A recent study by the Pennsylvania State University's Media Effects Research Laboratory has found that students who had sent or received a text shortly before taking a grammar test performed substantially worse than their peers who did not. The researchers looked at the exam results of 228 kids between the ages of 10 and 14 and concluded that spending a lot of time texting actually degrades the quality of traditional writing.
This is an alarming finding indeed, considering that an average American teen sends more than 3,000 texts a month. S. Shyam Sundar, who is the director of the Penn State laboratory that conducted the study, suspects that the culprit is the shorthand text speak and the inability by children to switch quickly between two or more modes of communication.
Sundar explained that the study's findings, published in the August issue of the journal New Media & Society, show that young adults who consistently use tech speak are less likely to switch back to traditional grammar when appropriate.
"Routine use of textual adaptations by current and future generations of 13- to 17-year-olds may serve to create the impression that this is normal and accepted use of the language and rob this age group of a fundamental understanding of standard English grammar," the study said.
Sundar noted that the degradation of grammar could be reduced if teens used the highly condensed mode of writing less frequently. One suggestion would be for parents to use proper grammar when texting their children and insisting that proper grammar be used in reply.
But Sundar's conclusions haven't convinced everyone. Susana Sotillo, who is a linguistics expert and a professor at Monctclair State University in New Jersey, says that the study's findings haven't been borne out by outside research. She noted that the sample size of 228 is too small when drawing conclusions about the habits of adolescents. To get a clear picture, she said, a more detailed study with thousands of subjects spanning social, ethnic, racial and income groups needs to be done. She noted that students can typically tell very well what type of language is allowed under what set of circumstances; for example, they won't use texting language when communicating in class if they know that the teacher frowns on it.
Sotillo's own research — which is ongoing — has found a correlation between people who switch languages often and rapidly and those whose vocabulary is broader than average.
"I'm very careful about the generalizations one can make," she said. "And no one is destroying the English language; the English language just keeps changing. It's not a good idea to present change as a negative aspect."