We recently published a blog post entitled “Employee Training in 2016“, where we highlighted some major trends currently taking form in organizational learning. Two of those, international training and language learning, deal directly with the use of language and how it develops. In this entry, we’re exploring some of the current work being done in that field, particularly by Columbia linguistics professor and author John McWhorter.
In the near future, adults of a certain age might line up to learn the hot new foreign language. But it won’t be Spanish or Mandarin Chinese. It will be texting.
That may be overstating the point, but in his TED talk, Professor McWhorter asserts that texting is not destroying the conventions of language; it is establishing its own. People have complained about the decline of academic civilization since there was a civilization. The furor over text speech is just the latest iteration, but it is misplaced. And as text speech evolves and more of the people who are well versed in it enter the workforce, this can have implications in the business world.
Linguistically, what is texting?
In the video, Professor McWhorter clarifies one simple fact: texting is not written language. At least, not the version full of “lol”s and “j/k”s.
He explains that throughout human history, it’s been very difficult for humans to write in the manner in which they speak. Speaking how you write is easy—you just read off of the paper. But spoken language comes at the listener so fast that only people experienced in short hand, or court reporters, can capture it.
Texting is a successful effort in capturing how people speak, rather than a bastardization of the written language. It takes the form of an inline conversation, so the features of spoken language have to be present. It also does away with conventions of written language like punctuation and capital letters, much as spoken language does.
Accepting texting as a facet of spoken language places it in much higher importance to the human experience than writing. Humans were designed to speak; they invented writing much later just out of convenience.
The importance of texting conventions
In the development of texting language, Professor McWhorter mentions that it has grown conventions that are only possible in spoken language. He particularly points to the use of “lol” in ways that are not remotely funny. “Lol” is actually more of a mark of consolation or understanding rather than noting that whatever was said was funny. When engaging in in-person speech, “lol” might take the form of non-linguistic cues such as nodding empathetically or comforting the person physically. Written language simply cannot capture that level of nuance easily.
So, if you accept the professor’s assertion that texting is a burgeoning new dialect in language rather than just an oversimplification of our current one, the logical step is to assume that someone who is “fluent” in both is bilingual.
We write often on the blog about the benefits of bilingualism. Science is starting to prove that having to move between languages has cognitive benefits that include better overall multitasking, critical thinking, and the ability to fight the onset of dementia. The science that is currently studying the effects of traditional bilingualism will have to move toward investigating texting, but it sounds as if Professor McWhorter believes that will happen and that when it does, the same benefits will be found.
But seeking to improve your brain functioning tends not to be reason enough to pursue learning a new language (although it is a valid and noble one). The most popular reason for people to pursue a second language is to improve their social prospects, either privately or in business.
The implications for business writing and speaking
It is well known that there is currently a demographic shift happening in the American workforce. Baby Boomers are rapidly making their way toward retirement, being replaced on the bottom end of the employment ladder by Millennials. Most of this group grew up texting, which will make this new dialect a more popular form of writing in the workplace. That’s not to say that official documents or important emails will suddenly be made up of “lol”s. Rather, that the boss wanting to converse with their younger workers might be well served to adopt their manner of speaking, just as someone would who has just been relocated to a foreign country.
In fact, it could be a logical next step to think about understanding and usage of text speak as an effort towards cultural competency, except this other culture resides right down the street.