WhatsApp doesn't lead to language deterioration

January 10, 2019, Radboud University
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Active users of social media like WhatsApp don't write more poorly at school, although there's a small relation between passively using WhatsApp and poorer writing. This was shown in a study done among young people by linguist Lieke Verheijen, who will receive her Ph.D. on this subject from Radboud University on 25 January.

'Heeey J sup!?! RU OK? ily 4ever xo <3'. Many people are worried that such strange ways of writing on social medial will lead to language deterioration. Verheijen: "What they mean by language deterioration is that will be less inclined to follow the rules for Dutch spelling and grammar and that the influence of English will continue to grow." Verheijen studied how young Dutch people used language in chats, text messages, tweets and WhatsApp messages and how this influences the way they write at .

Digi-language

Verheijen's study confirmed that, when communicating online, today's youth uses language that is more informal, more expressive, more concise and more playful. But does this cause young people to actually write more poorly?

Verheijen found that an active use of WhatsApp had a direct, positive influence on spelling in written school work: teenagers in particular made fewer spelling mistakes. In fact, young people who use social media in an active and linguistically creative way actually write higher quality school texts.

Passive reading

However, passively receiving messages from others is related to poorer written work at school, particularly among young people with a lower level of education. In addition, young people on social media who rely on word predictors and auto-correction make more spelling mistakes at school. So the way in which young people use social media determines whether or not WhatsApp language can damage or stimulate their written school work.

Another conclusion is that teenagers deviate more frequently from Standard Dutch than do young adults. Verheijen: "And the number of deviations differs with the medium. The chats contain more deviations than do text messages and tweets. This is probably the case because tweets are more public and we thus tend to us Standard Dutch.

Texts, tweets, WhatsApp messages and MSN chats

Verheijen studied a large corpus of texts from diverse social media: texts, tweets, WhatsApp messages and MSN chats written by young people. She also asked hundreds of young people to complete a questionnaire about their use of social media and she tested their writing skills. She found more positive than negative connections between the use of social media and how well someone wrote at school. There were even more of these connections among people with a lower level of education than among those with a higher level of education.

In conclusion, Verheijen did a large-scale experiment in which she compared two groups of young people: a group that had to send WhatsApp messages for fifteen minutes and a group that had to colour so-called mandalas as a diversion. The result? Simply that fifteen minutes of typing messages led to the WhatsApp group making fewer spelling mistakes in the subsequent written work for school. That effect was even stronger among secondary school students than among university students. Verheijen: "In my study, I was able to point out that the active use of language on WhatsApp can benefit language development."

Linguistic changes

Verheijen: "You could also consider digi-language as a form of linguistic change; we certainly don't talk and write the same now as we did centuries ago. It's just more visible now because we are sending a lot more informally typed texts. So new media themselves aren't the cause, but rather they make linguistic change more visible."

Verheijen thinks that, if used well, social media stimulate rather than damage young people's . Verheijen: "Make sure that you type a lot yourself and be creative with language. And don't forget to turn off the auto-correction and word predictor functions on your telephone!"

Explore further: WhatsApp out to make money from business messages

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