Thursday, 5 September 2013

Lembit, txt spk, computer programming

I wrote this post and then didn't post it on the day GCSE results came out, a couple of weeks ago. Here, have it now.

Lembit Opik was on the Wright Stuff talking about GCSEs being dumbed down (always a nice thing to talk about on the day kiddies are finding out if their hard work has resulted in a bright future). The conversation inevitably became about what's wrong with education today, and he said that kids use text speak and 'there is no doubt that this causes problems'.

No doubt? In his mind, maybe. But if you asked, you know, an actual expert on language, you'd find that the exact opposite is true.

For instance, this article describes a study looking at literacy levels of users of text speak and non-users, and says that there was no difference in their literacy (although interestingly, the study participants themselves believed that text speak did have an effect on their literacy!).

This article discusses how the ability to speak in more than one register is no bad thing. It's called code-switching (the term also applies when you switch between languages).

If you don't have access to academic articles, here is Language Log discussing another study about this. You could also do worse than read David Crystal's various books and news items on this topic.

And one point to bear in mind is that kids don't use text speak any more.

All this raises a perennial complaint among linguists: why are random commentators' views more valid than actual experts'? If something about almost any other subject is in the news, they bring in an expert on that topic (or at least something close to it - Dan Snow, for instance, does have a history degree and therefore has some level of history knowledge). If there's an item about language, they'll either trot out some insufferable know-it-all who's totally unqualified, or the presenters will simply discuss amongst themselves. This isn't really acceptable. For one thing, it's not at all useful, whereas an expert might actually provide some new information or a perspective not known to the general public. I may have said this before and I'm just ranting. And linguists' weariness with this situation perpetuates it, because it makes them less likely to want to try to correct misconceptions on breakfast television.

Of course, linguistics is not special in this respect. We all think we know something about a topic if we have even the slightest experience of it. At another point in this programme, someone (I think it might have been Saira Khan) said computer programming was important but not covered in GCSEs. Lembit, in his wisdom, said kids don't need to learn that because they know how to use computers. Saira pointed out that this is true, but they don't know how to programme them. You know what he said? They don't need to know that because they can already use them better than he can. The mind boggles.

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