Txt spkrs smrtr than you were as a kid? Yep!

September 19, 2013 •
Txt speakers smarter than essay writers

Now don’t switch off when you read the next paragraph. I know it doesn’t sound exciting, but it’s necessary background…

Back in 2011, Alex Petrovic from my favourite SEO company, Dejan SEO wrote a guest post for me on the role of copywriting in online reputation management.

It was a thought-provoking article, but, even still, I wasn’t expecting the comments it got. Not so much the volume of comments, but their subject matter. Things really took a turn.

Here’s an overview of the more noteworthy comments, and an update based on some recent research into Twitter-speak.

The original comment debate

I’ll leave you to read the original post and mull over the majority of the comments. But I would like to draw your attention to one particular exchange between Francis Fox (of Storyfox copywriting) and yours truly…

Francis said:

You’re right on the money when you say that quality copy is inevitably associated with quality product or reliable character. If the Great Barrier Reef were to be turned into an unrestricted commercial playground, where fishing and every water-sport under the sun, and every aqua-tourist venture imaginable were permitted, we’d soon see serious damage. Then there’d be massive public wailing and lamentation, breast-beating and confessions of regret. In fact the entire Green lobby would probably mass-suicide. Why? Because of the loss of an irreplaceable treasure. Be clear about this! The English language is a far more valuable national treasure; a vastly more complex living organism; and of immeasurably greater social and cultural significance to the world we inhabit than any mass of coral. And look what we do to it. Look at how we respect it. The disastrous consequences of this gross abuse are probably not clear to many; not yet! The untold damage already in evidence is irreparable. Worse is just around the corner. We need to be saying to people: Don’t foul the nest. Your language is your word; and your word is your honour and your identity. And therein is your dignity! So when you present yourself to the world dressed up in crap copy, you’re telling us you’re scum and want to be regarded as such. So be it.

I replied:

Thanks for your comment, Francis. Nice to have you here. Love a good chat about language (geek alert! 😉

I agree if you present yourself to the world dressed in crap copy, then that’s how you’ll be regarded. But I see things a little differently re the deterioration/evolution debate…

I think changes to how a language is spoken are very unlikely to impact its survival. Political, economic and demographic factors are far more likely to do that. It’s the ability to communicate effectively ‘where the power is’  that’s important. In business, finance, technology, religion, movies, music and, yes, gaming (it’s a bigger industry than movies!).

I personally haven’t seen anything we’ve done to the English language that constitutes a threat in these domains.

And by “communicate effectively”, I mean that we can convey our meaning and express ourselves fully and efficiently. And that we can fully understand and be moved by the expression of others.

I’m no real fan of Valspeak, txt spk, or ‘rap speak’ (is there an accepted label for that?), but they’re nonetheless very effective communication dialects.

Of course, if these or other dialects impact our efficacy in the power circles, or the language somehow becomes a barrier to tourism, we might start to see it decline. But it’s important to distinguish between the PRESENCE of a dialect in a power circle and an adverse IMPACT. E.g. The increasing use of twitter/txt speak in business doesn’t necessarily spell the end. If it’s there for a reason, and it’s being used effectively and profitably, it’ll likely propagate the language, not curtail it.

The English language has been changing forever. And people have been lamenting that change forever. I’m yet to see anything different in contemporary changes than what was witnessed by ‘refined’  speakers of the 1500s, who spurned Shakespeare’s lowbrow work…

Not to be outdone, Francis countered:

Your response to my post was both swift and remarkably far-ranging for an answer penned (or should I say ‘keyboarded’?) in such little time. As for the “Deterioration/evolution debate”, it is very possible, even likely, that we have a different assessment of where the English language is at in its historical unfolding.Some facts pertaining to the debate, however, are worth mentioning, because it is not merely an opinion that language skills are deteriorating, it is a well-documented phenomenon that is causing great concern for contemporary educationalists.

1.The average active vocabulary of a high-school student in 2010 was between 10,000-11,000 words, compared to a range of 20,000-21,000 in the 70s and early 80s.

2. Students at school anywhere in Australia in 2012 will be taught very little about the grammar of our national language, nor about the ‘mechanics’ of spelling and punctuation. This is despite the fact that English curricula in NSW and Victoria ( I assume the other states would be similar, but I’m not 100% sure) both require that students between Grade 1 and Year 10 be taught grammar.

3. The reason students will actively learn little about English grammar at school is that their teachers do not have the expertise to teach them, because they themselves were not trained in grammar. I know this for a fact because I move among educators who tell me these things quite openly.

4. When students have poor language analysis skills, their reading comprehension is significantly (negatively) affected. And because their reading skills are relatively low, on average, they either read less, or read material which is not too challenging. This has a further (negative) impact upon their vocabulary development.

5. The combined effect of 1-4 (above), which is a process that has been in train for a whole generation, is that the majority of people are not language-savvy. The reason that you can read so incredibly much text in the world around you that is flawed in terms of its grammar or spelling or punctuation, or extremely limited in vocabulary and style, is simply that you can get away with inferior linguistic quality. The majority of people will accept it because they don’t know better, weren’t educated to know better.

Glenn, I have lived in countries where pidgin is spoken.I became a highly efficient communicator in Tok Pisin (Pidgin English) when I lived in PNG. What I could say, I could say very well. But our conversations never ran to art, or philosophy, to logic or ethics, to anything that involved conceptions of an abstract nature. The vocabulary, the philosophical and linguistic distinctions between categories and orders of experience, just didn’t exist for them. I’m not suggesting this has happened in English-speaking culture; our language is by no means a pidgin, but it could be headed in that direction. Meanwhile, certain things have been lost which could have been retained. If you want people to appreciate good writing, for example, you’d better make sure they get a good education.

At this point in the conversation, I was derailed by work and life and the thread went into the ‘too hard’ basket. But I always planned to come back. And so here I am. (Ask my wife how I love having the last word… 😉

Proof I was right all along

Today I read an awesome article uncovered by Rand Fishkin of Moz. (If you’re not following him on Twitter and Google+, you should be.)

The article? The dumbest generation? No, Twitter is making kids smarter

It cites studies that reveal some pretty interesting insights:

  • Error rates in the scholastic papers of first-year uni students have not increased (from 1917 to 2006).
  • There were “almost no instances” of smileys or LOL-style short forms.
  • Students use short forms as flourishes of wit; and they do it more rarely than you would suspect.
  • Average papers are now nearly 6.5 times as long and far more intellectually complex.
  • Researchers attribute these improvements to an “explosion in composition”. Kids are simply writing a lot more these days. Outside the classroom. They’re not simply consuming media.
  • Students now write more quickly (because keyboards are faster than fountain pens).
  • And because students write faster, they “can include more ideas and flesh them out more deeply.”
  • The online environment fosters better writing because students write “with better organization and content, and nearly 40 per cent longer than when they write for just their instructor.”
  • The internet also offers “deeply civic” environments that teach students how to have productive conversations and exchanges.
  • Students report that Twitter forces them to think more carefully about every syllable they use. “It’s like writing a poem, because every word counts.” (I love this line!)

It’s important to note that one of these studies didn’t go beyond 2006, and obviously things have changed a bit since then. But the other studies were more recent, so it’s certainly not all 7 years out of date.

What do you think?

Is our language doomed, or is it just evolving as it always has? Please offer your 2 cents in the comments.

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Txt spkrs smrtr than you were as a kid? Yep! | AWD CopywritingBlog wrote on October 23rd, 2013

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