October 21, 2016 by Boris

Language Evolution in times of Whatsapp & Co

As linguists at EIL, our whole team is confronted every day with language evolution in modern times by the ways of modern technology.

With this little post, I would like to share our first hand experience at EIL when it comes to language evolution in times where technology progresses faster than ever. But, I would also share some facts and information to hopefully relax the one or the other parent out there, when it comes to them reading how their teenage kids are writing nowadays using the new media 😉

In our daily life as educators, we always have to find the right balance of accepting and even embracing the new language ‘tools’ that new technology provides us with, and most often rejecting them when it comes to fit in a primary and secondary education setting by means of using the appropriate language in written and oral exercises or examinations. The more mature students in our experience have absolutely no problem in distinguishing between the social and school / education context. And, by all means, I don’t relate maturity to age here. We have come across very young learners capable of understanding that the language that they use in social media context is exclusively to be used in those contexts and on the other hand we also have seen senior secondary students having difficulties in making that distinction. The age is in my opinion playing a secondary role, as it doesn’t necessary give you an indication of the maturity level of the student.

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Let us move on to a more theoretical and abstract approach to the topic: As technology evolves, so does the way we communicate. From walls, rocks and paper to computers and smartphones: they thoroughly influence the way we communicate. New technology made instant messaging platforms possible such as – whastapp and others, social media such as Facebook, Snapchat, instagram, Periscope and others where communication essentially takes place through new ways of the written word or even  pictures .

  1. On one hand, they provide a more convenient way for people to communicate with each other. Traditionally, people have to use phone calls or even letters to communicate with relatives and friends. However, as technology advances, more and more online communication tools like Facebook, Whatsapp, Skype and Twitter emerged. They provide instant ways to communicate with relatives and friends, both the local ones and those overseas. That shortened the time needed to reach others and hence helped promote a convenient way for people to communicate.
  2. On the other hand, online communication tools also provide us with a less direct and personal means to contact with others. Nowadays, we can just type in our mobile devices or computers and send photos and videos by simply pressing a button. Face-to-face communication has deteriorated since the emergence of online communication tools. People nowadays tend to use these communication tools rather than talking face-to-face with people. Some of them have become less confident when talking to people face-to-face and less sociable at the same time.

Last but not least, I would like to open your eyes to a rather unusual approach – a philosophic one:

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We could easily defend the point of view that technology makes us more than “human”; we are augmented. For example we can communicate without being physically present in the same room thanks to technologies like SMS, WhatsApp, or Skype. The same principle that we know from paper already. our messages can be distributed without the creator of the message. Hence, technology affords us with a lot of applications. “New” technologies are always greeted with a lot of criticism, often based on those constraints. Let’s take a famous example. Philosopher Plato wasn’t so happy with the invention of paper (writing), which would, in his view, lead to “loss of control of language” and “loss of memory”, besides the “inflexible” nature of paper. Interestingly, we’ve heard these arguments with texting/SMS as well. Like John Sutherland, professor in Modern Literature at the University College of London, calling texting “penmanship for illiterates“. He complains about the way youngsters use and master (written) language. Youngsters use abbreviations, like LOL (laughed out loud), g2g (got to go), or 😀 (happy)

Yet, linguists  are not so negative about the way texting has influenced language. It shows that youngsters do think about how they want to express themselves. In other words and in less words. Additionally, aren’t youngsters using a technology like SMS how it was meant? SMS is designed to exchange short messages (hence, Short Message Service). They’re able to say much more with less and they’re able to understand a message without much context.

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According to some parent respondents, after the popularization of various online communication tools, their family relations have changed. Family members changed from face-to-face communication to using Whatsapp or other kinds of social networking sites to communicate. This has caused the drastic decrease in interactions between family members and hence the worsening of relationships. One parent respondent even said that she had to use Whatsapp to ask her son whether to have dinner at 8p.m. even when they were in the same house.

It is clear to notice that our means of communication with each other have changed with the appearance of the aforesaid new possibilities.

The hand written word is very often only used for signatures. Any other written word is nowadays mostly typed on a keyboard or touchscreen.

We can now argue, if this development will result in a deterioration of our linguistic skills or whether it is simply evolution, in other words normal.

In my humble opinion it likely is a normal phenomenon reflecting on the two different approaches above. Hence, if your child should use new technology to communicate, you should embrace it and teach a mature way of using it. In this case the new ways of communication through technology can really be an asset making our lives more convenient and enabling us to even further communicate through ’emojis’ for example who in fact are ‘saying’ a lot more than just a smiling, sad or angry face because they are accessible to different interpretation in different contexts.

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