by Kristen Hawley Turner
School is out, and adolescents rejoice in summer freedom. Most will wait until the last minute to complete their summer reading and writing assignments. Writing, it seems, will take a two-month vacation along with the teenage crowd.
Or will it?
Every day, billions of messages are sent via digital devices–many of them by teens. On their phones, on their computers, and on social networks, teens “talk” to one another, but via writing. This combination of conversation and the written word has inspired a new language that can often only be understood by those who use it most. Digitalk blends elements of Standard Written English with shortcuts, phonetic spellings, and other manipulations of language.
But what, exactly, is this language? And why do teenagers write this way?
What the Research Shows
I spent two years talking to adolescents in an attempt to answer these questions. I wanted to know if the concerns I heard about texting language actually had merit. I wanted to know how to respond to my neighbors when they talked about their children’s writing skills – and how they were certain that texting was having a negative impact. I was curious about whether media headlines like “I h8 txt msgs: How texting is wrecking our language” were simply causing panic where no real trouble existed.
Linguistic researchers David Crystal and Naomi Baron convinced me that much of the language used in texting was not all that different from other shortcuts and language play we have always used in our writing. (I remember LYLAS, or “love ya like a sister,” from my own middle school notes, and Shakespeare, master of language play, added close to 2000 words to English by repurposing parts of speech, combining words, or simply inventing them.) However, I felt that there might be more to the story. So I went to the teens themselves to better understand both what and why. Over two years I collected writing from close to 100 teens, surveyed 130, and interviewed in-depth another 30.
What I found surprised me. First, I learned that teens limited their use of digitalk to more informal communications where they “talked” with friends. I asked them to provide me with samples of their language play – they gave me text messages composed on phones, instant messages written on computers, and posts on social networks. They did not share emails, blogs, websites, or other digital writing.
After analyzing their writing, I found that the media was not painting an accurate picture of digitalk. For instance, though the use of numbers in place of letters can be found in nearly any headline on the topic, the majority of participants in my study did not use this convention (e.g., let’s get 2gether, or the h8 in the article title above). Likewise, in contrast to portrayals in the media, 97% of the teens in my study used complete sentences in their digitalk. This finding alone suggests that texting is not, in fact, ruining the English language, a sentiment heard often in the media and in casual conversations among adults.
Even more interesting, however, were the differences I uncovered between teens who lived in urban areas and their suburban counterparts. While the urban sample included many phonetic spellings (e.g., skillz), suburban students were less likely to use these forms. On the other hand, suburban teens used more exclamation points and spelled out verbal utterances (e.g., hahaha) than did the urban students. In short, their writing revealed teens adopted the conventions of their digital communities.
More importantly, when I asked adolescents why they chose the conventions that they did, I learned that teens take their audience into consideration. For example, one young man said, “Only with my grandmother; that’s when I text proper.” Many of the participants made similar statements about their choices being driven by “who’s on the other side of the phone.”
Similarly, the teens cared about personal voice. As one said, “There are some things that you do because you, like, want it to be you.” Finding their own writing style and capturing how they “sound” were very important to the adolescents I interviewed and surveyed.
Overall, I learned that adolescents write a lot outside of school, they adopt the conventions of their digital communities, and they experiment with language–both to be a part of those communities and to create an individual identity within them.
In short, in the out-of-school context of digitalk, teens develop two key writing skills that composition teachers stress in school: an understanding of audience and of voice.
Elvis Has Left the Building
So why do I still hear parents (and teachers, for that matter) complain about digitalk? Why do we, as adults, believe the myth that texting is ruining the English language? Perhaps we fear what we do not quite understand. Or perhaps this tension will be reflected in history as the hallmark of our generation. In the 1950s, after all, adults were appalled by Elvis, his music, and his gyrations.
When children are young, adults celebrate their creativity. Grandparents hang finger-paintings reverently on their refrigerators. Teachers applaud stories filled with inventive spelling. Parents file all kinds of drawings, writing, and art forms neatly into memory boxes. At some point, however, we forget that experimentation and play are part of creativity. We expect teenagers to adhere to rules that limit them in their schoolwork–and often in their lives outside of school.
Fortunately, adolescents find their own outlets for creativity. Through text messaging, social networking, and instant messaging, today’s teens experiment with language. Though many adults fear that digitalk may hurt literacy, in fact, teens develop important skills of writing in their digital communication. Rather than seeing errors in teens’ digitalk, parents and educators might look at the strengths inherent in this type of composing.
What Can You Do?
Research supports the idea that digitalk experimentation can help children to develop their literacy skills. Parents and teachers can rest easy and encourage this word play while also helping younger children to reflect on the importance of audience and purpose in their writing. Digitalk is meant for particular situations, and children need to learn how to adapt their language from informal spaces to more formal tasks–depending on audience and purpose. Just as we ask our children to act differently in church or at a restaurant than we do in the backyard, we can help them to understand how we use language differently in those settings, too.
Teachers of older students may focus lessons specifically on code-switching to help students recognize errors in their school writing. Digitalk texts could also be the subject of classroom study. Asking students to analyze audience, purpose, and voice in their informal conversations can also help them to transfer these skills to their academic work. (For lesson ideas, see “Digitalk as Community.”)
Finally, parents can applaud the fact that teenagers will likely be writing throughout the summer. We may not understand everything they write, but we can appreciate that they are communicating with attention to audience, purpose, and voice in an authentic way.
Kristen Hawley Turner (@teachKHT) is an associate professor of English education and contemporary literacies at Fordham University. A former high school English and social studies teacher, she directs the Fordham Digital Literacies Collaborative. She is also the mother of 7-year-old twins, and she blogs about her multiple roles in life at Twin Life: Having It All. You can hear a podcast of Kristen speaking about digitalk at Voice of Literacy. You can read her chapter “Error or Strength? Competencies Developed in Adolescent Digitalk” through open access until the end of June 2015.