Random Thoughts

Futr Lang

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I have found myself thinking recently on the future of language and the written word. Some of my thinking has been fueled by the conversation happening on the EME 5404 blog.

I’ve been struggling with the questions:

Who and when did we decide that our language was no longer going to change? That the evolution of language had stopped and that the way our language is right now is the way it should always be?

I don’t really know the history of the written word, but I do know that we as humans have been writing for thousands of years. Just from my own experiences in Israel, Jordan and the rest of the Middle East and Africa. We started by writing our stories in pictures, which was redefined over time by different cultures. Pictures led to symbols of which some cultures, like here in China, still use. Symbols led to the forming of an alphabet at some point, which has been redefined throughout the ages.

I’m not sure how it all happened, but I do know that I do not talk in the way in which Shakespeare writes. That there is something like five times as many words today as in Shakespeare’s time. The medium of which we write with and upon has also changed: From paint and brush, to stone and chisel, to ink and paper, to pencil and paper, to pen and paper, and now digital. As the medium has changed so has our language. The medium has allowed, and maybe even helped the evolution of our language.

Is the digital age redefining our language once again? I can’t help but look around at everyone text messaging, chatting, e-mailing, twittering, etc. and think that our language Is not changing. The cool part is this evolution happens on its own. This hit me again last night while I was watching my twitter messages and someone asked a question to their twitter friends. One of the friends responded:

@Dave: I do

Now…I’ve only been twittering for a couple of weeks, but who decided that when you wanted to direct a specific twitter message to one of your friends you used the @ symbol followed by their name? I looked for a twitter manual or a twitter language book and guess what….I couldn’t find one.

Communication in this day in age is about fast short messages. It started with e-mail and has slowly becoming quicker and shorter.

So this has me looking at the students walking out to the bus, the students walking the hallways and the 25 people I passed at the bus stop last night who were all text messaging on their phones (OK, maybe not all of them but I counted and it was 3 out of 5). This generation communicates in a very different way from the way I was taught, from the way I know how, and their way is much more efficient for their communication vehicles.
I am not saying we do not need to teach proper writing and English, but should we be teaching more than that? If we are preparing students for their future, should we be teaching them Instant Language (IL)? Let’s face it, as the pace of change continues to be exponential in nature the pace in which we communicate will continue to quicken as well.

This brings me to blogging and why I think blogging is more popular with our generation than with our students. Blogging is linear, you write in proper English. You write in complete sentences, words and thoughts. It speaks to us, we understand it, we like it; we know how to communicate in this way. My students struggle with blogging. They struggle with having to use so many words to get their message out there. I mean why right “Dave in response to your question, I do as well” when you can write “@Dave: I do?”

I almost feel like we are trying to force a round peg in a square whole. That we continue to force students to learn a way of writing, a language that is not suitable for today’s writing medium. Take myspace.com, very few well thought out posts. Alternatively, review an IM Chat session from someone in his or her teens, or just spend 10 minutes with your friends on twitter. What skills should we be teaching our students in Language Arts? The real question that keeps nagging at me is who is going to teach them to write in this new way? I sure the heck couldn’t teach it, and I’d bet most English teachers would slap me if I told them they need to teach IL in their classrooms.

By only teaching students to write “properly” (whatever that means), are we preparing them for our past, or their future? At what point do we stop yelling at students to write properly and embrace the evolution of the written word?

[tags]languages, 21st Century Learning, twitter[/tags]

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I started blogging in 2005 and found it such a powerful way to reflect and share my thinking about technology, this generation, and how we prepare students for their future not our past.


  1. Hi, Jeff. A similar discussion is happening over at “The Committed Sardine.”

    I have a few thoughts on your question: “What skills should we be teaching our students in Language Arts?”

    I’m one of those Language Arts teachers. The most important skill we can teach our students is “keeping the audience in mind.” Using IM language in a resume is a sure way not to get a job. Using informal, blog language in a college application essay is sure-fire way not to get into the college-of-choice.

    You also ask, “…who is going to teach them to write in this new way?” The answer is THEM.

    We don’t need to teach them; they are creating a new, succinct, efficient language. Which leaves us out of the picture, unless we consider ourselves (the teachers) as the learners and the students as the teachers. It’s a role reversal. I’m constantly learning new IM lingo from my students.

    Language evolves over time. Compare the English language of “Beowulf” to that of “Lord of the Flies.” I suspect that it won’t be long until it will be perfectly acceptable to use “u” for “you”. Plus, the IM language of today will probably be obsolete within a decade or two. Until then, we need to assist students in being articulate in multiple settings, whether it be in cyberspace, on paper, or in a podcast.

    As for me, I’m still teaching my kids to write formally, because they will need to communicate in formal language when they attend today’s universities.

  2. @Jeff – Gr8 post. Tnx 4 sharing.


    I wanted to add what I think formal writing will be expected of all kids as they grow up, get jobs, and are required to communicate with other adults – perhaps even their supervisors. Maybe they won’t be writing formal essays, but right or wrong, judgments are made about us all based on the way we use words to convey a meaning.

    I haven’t read too many cover letters that start with, “Sup?” or make use of the word, “w00t!” Not that it wouldn’t be interesting to see….

  3. And – of course – in my post about language, I typed “what” in the first sentence when I meant “that.”

    Is it Spring Break yet??

  4. Ms. K is right…audience is everything.

    But I think also that we don’t have to teach the IL writing because that kind of learning happens more spontaneously in the way a trend catches on. It was not long ago that the @ symbol had almost disappeared from understanding fading out of collective memory like the typewriter. Then e-mail came along and it’s become a word on it’s own, one that everyone recognizes.

    Learning to write in new forms comes from the experience of doing. Those 3 out of 5 people are learning SMS talk or IM talk or whatever through the attempts of others to get a “shortening” to catch on. No one taught us “lol” or “cya” or “l8er”…they just hit their respective tipping points through shared use and hit the mainstream and we learned what they meant through experience.

    I don’t think anyone wants to teach the new language (see English departments worldwide for confirmation on this) and more importantly, no kids want to be taught it. They want to just do it and find the ways that catch on and work for them.

    It’s really not that different than when teenage-me learned the many ways to use the word “dude” depending on context.

    Side note: you’ve hit the nail on the head with how blogging is too formal for many kids…I could see podcasting becoming the blogosphere of their generation.

    As always, great post…I love when you get me thinking and articulating (or at least trying to).

  5. Jeff, great post!! When I was a doctoral student my advisor told me that if there was no word to adequately describe what I wanted to say I had one choice, invent a new word.

    In some sense I think that the hesitation to develop/use new language is a good thing. New language will be developed but hesitation slows the development. Without this hesitation language might change too quickly and it would lose its power as a commonly understood set of symbols.

    Andrew Pass

  6. When I happen to come across a former assistant principal who moved from Florida to Colorado two years ago, I know that technology is making this world an increasingly smaller one. Check out the oxymoron in that sentence.

    My perception of what I once called e-Newspeak is changing somewhat, though I think we should still be cautious. I have always believed educators (read: not JUST English teachers like me) should teach students to communicate in a variety of forms and contexts. Visual literacy and “Instant Language” are no different, and I think each can help to promote the all-encompassing umbrella that is “literacy.”

    I haven’t read any literature about the subect, but it seems to me that increases in communication abilities have opened the English language up to more scrutiny. When communication was more localized, dialects flourished and the language changed, gradually, over time. Now, with so many communication outlets and so many people communicating with so many others, language can literally change or be influenced with the click of a button, as in the “@Dave” example Jeff provided.

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