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Language "Decline"

posted: 7.15.14 by Steve Bernhardt

After teaching English for 40 years, I’ve grown accustomed to the predictable responses I get when I meet someone and reveal my occupation. Many say “Oh, I better watch my grammar,” while others say “That was never my best subject.” Increasingly, the response I am getting goes something like this: “Isn’t it something the way students have lost the ability to write a decent sentence? They do so much texting and tweeting that all they know how to do is write shorthand messages, full of internet slang and acronyms.” I get this response from people outside the academy, but also from instructors in other disciplines.

The temptation is to agree, since the person who says that to me is empathizing with me over the challenge of my work. But I can’t resist being honest, perhaps even disagreeable. So my quick response is always something along these lines: “Well, to be honest, I don’t see that as a problem in student writing. I rarely encounter students who use inappropriate net language in their writing for my classes.” I respond this way for at least two reasons. First, it’s true–at least in my experience. I teach a lot of writing classes, but I can’t think of a single time a student inserted an internet slang acronym in a class paper, unless it was for ironic effect. Second, I’ve always felt the impulse to defend my students. I think they are bright, well intentioned people. I think they are clever enough to adapt their language in ways appropriate to the situation. They know when they write a report or a memo for me that they need to call upon a school register. So I don’t take much pleasure in bashing students.

What I think is much more interesting about our students are the many ways that writing has assumed primacy as a communication medium. I recall John Slatin at the University of Texas arguing years ago, when we were first integrating computers into writing instruction, that for written literacies to improve, it would be necessary to return to an epistolary culture.  At the time, it was conventional to talk about secondary orality (a term from Walter Ong), based on the notion that our culture had been reliant on writing and print (books, letters, newspapers, formal speeches and sermons), but that with the advent of radio, telephone, and TV, the culture had returned to an earlier reliance on the spoken word. I think Slatin would be surprised at the extent to which we have become an epistolary culture. Texting takes over from voice calls, news readers write comments and engage in written dialogues, people tweet and retweet, keeping written texts in circulation, accompanied by an accretion of commentary.  We email instead of calling, and we browse the net instead of watching the nightly news.

So, no, I don’t really think we have declining skills, and I don’t think students, or other people, are apt to use inappropriate language in some unthinking way. That said, we ought to help students think explicitly and reflectively about how they can adapt language to situation. We can do so by creating assignments that ask students to repurpose writing for different situations or different media. When students work to transform an existing text for a new purpose or audience, they must think about register—about how stylistic choices are influenced by medium, audience, and situation. In such assignments, students can use what they know intuitively about how writers choose an appropriate register, given what they are trying to achieve with language. With such assignments, students can focus on reworking existing content, instead of having to invent new content. Transforming existing content is good preparation for the kinds of writing demanded in various workplaces. It’s frequently the case that a writer reworks an existing text to make it suitable for changing circumstances—updating an older report, reaching a new audience, or moving a text from print to online. Revising an existing text can be as valuable as creating a new one. Working with students in such ways will give them a real advantage as writers.

I don’t know what my readers think about this issue of perceived language decline, but I would welcome a written exchange of views. (But don’t call me because I never answer my phone.)

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