who take the time to understand this dynamic, and can show some restraint in their use of smiley faces and LOLs, will find themselves at a clear advantage in what is probably the most competitive academic and career environment of the past 30 years.