On Wednesday 20th January 2010 at 08.43 on BBC Radio Four, this sticky question was debated. In the blue corner was Dr Clare Wood whose research study has shown that children who text and thus use short-cuts such as l8r for later, or u for you are not compromising their ability to read and write, but are instead showing a very sophisticated understanding of sound-text correspondences. They appreciate the range of how sounds can be written down; for example, that ate and eight and 8 are homophones with different meanings and different ways of being written.
In the red corner, the Government Communications Champion, Jean Gross. She does not have a study that contradicts Dr. Wood’s research, but she does not want to accept her findings without a struggle. First, she challenges Dr Wood with the link that has been found between high texting use and low reading scores. This is easy to deal with. Jean Gross has made the elementary error that correlations show a clear cause and effect relationship. They don’t. They suggest there could be one, but equally there could be a third factor that is responsible for the correlation. Dr Wood points this out; children who text a lot might be more likely to come from homes where they have less face-to-face contact with their parents because Mum and Dad both work long hours, or Mum and Dad are neglectful of them and don’t read or speak to them much. So the link between texting and poor reading might be down to socio-economic factors.
Undeterred, the Communications Champion tries another tack. When children are texting, she says, they are not doing something else, such as reading or talking, so their ability to learn complex language and to increase their vocabulary is diminished. This is weird to say the least. Are there children who text all the time, scarcely ever talking, listening, reading or writing with a pen? If there are, we need to see the numbers.
But as the interview runs out of time, Jean Gross tries another shot. She says 80% of communication is not through words, but body language and intonation, which texting cannot convey. Well then, we might say, neither can writing for that matter. But what gets me most agitated by this statement (by someone who is the Government Communications Champion) is that is it so patently daft.
In the first place, you cannot quantify communication, so you cannot use a figure like 80%. You can only use rather subjective measures like ‘ a lot’ or ‘ very little’ or ‘not a lot’. In the second place, how much is communicated by words depends on what the message is and what the circumstances are. Someone who is sobbing uncontrollably is communicating very successfully that he is upset without any words at all. If you want to know what the matter is, you need him to say some words. Intonation and body language will reinforce how upset he is, but not tell you anything about why. If you want to tell someone your date of birth, words alone will do the job perfectly.
Jean Gross’ parting shot is very weak. Children, she says, have to learn the difference between a sentence said with a bright rising intonation (Hello! How are you?!!) and one with a miserable falling intonation (hello, how are you.) She says texting cannot do this. Obviously, she has never seen things like L or J. But this is not important. Babies understand the nuances of intonation long before they can understand words. They don’t need to be five years old and at school to find out what intonation conveys. Ditto for body language. They are instincts, not learned behaviours.
You might still be able to play this debate from the BBC website: