Mind & Body

Does 'Text Speak' Harm Your Literacy Skills?

It's hard to imagine life before smartphones, but believe it or not, the first-ever text messages were sent not so long ago — the earliest ones showed up on Nokia phones sometime around 1993. Those text messages were probably pretty short and sweet since the character limit topped out at 160 and phones didn't have full keyboards. But today, we use texting — and chatting, posting, and tweeting — to converse freely about our deepest thoughts. And that's precisely what makes some people worry.

I Before E, Except in ASCII

It's no secret that parents are wary of texting. Almost since texting began, parents have been writing opinion pieces and Facebook pleas about their kids' texting habits and lack of writing skills. And just how many teens have been punished with a phone ban? But it's not just teens who text. As texting endures, adults and teens alike find themselves sending the occasional "lol" or "imo" or "gr8."

You might also worry that all those abbreviations are influencing the way you speak English. What if you really start thinking that "great" is spelled with an "8"? That's where science comes in. Back in 2009, renowned psychology researcher Dr. Michelle Drouin led a study on so-called "text speak" and literacy. Among the 80 college students who participated in the study, more than half worried that using text speak was hurting their ability to use and remember standard English. But their fears were unfounded: The study showed no significant differences in literacy scores or spelling ability between texters and non-texters. The texters also showed that they recognized the difference between occasions when text speak is appropriate, like in casual messages to friends, and when it's not, like in emails to their professors.

Ur Grammar Is Gr8

Nearly 10 years after that study and almost three decades after the first texts were sent, we know much more about how texting influences language skills. In 2016, researchers from Utrecht University and the University of Amsterdam reviewed previous work on texting (including Drouin's paper) and conducted their own study of grammar and texting with Dutch 10- to 13-year-olds.

Essentially, the researchers sought to determine whether there was any value in the anxiety that parents and other adults have about how texting might impact literacy. They wanted to figure out not only how the use of what they called "textese" influenced children's grammar, but also whether it could ultimately impact their executive functions, like attention control, working memory, and planning.

The team collected text messages from 55 children and studied them for "textisms" and grammatical omissions. Researchers used an example from Bridget Jones's Diary to illustrate what they meant by 'omission:' "Start to wonder whether am really good friend." To be grammatically correct, the text would have to read, "I start to wonder whether I am really a good friend." Here, the writer has omitted the "I," a relatively common pattern in texting.

Those omissions turned out to be surprisingly important. When the researchers went to analyze their findings, they discovered that the more words children removed from their text messages, the better they scored on the grammar test. The researchers reasoned that because you can't just drop random words from a message and expect it to make sense, a texter needs to use their knowledge of grammar to decide that it's okay to omit, say, the first-person subject, as in the example above. The use of "textisms" like "lol," "gr8," and "irl" also seemed to go along with improved vocabulary, grammar, and selective attention scores.

The team also found that using textese doesn't seem to impact executive functions at all, in either a positive or negative way. Though some people fear that using text-speak in daily life will somehow make us less able to think properly, this study suggests that frequent texters plan and problem solve just as well as non-texters.

But the use of textese does seem positively related to children's grammar performance and vocabulary use. So, no, if you use "gr8" instead of "great" or type "sooo tired" instead of "I'm so tired," you'll not only retain your knowledge of spelling and grammar — you might even write better than someone who only uses language IRL.

Rather than think of text-speak as a lesser, mistake-ridden version of proper language, think of it the way the Dutch researchers did: as a language register. You speak and write in different registers all the time; the language you use in emails to a boss or teacher is different than what you'd use in an essay or report, and the language you use with your parents is different than the language you'd use with a four-year-old. You can think of text-speak as a separate register of English, one with its own set of rules. As a result, it's helping you think like a bilingual, and it stretches your understanding of grammar and vocabulary. Texting doesn't make us dumber. It might even be making us smarter.

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For the ins and outs of internet-speak, check out "Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language" by Gretchen McCulloch. The audiobook is free with a trial of Audible (though we recommend the physical book, in this case). We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Kelsey Donk July 19, 2019

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