Demise of the Lexicon

My discursive essay from my Higher English course. Bibliography in Author Guidance.

I recently discovered a newspaper article which reported the plans of a particular private school to drop pen and paper in favour of the newest technological fad: the iPad.  The Head teacher of Cedars School of Excellence has dismissed handwriting as “a dead art.” As innovative and novel as this controversial scheme may appear, I was forced to question its viability when I considered the eventual outcome: technologically privileged young citizens who are entirely disadvantaged in one of the first skills a child learns at school. I’m all for computer literacy- we live in an age of swiftly snowballing technological progress- but to entirely lose handwriting, not only as a skill and convenience, but as an art form, is a dangerous move. Given technology’s effect on this aspect of our language, we must also begin to question the impact it has on other areas of literacy. Society seems ever keener to abandon cultural aspects of life for shinier, more interesting and altogether far more modern prospects. I am increasingly wary of the ongoing effects which this technological reliance appears to have on our language.

I find it impossible not to notice the deterioration in language skills exhibited at my most frequented social meeting place. Of course, I mean the internet. Social networking websites are a veritable aggregate of catastrophes besetting the English language, and I have to admit, are most likely a significant part of the problem. Social networking websites encourage us to condense our thoughts –however insignificant- into a specific number of characters for the purpose of distributing these thoughts to the many friends so devoted to us that they hang upon our every word. This character limit is rather restricting when used in conjunction with Standard English and so “netspeak” is born- a near-illegible mess of letters, numbers and symbols which forms writing which is surely as difficult to master as proper English. It is not uncommon to see it creep into handwritten and even spoken English. The instantly gratifying nature of the internet causes its own problems. In chat rooms, we type our message and hit the “enter” key without checking for errors. “They’ll understand it anyway,” we think, “Why bother checking it?” Instant messaging makes us lazier, messier. It encourages us to pay less attention to what we write.

Even when aiming for Standard English, we are supported by integrated programmes which check our spelling and grammar usage. This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing as we are given the option of correcting our errors by selecting from a small list the changes we wish to make. It doesn’t solve all mistakes, but overall it could be seen as a benefit. However, now these almost-dictionaries come equipped with a delightful feature known as “Auto-Correct.” Perfect! This will fix errors without any effort on the user’s part. Therein lies the rub. No effort on the user’s part means no knowledge of their mistake, and so nothing is learned.

            It would be almost impossible to discuss technological issues without mentioning one of society’s greatest electronic bugbears, the mobile telephone, and more specifically, texting. Admittedly it costs to type out fully-punctuated, correctly spelled and inevitably longer messages, but the English language is nowhere butchered more than in texts. In a text, it becomes common practice to eliminate almost every vowel from the message and replace correct spellings with phonetic interpretations- all for the purpose of saving a letter here and there. Some argue that this in fact benefits language skills as the user must have a grasp of the language to manipulate it and understand it after it has been manipulated. Whether this is true or not, the fact remains that it encourages bad habits. When we repeat an action so many times, it is very likely that it will become a part of us and these texting habits will begin to slip into the other things we write. The effect could be compared to muscle memory.

Another feature common to both texting and the “online community” is the emoticon. These little creatures are made out of different characters to represent various emotions. However, there remain some of us who yearn for a time when it was possible to write about emotion without visual aids, who long for the intriguing vocabularies of the past and who reminisce about the deeply evocative language which moved us in years gone by. The emoticon essentially takes the feeling out of “feelings”, as anyone who has ever been stuck for words to describe them will know. Or indeed, anyone who has found their face sorely lacking in the appropriate symbol to convey an expression.

            The saddest part of the technological boom for me has to be the effect on the younger generations. Children are now growing up in a world of video games and computers rather than of books. Flashy graphics, catchy soundtracks and interactivity are proving difficult to best, and the instant gratification of the electronic “hobbies” which children have been brought up with mean that, in short, kids just can’t focus long enough to read a book. In fact, a study by the National Literacy Trust has shown that children as young as seven are more likely to own a mobile phone than a book. At first glance, I thought, well, maybe children can spend more time with gadgets than books, that isn’t so bad. Then I read again- perhaps electronic devices have caused me to be unable to focus- the children surveyed were not merely more likely to use a mobile phone than read. They were more likely to own a mobile phone than a book. One book. One single, solitary book. I find this shocking. I cannot imagine growing up in a world without books. When I consider the effect this must have on children’s general language skills, their vocabularies and worse still, their imaginations, I feel a small pang of sadness. So much will they miss. Yes, they will be taught English in school, but they will not have the same advantage; they will pick up an average vocabulary as they progress through life, but the fascinating and beautiful words will always escape them; they will watch television and play games, but they can never truly enjoy them because they will never have learned the ability to further their understanding and interpretation of them.

            As a society we need to protect our language and the culture which results from it. We have to make a collective effort to encourage and produce language of a good quality. We also must try to keep the fire of literature alive in our country’s children, to nurture in them a flare for language and the desire to see it used well. I cannot entirely condemn the technologies I have discussed- it would be naïve at best, hypocritical at worst- but I implore that they are used with caution. We must be aware of their more negative effects, and try to counter them. Firstly for the preservation of our language as a skill and technique, but also as, perhaps even more importantly, an art, a culture and a wonder. I feel that the greatest onus must be on the promotion of language and literature to the children. For as worn and tattered with use the phrase may be, they are indeed, the future. It is imperative to ensure that no-one will ever again need to ask the question so notoriously formed by George W. Bush: “Is our children learning?”

The End

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