In WhatsApp, it does not matter that it is written like this. It is a universe without accents, commas, or full stops, where vowels are removed to make abbreviations and words and phrases are replaced by emojis, stickers, and gifs. The important thing is not to be seen. It may seem like an affront to Spanish, but Alberto Miralles Marín, 17, finds it strange who writes too correctly on social networks. And with him is 90% of young people, who admit to intentionally changing their writing on the internet.
The influence of mobile messaging on the language has been in the sights of experts since the birth of SMS. Different studies suggest that the language of WhatsApp and other social networks does not worsen the ability to write in offline life, quite the opposite, but in the classroom it is noticeable that something has changed. And not for the better.
Elisa Fornés García, who was a secondary, high school and professional training language and literature teacher for 34 years, has noticed a “degradation” in the way students express themselves in the last decade. Retired in 2021, the teacher was left with the feeling that they wrote “texts like telegrams”, in which the ability to link ideas and build arguments with a common thread was lacking: “They try to save on structures and write unconnected sentences, with a lack of of connectors”. Although a part of the students knows how to differentiate what is the language of the internet from the language of the exams, the average usually doubts the orthographic, lexical and grammatical rules when they have the pen in their hand. They make even more mistakes when they have to write a long text, as has been noted in the selectivity exams.
A part of the students knows how to differentiate what is the “language of the internet” from the “language of the exams”
Also a Language and Literature teacher, Marta Gutiérrez agrees that her high school students express themselves with less vocabulary and have difficulties translating ideas into words, in addition to spelling stumbles. A teacher since 2007, Gutiérrez has noticed a more pronounced change in the last two or three years, indicating that the pandemic may be another factor. “The fact that they have been confined and without face-to-face class for a few months has affected them a lot. It’s like they missed years of schooling,” she opines. And the use of the computer and the mobile to study in times of confinement has moved them away from pencil and paper. The teacher has noticed that, since then, many have difficulties in calligraphy and even in the way of holding the pen: “Their heads go faster than their hands.”
The decrease in language skills due to the massive use of social networks was confirmed in some studies. In 2018, the Professor of Didactics of Language and Literature at the University of Malaga, Raúl Cremades, conducted a survey with 652 teachers from public schools and future teachers on how they perceived the influence of instant messaging on their students’ writing. The results showed a negative effect on the development of communicative competence, at least in the opinion of the teachers.
Four years later, Cremades is categorical in stating that social networks are giving rise to an impoverishment of linguistic performance. “It is written more than ever, it is read more than ever, but the type of writing and reading on the Internet does not contribute to forming them,” says the professor. The cause is in a so-called “contagion effect”: when the use of colloquial language is so frequent that it is confused with formal language. And social networks have triggered the fact that everyone uses rapid and fragmented communication in a context in which it is more common to see altered norms.
Beyond spelling errors, the fast pace of the digital world means that people are increasingly in a hurry when it comes to reading and writing. Ana Pano Alamán, professor of Spanish at the University of Bologna (Italy), maintains that spelling confusion is not a particular problem for adolescents, nor is it the most serious: “We can all confuse the b, vo la hache”. What is worrying about the use of digital writing, according to the specialist in social networks and language education, is that it leads to very short, immediate and dialogued texts, and few words are used to say a lot. “There is a difficulty in writing long essays using markers like but, however, also, on the other hand. These elements are disappearing”, underlines Alamán.
“There is a difficulty in writing long essays, but there are 13-year-olds who are capable of creating a very creative meme in five seconds. That enriches communication”
Ana Pano Alamán, professor of Spanish at the Italian University of Bologna
The mistakes and inconsistencies mainly affect the adolescents of generation Z and the future of the Alpha, because they are the ones who spend the most time with the mobile and the ones who have had the least experience with formal genres of writing. On the other hand, Alamán maintains that these generations have developed communication skills through social networks that older people do not usually have. “There are 13-year-olds who are capable of making a very creative meme in five seconds. They manipulate the image and a text to formulate a new message. A meme is already a genre”, says the expert. “That enriches communication.”
With regard to misspellings, the lack of connectors and the difficulty in creating texts with a beginning, a middle and an end, both experts consider that this evil would be solved with reading habits of formal texts and with training that contemplates the Different genres. “The recipe is to train students in the classroom in formal and informal registration,” says the professor at the University of Bologna. According to Cremades, another key is that the teaching staff is prepared to adapt their methods and not give up in the face of the new demands and difficulties of the students. “When a person is very well formed, he can always return to the normative roots because he knows them”, concludes Alamán.
Diego Sanz, 18, admits that the “automatic mode” leads him to commit fouls. “On paper not so much, but if you are on the computer you put a q instead of that. In the end, if you want to write something fast, you shorten it and that’s it”. To improve his skills, this audiovisual student believes that he should “take a piece of paper and a pen” and “write seriously, without abbreviations” at least some days of the week. Until he does, on social networks he continues to use a language closer to his friends, where “the important thing is that it is understood.”