James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, recently charged that internet chat and cell phone text messaging were causing “the slow destruction of the basic unit of human thought — the sentence.”
Despite the fact that neuroscientists are nowhere near isolating the basic unit of human thought, and linguists can’t agree on a definition of a sentence, Billington wants to place a Librarian General’s warning on all cell phones that texting kills thought.
The Librarian General's warning, fully spelled out
But although you’ll have to pry their cell phones from their cold, dead hands before teenagers will give up messaging, their brains are in no danger from the controversial symptoms frequently associated with this popular activity: lol, brb, ttfn, gtg, lmao, and the use of u for you.
Writing in the latest issue of American Speech, two researchers at the University of Toronto have found that high-school-aged users of IM quickly abandon many of the stereotypical abbreviations associated with the activity, and that while some of them occasionally inject an “OMG, OMG,” into their conversation, such alphabetisms inflict no more linguistic damage than Ben Bernanke mentioning “NGO’s” at a meeting of the Fed or David Petraeus discussing the effects of “IED’s” before a Congressional hearing. OK, maybe IED’s aren't the best example.
Another recent study by the Pew Internet Project confirms that English isn’t dead yet. According to this report, 85% of American teens use some form of digital messaging, but only 38% incorporate shortcuts like LOL in their book reports, and fewer still, about 25%, use emoticons like the smiley face, , in their essays. That’s probably because a whopping 86% of teens surveyed believe that good writing is important to success in life (only 83% of their parents think so), and 60% of these teens don’t even consider their favorite writing activities, texting and facebooking, to be real writing (to which the researchers at Pew exclaimed, WTF?).
According to a recent report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, or PIP, despite the widespread impact of informal digital communication, not to mention traditional abbreviations like the ampersand and BBQ, English is not dead yet
Young children quickly pick up on linguistic cues, figuring out without benefit of formal instruction that talking to teachers is different from talking to parents is different from talking to friends. They learn as well that some people use language differently from them, and they develop standards for judging the appropriateness of other people’s language, not just their own.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that teen-age writers, even if they haven’t mastered the demands of writing for school, are cued in to enough linguistic nuances to realize almost as a matter of course that writing is an important medium of communication, and that what’s appropriate for some kinds of writing may not be appropriate for others.
Many of these kids are clued-in enough to note that cell phone use may not be appropriate, say, at a fancy restaurant or a during a bar mitzvah, and a few have learned the hard way that texting in class is just as unsubtle as passing notes. But if my own college students are anything to go by, the one thing they seem to have missed in the digital revolution is the fact that while texting might not have a toxic effect on brain function, driving while texting – DWT, an activity that more of my own students admit to than texting during class – is likely to be hazardous to their health.
There are no stats confirming the dangers of texting while operating a motor vehicle (of course, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has yet to confirm that talking on a cellphone correlates with accidents). But while drivers continue to insist that anything they do with a cell phone is no less distracting than changing a CD, eating a taco, or breaking up a fight between siblings in the backseat, DWT is now a crime in Washington State – punishable by a $101 fine, if the driver lives to have a day in court – and at least nine other states have considered banning the practice.
So while the Librarian General’s warning may not gain much traction in Congress, the Department of Transportation is already taking bids on signs to discourage driving while texting.
The federal government isn’t buying the Librarian of Congress’s argument that text-induced alphabetisms are hazardous to sentence structure, but the DOT’s NHTSA has determined that DWT is likely to be dangerous to your health