My summr hols wr CWOT. B4, we usd 2 go 2NY 2C my bro, his GF &

September 19, 2003

In submitting this in an essay on how she spent her holidays, a teenager sparked a furore about literacy. But does texting really harm language and learning? asks Michael North

The text in the headline is taken from the beginning of an essay by a 13-year-old Scottish pupil. It translates from the "text" (also known as short messaging service, or SMS) as: "My summer holidays were a complete waste of time. Before, we used to go to New York to see my brother, his girlfriend and their three screaming kids face to face."

The writing style is, of course, the one that teenagers use to send each other messages on their mobile phones - often on the sly during lessons.

But does its use for school work indicate a deep and disturbing decline of language skills? The tabloid press certainly thought so. They latched onto the story, and there was uproar about the fall in literacy standards as a result of technology.

The reaction is described as "moral panic" by Alex Taylor, a researcher at the Digital World Research Centre at Surrey University. He says: "To assign blame to SMS is the wrong way to look at it. It is very common for young people to play with language. How they go about doing that is interesting.

Text has provided teenagers with a strong means to express themselves imaginatively."

Despite the moral panic and the many studies on mobile phone culture and how people interact via SMS, there has been little or no research on the impact of texting on language and learning in schools and at a higher level.

A recent study by a researcher in the Philippines of the effects of SMS on undergraduates' grammar and spelling appears to chart new territory.

Mildred Rojo-Laurilla, an assistant professor at De La Salle University-Manila, asked a group of undergraduates, both mobile phone users and non-users, to sit grammar and spelling tests. She interviewed them about their previous education and their attitudes to and preferences for texting, and observed the mobile users' behaviour when sending text messages.

Laurilla found that there were "no statistical differences in the grammar and spelling scores of both cellular phone owners and non-owners". She ventured the explanation that "because these students are in college, they might no longer be malleable to change in terms of competencies acquired in elementary or high school... These competencies in grammar and spelling have been acquired at an age before they even acquired their cellular phones."

Laurilla says her study "partly negates or dispels popular observation that cellular phones may bring more harm than good to students". She suggests that more research be carried out on younger students as they may be "more malleable to texting and language competency outcomes".

A key feature of Laurilla's study is her observation that SMS users develop an ability to play with language and symbols, creating "a new linguistic repertoire".

This creativity has been observed by European researchers of mobile technology. In her doctoral thesis, Ylva Hard af Segerstad, a researcher at the linguistics department of Goteborg University in Sweden, studied whether language was deteriorating as a result of computer-mediated communication. She believes that text is an example of a "uniquely human ability to adapt language according to the interdependent variables of a given situation (context, activity, relation to communicators)".

She adds: "I don't see why SMS should damage a person's learning of English at all. Language use in SMS builds on the language skills that one already masters, and one does not exclude the other. It seems to be an extremely common belief that language is on its way down the drain, and that youth and uneducated people are making language worse. I'm being approached by people every week who want me to agree with that. I don't."

Sociologist Richard Harper, who carries out mobile user studies for the Appliance Studio and the Digital World Research Centre, takes a similar line. If anything, he says, young people are developing their expressive powers through texting. He adds that SMS's limited format (a text message can contain no more than 160 characters) encourages creativity. Moreover, the culture of "gift giving" - the sending of texts to friends and loved ones - leads young people to carefully craft their messages. "For those of us who observe, SMS never looks a dim mode of expression. Saying 'I luv u'

is a big thought and emotion," Harper says.

In Germany, the sending of texts or love letters between teenagers has had surprising consequences. While it is common for teenage girls to expect a message before bedtime from their boyfriends, a recent study shows that German girls want more. Harper says: "German girls are saying they also want a letter, so there is an increase in letter-writing among kids, particularly love letters. Texting has reminded girls of the delight of receiving a love letter. There is a little resentment among German boys - they are having to read Goethe for the first time in generations."

He adds: "You can say things with the written word that are too difficult to say face to face. You can deliberate and craft that expression to be just perfect. The success of SMS is a reminder that the written word is a wonderfully rich medium. I think text is a celebration of a great Victorian art (of letter-writing). Gladstone would have been delighted that teenagers are sending texts - even though he would have been appalled by their use of grammar!"

Mobile phone use is now so much a part of youth culture that it is being incorporated into educational and creative projects. The BBC is offering Welsh lessons via text, and there is a project in Leeds to write a biography of the city in a text poem.

In London, the m-learning project at the Learning and Skills Development Agency is looking at ways of involving young people with a poor educational background by encouraging them to use their mobile phones. Programme manager Jill Attewell explains: "There was a lot of concern about the number of young people with poor literacy and numeracy. We were thinking of some way of getting at people who would not come to college and noticed that almost all of them had a mobile phone. If someone who has never picked up a pen and written something can pick up a device and compose a message, that is a big step in the right direction towards literacy. We need to build on that and harness their enthusiasm."

Attewell says that young people can, for example, use their phones to write texts and take pictures on fieldwork projects. Mobile games and internet links via mobiles are also good learning resources. "There's a huge potential for exciting stuff," she says.

She also refutes claims that texting harms learning. "A lot of things are just a modern variation of something that is already there. There was a lot of concern about the use of mobile phones for bullying. It's just the medium that has changed - it's the same people with an updated delivery system."

Other researchers also see the benefits of moving with the times and incorporating the language of SMS into education projects. Segerstad urges:

"Teaching methods have to take into consideration language varieties, and that what is correct and appropriate in one setting might be the reverse in another. Education professionals also have to be aware of the fact that norms of language use change over time, and today's norms will eventually become outdated."

Taylor adds: "We like to package things and put them in a 'good' or 'bad' corner. Technology is neither good nor bad. We should learn to take away the positive things."

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