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Symbolic Illiteracy?

After having a debate with a friend about the sad state of literacy in many of the kids (and adults) that we know, we found ourselves using a new term: Symbolic Illiteracy. This refers to the fact that in much of our day to day life, the written word has been replaced with symbols. Take a look at whatever electronic device you have nearby. Look at all the buttons, dials, widgets and doo-dads. How many of them actually have a word telling you what that particular control does? I bet almost all (if not all) of them have little symbols or pictures.

The gist of our debate was trying to decide if this was a good thing or not. The advantages of this type of communication is that a lot of information can be passed in a very small space. If the symbols are well designs (or are universally adopted), we have the beginning of an international language – at least a writtten one. Imagine getting off a plane in Japan, China, or Russia. You really have to pee. How do you find the bathroom? You don’t speak the local language, you don’t read the local language. Depending on the airport, you just might see the universal “man” or “woman” symbol that tells you there’s a bathroom behind the door. Even if the international symbol is not used, many countries have developed symbols that are pretty obvious. I can’t recall what country I was in, but the sign for bathroom was a stick man running. Sounds kind of odd, but when I saw it, I knew exactly what it was. The “running man” was a constant joke that trip….

The arguments against the “symbol” language are the same arguments against any pictographic form of writing. If you need to communicate simple ideas, it isn’t that hard, but as you move into more complex ideas, it is much more difficult to develop symbols that are meaningful. Eventually you end up with a system where you have to fall back on some sort of alphabet because there are just too many symbols to know. Anyone who has studied Japanese knows that there are thousands of symbols – each word has its own symbol. There are so many that even native Japanese speakers often run into pictograms that they don’t know. Fortunately, Japanese also has an “alphabet”, and uncommon words are often spelled out instead of using the pictogram.

An interesting aspect of the “symbol” is the fairly new “IM Speak” – the truncating of words to a few letters, or the replacement of a word with a symbol that sounds the same as the word (homophones). Examples are using “8” instead of “ate” or “l8r” for ‘later’. This new form of shorthand is becoming incredibly pervasive. It shows up in school work, University assignments, and I’ve even seen it in newspapers and journals. Language is a dynamic thing, and is constantly changing. The ‘net revolution has introduced a whole new medium of written communication, and our language is adapting to the ‘instant on’ aspect of it – if there is a faster way to key something in and move it on, it will get used.

Many of the educators I know lament this trend. Lets face it, the educational systems are almost always the last places where changes like this are accepted. The ‘net shorthand is finding its way into industry and business – I’ve received memos, letters, and other business documents with emoticons on them , and the occasional blot of ‘net shorthand. I will admit that I view this as unprofessional, and if I get a job application or resume with any of these, I tend to view it as if it had been written in crayon. Having said that, I must also admit that the style and format of business communication is very different from the day-to-day spoken and IM-ed language that many of us use in our informal communications. The real (and about the only) danger I see in the current mutation of the written language is the fact that many people – especially young people – don’t seem to understand that there are different modes of written communication, and that if the wrong mode is used, it can make you look like an idiot. While I have no problem getting a quick message filled with emoticons, ‘net slang, and the rest of the symbols that are used in electronic communications, if a student turned in a paper written in that form, I would punt it right back at them, and either give them an “f”, or ask them to re-write it in English. As I said above, resumes, job applications, and other formal business documents that have this type of shorthand end up in the wastebasket.

The danger with the new symbolic writting is not the change to the writing itself, it is the fact that we are not teaching our young people the importance of using the proper communication style based on the environment the communication is taking place in.


One Response

  1. AMEN, my friend.

    I try to stress to my students that IM-speak is not necessarily a BAD thing (though I, personally, resist it), but that it’s not appropriate in all forums for communication. I tell them much the same things you’ve said here – they may not communicate with ME in IM speak, and I suggest that they try to keep it out of documents that they would consider “professional” (resumes, cover letters, communications to and from clients or bosses). I’m pretty sure they DON’T get it, though – I still get shorthand in emails and papers. Like you, I punt that shit right back at them….

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