Almost a decade ago I provided a short training course for Government officials in Samoa. The subject was plain language writing.
The course was interesting for many reasons. When I looked at some of the letters the officials were writing I found horrendous remnants of ancient Victorian style. I didn’t transcribe any, but there were phrases like “on the 14th inst.”, for example.
I had a deep suspicion that back before the turn of the 20th century British officials had written ‘original’ letters that had simply been copied and customised to particular situations ever since.
Another ‘problem’ was that I was extolling the virtues of quickly making a clear point. My students were concerned that in their Samoan culture such directness was quite inappropriate. They pointed out that to simply suggest a course of action, for example, was rude and out of place. A certain amount of circumlocution was required.
My students and I both had much to learn.
The right language for the occasion
These days many people fear how ‘txt speak’ may be affecting general literacy skills. There are notions of kids turning in school assignments written almost in hieroglyphics.
As usual, it’s more a question of register: using appropriate language for the situation and audience. The truly literate are those who can choose the correct language and language forms for the situation.
When tweeting be brief. When blogging be engaging. When informing an elected member of the Government use bullet points.
We need to have more faith in the kids, and give them broader assignments so they can exercise their literacy skills:
Nicole Pugh, a student researcher and one of the study’s co-authors, was amazed at the complexity and volume of chatspeak that the students were using.
“Going through the participant conversations, it was interesting to note how many new words that children are using online,” said Pugh. “We would have to decipher the meaning of the language with online dictionaries or by asking younger siblings.” …
“If you want students to think very precisely and concisely and be able to express themselves, it might be interesting to have them create instant messages with ideas, maybe allow them opportunities to use more of this new dialect in brief reports or fun activities,” said Varnhagen. “Using a new type of language does require concentration and translating it to standard English does require concentration and attention. It’s a little brain workout.”
Isn’t language just the most glorious thing! It has so many forms and shapes and subtleties. We can bend it and adapt it to all our needs. Short, long, simple, complex, formal and casual.
I do training as well as writing
By the way: I offer help and training on choosing the best ways to say things online. Next workshop: Blog, Tweet, KaPow, Wellington, Friday 13 November 2009.
Even Shakespeare has been tweeted. The screenshot on this post comes from Shrew Kate‘s tweets, part of Amway Shakespeare Opportunity: Taking Shakespeare to the next level. Inaugural Show: Twitter of the Shrew (#tots): 2/14-?. Artistic Director: @BrianFeldman.