Textspeak 101: Coming to a College Near You?

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If you engage in text messaging even minimally, chances are you can interpret the above image without much difficulty. But those with teenagers know that this sentence is basic in comparison to how complicated the various acronyms and seemingly random letter/number combinations used online and in texting have become.

Flabbergasted parents go so far as to consult sites like the Internet Slang Dictionary & Translator to make sure their kids aren’t discussing sex or drugs. Meanwhile, even as words like “LOL” and “OMG” are added to the Oxford English dictionary, grumblings are made left and right about how our writing skills are swiftly going down the tubes because of this modern scourge on language as we know it.

Textspeak, also known as thumbspeak, is clearly here to stay – and is that such a bad thing? Not according to some, like Columbia linguistics professor John McWhorter. He goes so far in his February 2013 Ted Talks episode as to call it a “linguistic miracle.” McWhorter argues that people once adjusted their speaking style to that of lengthy and formal writing, so there is no reason why we now wouldn’t begin to write like we talk – more briefly and casually. And historically, complaints about various threats to language are apparently nothing new. A pendant writing from 63 AD voices a complaint about the growing misuse of spoken Latin – which eventually resulted in the French language!

But whether we think textspeak is a good or bad thing, what does its popularity mean for education? Should professors adapt to it rather than trying to fight it, allowing students to use acronyms and slang on discussions boards and assignments in their online courses?

I don’t think anyone’s saying that, including McWhorter. He points out that textspeak is not replacing language; rather it exists alongside young people’s traditional reading and writing skills, serving as “evidence of a balancing act” and “an expansion of their linguistic repertoire.” In fact, according to an infographic on onlineschool.com, 60% of teens don’t even think of their electronic communication as “writing.” It seems to exist as its own separate form of communication. It is a new lesson in cultural anthropology that people will look back in the future.

So while it’s not appropriate to pepper research papers with textspeak, perhaps a useful way to incorporate it into the classroom would be to actually study it as a new and evolving form of communication. Hey, stranger things have been taught in college classrooms. And if we can not only acknowledge that internet slang and thumbspeak are here to stay but can actually open up new dialogues and ways of thinking about its place in our lives, perhaps we can feel more in control over how we take advantage of this method of communicating, rather than feeling it’s in control of us.

And we once coined the current generation of technology, devices, and unregulated content “new media,” so maybe we can even start to use the term “new communication” in academic settings.

What do you think – would you enroll in a college-level course about the history and evolution of new communication?

Written By: Lorelei Plotczyk
Lorelei is a regular contributor to the Ashford University blog.

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