Interview: “Abbreviated speech is a plus”

It’s the young users who turn to abbreviations and visualizations on social networks. Instead of completely formed sentences, emoticons, LOLs and hashtags populate posts and messages. But what is the effect of all this on language development among children and adolescents?
Teachtoday spoke to linguist Prof. Dr. Gerd Mannhaupt about the role of language in social networks. He explains why the right dose of social media speak can be beneficial.
Prof. Dr. Gerd Mannhaupt speaking to Teachtoday
Is the grown-up Internet actually even interesting for children who cannot yet read or write?
I think, actually, that it really doesn’t play much of a role for a while long. Between the ages of five an ten, new media is above all an interesting plaything. Only at the end of childhood, so the beginning of adolescence, does the Internet become more used linguistically.
Nonetheless fourth graders use messages like WhatsApp. As a parent, one might see a kind of language, often just scraps of language, that one sometimes can’t even understand. Why is that?
There is a lack of competent use of the tools at hand among small children. WhatsApp doesn’t just use writen language, but language in general. This includes emoticons and voice messages as well. When one looks at the range of communication beyond written language, it’s a new tool for children. First of all the children have to get used to it. The smileys that they use are also much more connected to their world of play. They offer a symbolism that children are much closer to. That’s also why they are getting used more often.
Many parents are afraid that media use could negatively affect linguistic development, especially for young children. Does WhatsApp perhaps have a direct effect?
It depends on the dosage and who uses the media how. A sign of healthy language development is that the speaker can employ differing registers. Register means that I adapt my language to the person I’m talking to according to the situation. A simple example is at school. A student learns to answer in full sentences in class. He also learns that abbreviation isn’t appropriate for the context. While using WhatsApp, however, he learns the minimum effort needed to make himself understood. Children and adolescents thus try to pack as much meaning into one format as possible. From the linguist’s perspective, this means they acquire a new register this way. If it’s balanced, so that the abbreviated language is not the only register that children grow into, this form of expression is rather a language enrichment than an impoverishment.
So children are discovering something new and thus developing language further?
Indeed. This abbreviated speech, which pretty much everybody – adults included – uses with WhatsApp, really is something new to societal development. So it’s a plus!
Language development and media socialization thus go hand in hand. Now Teachtoday also publishes its children’s magazine Scroller. It’s a classical paper product that aims building a bridge to the digital world. Do you think it’s a good way to do things? Or should everything be digital today?
No. I think it’s a smart way. It mirrors the world and the traditions that most children are familiar with. Many children already know about writing through books, like in picture and reading books and magazines. Especially in the primary school age, dealing with textual information forms is not something that is already established in the digital realm. Thus it makes sense for both children and parents to engage in the “old” forms of the paper world and then to shift over to the new world.
Dr. Gerd Mannhaupt is professor for Foundational German at the Faculty of Educational Sciences at the University of Erfurt. His areas of research include writen language acquisition, learning status monitoring as well as analysis and teaching of early reading and writing.

The interview was conducted by Thomas Schmidt on Safer Internet Day, 2016.