The ubiquity of technology use and the constant production of new devices and applications have brought a shift in how we communicate, and personalized technology with its seemingly unlimited use has brought about different ways some view language use. Often these views can deviate from many of the standard conventions, and using technology and its mediums (text, social media, email) seem to be contrasting with the way some define how we should be communicating. Marshall McLuhan famously posits in Understanding Media (1964) that each new technological medium replaces and makes obsolete its antecedent. Language change also reflects the McLuhan maxim, “The medium is the message” (McLuhan, 1964). These “new norms” can cause many to wonder if communicating through technology rather than face-to-face is fostering strong, effective language skills. I often hear people stating, “Technology is ruining language,” and it is often in reference to Millennial and Gen Z’s skills. But is it really?
In John McWhorter’s 2013 TED talk, “McWhorter: Txtng is killing language. JK!!!,” he argues that texting is not causing a decrease in language skills. Instead he argues that texting is developing new skills to augment more traditional forms of writing, helping the younger generations become “bidialectal.” He also argues that technology is not ruining language, but we are watching new norms of language being created over a period of time as languages have always done. As these new forms, which may not align with Standard English conventions, emerge in McLuhanesque fashion, initial reactions are to “think that something has gone wrong” (McWhorter, 2013) when, in fact, new structures and rule sets are being created. In looking at language use and literature, we can see that the words and phrases people used 50, 100, or 150+ years ago are not the same as those we use today. In the 1920s, zozzled (Doll, 2012) was fashionable; today, we use the more contemporary counterpart, wasted (although, I’m championing zozzle’s comeback in 2020). People must remember that language is a living, growing entity that is ever changing, and as with most change, people can be skeptical and shoot the messenger -- in this case, technology. With technology having such a powerful influence on communication, it is crucial to address how we are using it for different language acts; it is also necessary to analyze how we are teaching students to communicate through technology, who is teaching students, and what the expectations/priorities for users and receivers are. It is altogether possible that “tried and true” methods and techniques are no longer the most appropriate fit or that scholarship and academics are not advancing as quickly as the technology and needs of practitioners. After all, if students find newer writing conventions appropriate and are using them effectively in the classroom, the workplace, and life, educators should be teaching toward those ends and rethinking their own skill set and andragogy.
In addition to having heightened awareness of communication priorities, practitioners need to know how to navigate different mediums. Negotiating when to use a certain medium, what language to use, and with which audience can be a daunting task and could mean a paradigm shift for educators and curricula in the face of technology. If that does not happen, how we teach students to communicate effectively in various situations or how receivers need to listen and read effectively could be lost and could be a cause for the perceived skills gap and a reason why some are forming ideas that technology is ruining language. Does the question stop being “Is technology ruining language?” and then become “Is a new variation of language being formed for and through technology?” If so, how do practitioners and educators work through the shift to best educate and communicate? Bucholtz and Hall’s positionality principle of identity lends itself to the idea of a new type of language or language use. In the positionality principle, users switch their identities to fit the “moment-to-moment interactions” (2005). In switching among different mediums (text to email to social media to essay) when writing to different audiences, a user can change the conventions and standards he or she employs to fit the situation.
This principle outlines a clear and important distinction between what a person understands as a priority (knowledge) versus what a person makes a priority (competence). Perhaps this juxtaposition becomes “the rub” as to why some feel uncertainty when comparing face-to-face communication with online communication. As technology becomes more sophisticated and varied, standard and non-standard conventions become a choice of language use instead of a necessity of language use or an indication of a person’s skill set, which points to identity and framing. Practitioners could better understand these differences and work within them instead of working against them; otherwise, communication could break down and progress toward meaningful language change is impeded.
In a world where we communicate so quickly and so frequently and with so many people, the abbreviated, emoji-filled writing of digital communication and non-standard conventions found in texting and on social media and blogs isn’t hindering communication but enhancing it and, indeed, offering a new medium of communication. When one smiley-face can succinctly, accurately, and clearly sum up an idea we want to communicate, why would we not choose that?How does that not make us better communicators in any language and open doors of communication?
Suzanne M. Gut is an Associate Professor of English, Communications, and ESOL at Davenport
University in Grand Rapids, MI.
Bucholtz, M., & Hall, K. (2005). Identity and interaction: A sociocultural linguistic approach. Discourse Studies, 7(4-5), 585-614. doi:10.1177/1461445605054407
Doll, J. (2012). How to sound like the bee's knees: A dictionary of 1920s slang. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/10/how-sound-bees...
McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. Cambridge, MA:
Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
McWhorter, J. (2013, February). John McWhorter: Txtng is killing language. JK!!! [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/john_mcwhorter_txtng_is_killing_language_jk