Coming 2 terms wth txting R U up 4 it 2?

18th March 2005 at 00:00
was driving into Glasgow from the north when I noticed a message on the overhead gantry. It read "R U 2 FAST?" It was the first time I had seen the language of texting used in this context. I was struck by the economy of the question - easily read at speed - but also wondered whether all drivers would immediately get the message.

Young people are much more adept at writing and decoding text messages than their elders. This can create problems for some adults. They may resent the fact that, in this area of activity at least, youngsters are better and faster learners than they are.

There is also the fact that the codes of texting serve to exclude the uninitiated, which means that the capacity of adults to control what is going on is reduced. This, of course, makes the practice especially attractive to the young.

Then there is the educational argument to the effect that the forms of language used in texting may serve to undermine the requirements of the kind of formal language required in schools. As a former teacher of English, I might be expected to have some sympathy with this view. However, while I can certainly see that there may be confusion in the minds of some pupils about the appropriateness of texting language in other contexts, I think we have to come to terms with the reality of its existence.

Language is always evolving and developing new forms, which open up possibilities for different ways of communicating information and expressing thoughts and feelings. In the case of texting, modern technology, allied to verbal inventiveness, has encouraged the emergence of abbreviated forms of language which can be fast, fascinating and often funny. Teachers and parents who see texting as evidence of the decline of western civilisation would do well to think of past examples of educational concern. Remember when ballpoint pens first appeared?

These were seen by some as instruments of slackness, destroying the moral fibre of the young. The traditional discipline of the ink exercise, to be completed in best handwriting using a fountain pen, was threatened. In fact, for some children the ink exercise was a sophisticated form of torture and its eventual demise was a welcome release. There is always a tendency in education to hold on too long to practices that quickly become outmoded in other areas of life.

Let me make a prediction that may cause a frisson of alarm in certain worthy quarters. Given the rapid advances in technology, I think the need to teach manual handwriting may become a thing of the past in the not too distant future.

Do not misunderstand me. Handwriting has been extremely important in human development and it has served both individuals and society very well. But there will come a point when the need for everyone - as distinct from people in specialist fields - to possess the skill will diminish. This will pose challenging operational problems for schools, and resource issues for Government and local authorities, as old equipment and methods are replaced by new. But the efficiency case will prove overwhelming. Why spend time teaching a skill that has been superseded by technology?

My own competence in texting is, I should admit, extremely modest and I feel a distinct need to go on a crash course. I am speaking nicely to the children of my nephews and nieces to see if they will provide a foundation programme. I suspect, however, that they will be reluctant to introduce me to the more arcane and racy aspects of the technique.

That is as it should be.

Walter Humes is professor of education at Aberdeen University.

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