Sunday, 27 September 2009

Should text speak be banned or allowed at school?

Today a correspondent in Paris of my local newspaper wrote about the growing alarm among French academics and teachers concerning the present young generation's deteriorating spelling skills. According to the article, 2 our of 3 young French students fail their annual dictation tests these days. The finger has been pointed at poor teaching, too few lessons, the government, the influence of English or, of course, young people's texting culture, until somebody dared to suggest that it is the outdated French ortography, stuck somewhere in the 19th century, that should be blamed. French spelling is notoriously challenging, since there are, for example, no fewer than 13 different ways to spell the sound 'o' in French. As one solution to the problem, it was suggested that students should be allowed to systematically use the automatic spelling checks on computers. Oh no! That would be the destruction of French culture as we know it. Nothing must be changed!

Similar concerns are voiced around the globe. The Sydney Morning Herald wrote about generation Y and texting with the title 'It's ok how we communic8'. They give the reassuring message that rather than killing acceptable forms of language, texting and online chat forums are actually making our youngsters write more than ever. Problems arise when the text speak conventions of the young clash with the expectations of older generations, eg. teachers at school. Dr Bruce Moore, director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre, is not worried, though:
Most people realise that language is used differently in different contexts. Most people know that while it's OK to be informal with text messages, different rules apply when you are writing a job application.
Probably this is mostly true, although I wouldn't take it for granted. A colleague of mine was appalled by a student who, for the first time in this teacher's 20-year career, had finished her national final exam psychology answer with a smiley! It is not automatically clear for many students what style is appropriate in different contexts. The problem becomes even more complicated in the case of foreign languages. Students simply don't have enough experience and exposure to the language to be able to choose the correct register. Our Finnish students' English, for example, is mostly colloquial, spoken language learned from TV and films. Very few of them would be able to produce formal academic texts in English without a lot of guidance and scaffolding. Yet, they are expected to manage this in their final exams if they want to reach the best grades. The problem is accentuated by a lot of English text-speak entering our Finnish language, which makes it sound like part of the standard language. LOL, for example, has become part of young people's everyday Finnish. I have also heard some of our younger government ministers being interviewed in English on TV, and I must say their style of English sounded more like that of a rock star than a serious politician. Although they are quite fluent, their style and register are off-key for somebody in their position. Colloquial spoken English is ubiquitous in Finland, and Finns come to regard it as the current norm. It's a tough job for us EFL teachers to try and introduce the more formal style. Students easily write the formal style off as something nobody but we, old-fashioned English teachers, would use. I have almost weekly arguments over this with students. Are we teachers behind the times, not realizing that communication culture has actually evolved to a new level that we don't understand and appreciate?

In an earlier post I referred to the Finnish research revealing the wide gap between the types of texts students engage in in their freetime and what is expected of them at school. It is true that teachers are not familiar enough with young people's new communication patterns. If we were, it would be easier for us to help them change their register when needed. Rather than being shocked and dismissing students' texting and online communication as something bad and totally unacceptable, we should understand the changes at hand and welcome these new forms of communication. Attitude adjustments are needed from both teachers and students, I feel. Social researcher Mark McCrindle, in the above-mentioned Sydney Herald article, nicely sums up what is expected of today's teachers and students:
Generations Y and Z need to be given the tools which will allow them to communicate effectively with other generations. They also need to know when it is appropriate to use 'text speak' and when it isn't. If they are writing an essay, for example, or a job application, it's probably best to use the language they learnt at school.
In our international school projects we have solved this problem by using the Ning platform, where students are guided to use a more formal style to express themselves in their blogs, but still allowed to use their familiar, colloquial style - even text speak and smileys, if they want to - in the discussion forum. I feel this approach is working quite well, if only we teachers take the time to keep reminding and guiding students to keep editing their texts. Quite a few of them need constant reminding, even to run their pieces through the computer spell checks before publishing!

Photo: LOL by sermoa on Flickr


Tamas Lorincz said...

Dear Sinikka
A really interesting topic, again. I'm sure that much of what we accept as appropriate forms of formal usage, would have appalled academics or newspaper editors a few decades ago.
One of my pet hates in coursebooks these days is when they ask students to write letters and postcards, things most of Gen Y students would not be familiar with. Just the same way as I could not send a telegram for the life of me, although I remember my parent receiving some when I was a child.
More and more fiction and poetry uses the modern language of Generation Y. We might not like it, and perhaps putting smiley at the end of your essay is not the best idea but banning is definitely not the way.
I like the way you present it. There are platforms where you are almost obliged to use short and snappy language (SMS or Tweet), while there are other where you have to use your discretion to choose the most appropriate style. This is the best we can do for them.
At the moment I am struggling with a spoken variation of infiltrating colloquialism: making my students understand that just because people your 'man' in films, it's no the best way to address their English teachers. ("How are you, man?")
Thanks again. I love posts that make me think. This one really did.

sinikka said...

Thank you for your interesting comments, Tamas. Languages are certainly evolving at a faster and faster pace - hard to keep up at times. I know what you mean about the coursebook assignments - years behind the times, but probably still easy and familiar for most teachers. I used to work at a post-office during my summer holidays, when I was at school, and still remember counting the price of telegrams based on the number of words. I sometimes entertain my students with these totally alien stories from the past. I must sound ancient!
"How are you man?" sounds rather mild compared to me having to explain why the "f-word" is not acceptable in class! But I do understand the problem you are referring to. If it's used in films or on TV, it must be OK.
Our world is becoming increasingly pluralistic, in every respect, which demands a lot from us teachers, and everybody, for that matter, but makes learning interesting, too.
Thank you once more!

Jo said...

I so agree with you - the real issue is in the "register" ie the ability to code switch to suit context. The advantages of growing up bilingual become more apparent to me all the time (I did not and wish I had). Many of my students (not ESL/EFL but Youth at Risk) lack the register discrimination and use the same (often inappropriate) language orally whatever the context. In answer to your title/question - I feel it must be allowed, even encouraged, but with that strong awareness of the "right" context.

sinikka said...

Hi Jo
Thank you so much for your comment. Teaching register to EFL students is something quite new for us. Young people never used to hear and read so much English as they do now with the Internet. It's quite unbelievable here in Finland! But as we both know, they don't get the register unless taught by someone. The text speak style, or colloquial spoken language, easily become the only variants of English my students know, and they wrongly think that they are suitable for all purposes.
It's quite interesting, though, that the issue of register seems to need practice in people's mother tongues, too. Our Finnish teachers often complain that students write far too colloquially for more formal purposes. Somehow I feel that we teachers could do with some further training in this, since at the moment I am only playing it by ear, using my common sense, but I know that many colleagues don't really teach this, they just complain about students.