New forms of language actually make us more liter8
The computer has cleaned up poor handwriting by eliminating it. Everyone can now write in a legible font and everyone, now, can spell. If they can’t, they’ve been ignoring the wavy red underscore on any questionable word.
The handwritten letter and the polite thank-you card have fled to the outskirts. For some, this is a cause for lament. A letter in ink meant someone had gone to a deal of trouble, for you.
They have been replaced with the email or the SMS, but the news is that people are writing more. We are also reading more. We may be reading junk, but we are more literate than ever.
The electronic guitar tuner is a cheat used by shabby garage bands to synchronise their instruments. It also helps turn them into listenable musicians.
The tuner teaches the ear to become attuned. Eventually, you no longer need the tuner. The same applies to words.
The ubiquitous SpellCheck and auto-correct in Word documents and emails have arguably increased literacy standards over the last decade.
They may also have brought people out from the shadows who were previously embarrassed about their poor spelling and given them the confidence to write.
Leah Price, Professor of English at Harvard University, believes this is so.
“Absolutely, because it has increased the volume of reading and writing that ordinary people do every day,” she says.
“As far back as 2006, a Stanford University study found that 38 per cent of the writing done by Stanford undergraduates was non-academic. A generation ago, the figure would’ve been a fraction of that: more interactions took place in person or on the phone.
“Today, that figure has risen dramatically again: messages once left by voice are now texted, and thoughts that would once have remained locked in the thinker’s brain are now tweeted.
“Of course most of these thoughts are rubbish, but the question here isn’t how interesting the content is; it’s how well people write.
“And every study of literacy, going much further back than the first word processor, shows the correlation between skill and habit is strong: the more you write, the better you write.”
Good spelling is not the sole basis for literacy. It’s one part of the equation; construction, forethought and making clear sense are also part of it.
But, once a child has learned to listen, spelling is the first step towards writing.
Some would say the bad-mannered younger siblings of the email, being the text and the tweet, are evidence of the destruction of literacy: “c u @ 8 m8.” This shorthand upsets purists but it ought not: it does not kill an existing language; it’s just a new dialect.
Meghan Dougherty, Assistant Professor of Digital Communication at Chicago’s Loyola University, does not go for my thesis.
“There are many kinds of literacies—including digital literacies,” she says. “I’m not sure we become ‘more’ or ‘less’ literate, rather we adapt to the changing media ecology as we adapt to and with new communication technologies.
“To say that we are more or less literate as a result of email or SpellCheck misses the complexity of communication - whether computer-mediated or not.”
My sister-in-law, who’s always got her head in doorstopper political biographies, and reads every Australian newspaper online, every day, reckons she can’t spell.
She claims (and perhaps this is what Professor Dougherty is saying) that auto-correct and SpellCheck have not improved her spelling, because she’d still write a horrible hand-written note. But they have improved her documents.
This does not particularly suit my argument. So bring in Clay Shirky, a new media specialist from New York University.
Shirky, who focuses on peer-to-peer technologies, wrote in a 2010 piece for The Wall Street Journal that whenever a new form of communication has arisen in history, it has been rapidly adopted by the masses.
It can be expected that there will be a settling period where published material (which includes emails, texts and tweets) will be of a low standard before a quality correction sets in.
Shirky argues that with the emergence of the printing press “we got erotic novels 100 years before we got scientific journals”.
Before that, the Church feared the spread of writing because with it came freedom of expression. Ultimately, says Shirky, the rise of writing and reading had “the effect of increasing, rather than decreasing, the intellectual range and output of society”.
The same applies to our new communication devices.
The article gives comfort to internet users and overusers; and for those who have difficulty with language. He points out that there’s no compelling evidence that being literate was ever part of the human evolutionary plan.
But it is part of the current evolutionary curve.
“Despite frequent genuflection to European novels,” writes Shaky, “we actually spent a lot more time watching ‘Diff’rent Strokes’ than reading Proust, prior to the Internet’s spread.
“The Net, in fact, restores reading and writing as central activities in our culture.”
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