Sunday, October 11, 2009

Generational Despair -- commentary

It seems that every generation despairs for the one that will follow. Yet, the one that follows always seems to move the ball forward. Up to now, I have resisted the temptation to despair, but for the generation now growing into young adulthood, I wonder.

I began to have my doubts when going back into the classroom after several years of retirement. I was hit with a barrage of run on sentences and comma splices in student writing. There has always been some of this, but nothing like what I am now seeing. While at a recent workshop, this subject came up and I asked, “Where is this was coming from?” The immediate and emphatic answer was “text messaging.” No surprise here. The increased frequency of text messaging among teen agers is staggering, and it corrupts the language because they use a sort of written pidgin English.

I doubt that a culture can withstand the total denigration of its written and spoken language. Remember Goerge Orwell’s novel “1984?” The corruption of the language was key in subjugating the masses. The fight to maintain an acceptable language standard can become too great for the language arts teacher to win, and we are approaching a tipping point.

A thing that makes teaching our language so difficult is that all students come to school with a language structure already in place. They don’t come to school with a math, social studies, or science structure already in place, just language. The English teacher is in the business of breaking bad habits which are already in place and replacing them with standard language patterns, the patterns used in business and academia.

Over the past half a century or so, the general usage of language in America has been in a decline, and we live in a time when technology is speeding most things up exponentially, including the depreciation of language. I predict the decline will leave us with a generation unable to communicate in any intelligible, accurate way. It will be a post literate society with the return of an elite class of scribes who will provide the written communication for business and government.

By far the majority of kids today text message, using self created forms of shorthand that do not lend themselves to exactness such as ”LOL” which could mean lots of love, lots of luck, or lots of laughs. The quantity of texting is incomprehensible to people of my generation. One father told me that his daughter, sitting in the front passenger’s seat, was busily texting the girl sitting in the back seat. I had a student tell me recently that her phone plan only allowed 400 text messages a month, but she kept going over that. I was substituting in a class a couple of years ago when a girl let out a groan of frustration. She had been checking her text messaging bill and it had exceeded $485, and she knew she was in trouble when she got home. These examples are not extreme, but rather close to the norm. When kids spend this much time with a debased language structure, there is little a language arts teacher can do to keep the ball moving down field.

There are those who argue that technology will solve this problem with such things as spell check and grammar check. The problem with spell check and grammar check is that they only flag what might be a problem. It is still up the writer to make the judgment as to whether a problem really exists. This requires an adequate working knowledge of the language and the desire to write correctly, two things that are missing.

The problem is further exacerbated by the purposeful actions of advertisers and political spin: things like lite for light, kidz for kids, and politicians calling expenditures investments. One of my pet peeves every school year is the red ribbon, drug free campaign. During that week, all the students and faculty who are drug free are suppose to wear a red ribbon which has “I’m Drug Free” emblazoned on it. It seems innocent enough, except the language is inexact. The principal at one such school told me close to 50 per cent of her students were on some type of prescribed drug. Are they drug free? I know the message is suppose to communicate that the student is free of drug abuse or free from the illegitimate use of drugs, but that is not what the ribbon says. If language is important, then school is the one place where it ought to be used correctly.

What is a parent to do if they want their kids to be among the literate elite when they grow up? An obvious response is to quit funding your kid’s phone. It costs money to text message and rarely is anything being communicated that is worth the cost. Maybe by the time the kids can afford the toy on their own, their language structure will be secure. Your kids are lucky to live in a time when it is not hard to be above average, so help them capitalize on this opportunity by saying no to their every wish.

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