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Language and Technology: An Interview with Dr. Harrison

Marlen was currently interviewed by a UK-based writer for a forthcoming article on language and technology. Here’s what he had to say…

1. In your opinion, how has the maximum number of characters allowed in a Tweet, coupled with people’s preference for short Facebook updates, influenced the way we communicate on social networks?

Hmmm, I don’t really have a strong answer for this as I haven’t yet considered the relationship between Twitter and social media participation. However, I would have to say that we are living in an age of brevity in communication again. I imagine this is the pendulum swinging back to the days of Morse code and the limited-word telegram. How about that? Everything old is new again! Of course the difference now is that…

…we actually have choices in terms of how we wish to communicate. Aside from limited word communication such as Twitter, no one is really forcing us to communicate differently; we do have choices. Additionally, I would point out that the proliferation of synchronous videochat platforms, voice to text recognition, etc may be taking this discussion in yet another interesting direction!

2. Do you feel that other technologies or platforms have also played a role in our use of language (for example, text messaging) and, if so, how?

Funny that, I just assigned some relevant reading to my first year college writing students at University of Tampa. Check this out: http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2012/08/can-texting-develop-other-writing-skills/

Although there are, of course, two sides to the argument, I have long seen the value of incorporating into my classrooms the technologies that students actually use or will foreseeably use. For example, a technological enhancement to the large lecture hall is the ability for students to weigh in on polls/surveys throughout a lecture using digital voting technology. That’s great, but why not take it a step further? My students create blogs that can be shared with peers and the instructor as a way to examine writing for the digital age; differences in formal and informal language use; visual rhetoric; voice and audience; and to assist in the creation of a wirting community. Such technology has prompted the question of commentary – what makes a useful but concise comment on a website or blog? Likewise, this discussion can also be transferred to social media and discussion board settings. As such, the technology is asking us to re-visit discussions of voice, audience and message.

At a language level, and languages are constantly developing, technology is asking us, “In what ways can we communicate quickly and efficiently?” Therefore, necessity is truly the mother of invention as we attempt to communicate our thoughts and feelings without writing instruments, often on tiny screens, and usually with only the use of a few fingers. As the article above (from Mindshift) suggests, any practice of writing and language can have positive benefits for the writer. For example, in class today we Googled “texting language” and reviewed some of the lingo, both letter-based and emoticon, and practiced texting each other as a way to explore some of this new language. Not only were students delighted to undertake this activity, but it raised questions about English idioms and phrases, differences between UK and North American Englishes, and the appropriateness of such language use in other textual environments.

Moreover, while I was living and working in Japan, texting was vital to my development as a user of Japanese. Many cell phones allow a user to spell out a word in Roman letters as the phone changes them into kana and kanji. Having such technology allowed me to make connections between words and characters while simultaneously developing the feeling that I CAN use Japanese and be understood…and of course I also enjoyed incorporating those cute emoji (icon-sized images of not only facial expressions but objects, symbols, etc) into my messages as well!

3. Why might people – either generally or as part of specific groups – be more likely to use what’s been described as ‘secret’ language on the social networks?

I think this article by Vicky Woollaston summarizes this phenomenon nicely: http://www.webuser.co.uk/news/top-stories/452168/teens-create-secret-social-network-language

Again, I think that necessity (for perceived privacy or prevention of censorship) and personal expression are propelling language use forward. But really, this is nothing new. For example, Lisa See wrote about Nüshu, a secret language shared among Chinese women in Hunan province, in her novel Snowflower and the Secret Fan. http://www.lisasee.com/onwriting.htm

4. Please list some of the words, phrases and/or abbreviations that you have seen used mostly within the context social networks.

Well, a review of my Facebook page shows no specific words, phrases or abbreviations of note. However, I do notice the proliferation of emoticons, an attempt at including a hint of non-verbal behavior to otherwise naked language. And by “naked language” I mean that the brevity of communication as we discussed above does discourage carefully nuanced expression, the type which we might be able to perform when communicating face-to-face or in environments where more florid and complex expression is expected or nurtured.

5. How has language use on social networks influenced written and spoken English in more mainstream, traditional situations?

That, my friend, is an excellent question and one which I believe social and applied linguists, along with colleagues in other social sciences, are currently exploring. I know that the sheer number of communications I receive on a daily basis whether by email, voicemail, text message, Skype, Facebook, etc is continually growing and I am definitely experiencing communication fatigue. As such, I try to find a happy medium when communicating; again, emoticon and sometimes forced abbreviations inspired by texting such as “R u free 2day : )?” or “BRB, going to *$ [Starbucks]” are finding their way into my writing. I should note that this last one about *$ is totally new for me as my students and I discovered it today during our lesson.

From the perspective of users of English for whom English is not necessarily their first or mother language, I believe that social networks and texting situations are offering insight, exposure and practice with a variety of Englishes. In some cases, people have told me that they learn a great deal of vocabulary, phrasing and natural expression by participating in such technologies.