If text messaging is your primary means of communication, watch out: you might be damaging your long-term communications ability by short-circuiting your brain’s ability to learn and use new vocabulary words.
That’s the conclusion reached by Joan Lee, a graduate student at the University of Calgary, who studied the reading habits of her fellow students and then correlated their habits with their willingness to learn new words.
The university newspaper reports:
“The study, conducted by Joan Lee for her master’s thesis in linguistics, revealed that those who texted more were less accepting of new words. On the other hand, those who read more traditional print media such as books, magazines, and newspapers were more accepting of the same words.”
(The article did not mention how pieces like this Daily Dot article would be qualified: it’s certainly not “traditional print media,” yet it’s written in traditional full-length prose.)
Lee gave her students lists of words with which they were unlikely to be familiar. Some were genuine (but obscure), others made-up nonsense terms. The volunteers were asked to guess which unfamiliar words might be real. Lee said:
“Our assumption about text messaging is that it encourages unconstrained language. But the study found this to be a myth. The people who accepted more words did so because they were better able to interpret the meaning of the word, or tolerate the word, even if they didn’t recognize the word. Students who reported texting more rejected more words instead of acknowledging them as possible words.”
Granted, history is filled with examples of people worrying that new technologies for storing or sharing information might damage people’s ability to store or share info on their own. For example: since the rise of the Internet, a few critics have speculated that search engines and the easy availability of online information might weaken people’s minds: if people can just look up facts anytime they want (say the worrywarts), they won’t bother learning facts for themselves. (More knowledgeable critics have dubbed these fears groundless.)
Similar worries existed as far back as ancient Greece. Plato claimed that Socrates expressed qualms about the invention of writing itself, and one of Plato’s Dialogues has Socrates saying that written language “will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”
So maybe Lee’s concerns about texting will prove as unfounded as earlier fears that we’ll all turn stupid unless we ignore writing, embrace illiteracy and restrict our access to new information. Or maybe not. The historical fears we mentioned earlier – fears of search engines, or of writing itself – mainly dealt with “people’s ability or willingness to recall information they’ve already learned.” By contrast, Lee’s study deals with “people’s ability or willingness to learn new information in the first place.” And she backs her claims, presumably, with actual data rather than armchair speculation.
Though even armchair speculation supports her claim. It certainly passes the common-sense test, to think those who read or write messages like
“Excessive texting could have negative long-term consequences for those who engage in it” will develop stronger vocabularies than those who settle for “Sux 2BU, txtrs.”