31 January 2018

Research on use of textese by children with and without language disorders

More appreciation for children who text

Prof. dr Elma Blom is an expert in language development with the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences. Together with colleagues from the Faculty of Humanities, she analysed how children between the ages of 10 and 13 use 'textese', the genre that young people communicate in when using new media such as WhatsApp. Blom and her colleagues compared children with normal language development and children with a Specific Language Impairment (SLI). What were their conclusions? And how bad is it really that our language is changing so rapidly under the influence of new technologies?

Photo: Steven Snoep

These days, languages are changing much more quickly than they used to. Some people are worried about this, although Blom believes their concerns are not always justified. 'Children do use alternative spelling and leave out letters and words when using textese, but they only do so within this specific genre, and they can use it perfectly well alongside standard language. Even more surprising, perhaps, is that children who make lots of "mistakes" when using textese are in fact the children who are better at languages in general. They're perfectly capable of differentiating language genres from each other and using them in the proper context.'

Blom does add a side note though: 'The children we studied generally had well-educated parents, and consistent with that, a relatively high IQ. If you were to study more diverse groups, it's possible that you wouldn't find the same correlation in children with a lower IQ, for example. It's entirely possible that those children are less well able to differentiate between language genres, and perhaps that they make more mistakes in other situations as well. That's something we don't yet know.'

We found that children with a language impairment texted a lot. It's a less direct method of communicating.
Elma Blom

That said, Blom does think that it's important to be less cautious about new developments such as texting. 'For this piece of research, I looked at many different messages written by children, and what they do is actually very creative. These children are doing something quite complex: trying to get their message across in as few words as possible. That's a skill, and it's actually good to stimulate that. But of course there may be groups that you need to monitor more carefully.'

Photo: Steven Snoep

Texting and language development

In their research, Blom and her colleagues compared children with normal language development and children with a Specific Language Impairment (SLI). Can new methods of communicating help children with SLIs? Blom: ‘We found that children with a language impairment texted a lot. It's a less direct method of communicating, and you can take your time, which makes it an attractive medium for these children.'

Linguistic errors are one of the characteristics of Specific Language Impairment, and they are a lot less noticeable in text messages. However, contrary to the researcher's expectations, this was not the main reason that these children liked to text: 'Children with SLIs tend to be shy, and that explains why they prefer this method of communication. Still, it’s good to be aware that even children with SLIs are not afraid of linguistic medium like texting. They have actually gained a new way to communicate. We can make more use of that knowledge.'

Sergey Avrutin looked at parts of speech and sentence structure in the messages, while I was specifically interested in how children with SLIs used the medium.

Children with and without SLIs like to text, and text a lot. If we do not need to be concerned about their language development, is there anything we do need to watch out for? 'Instead of just trying to determine whether their use of language deviates from an arbitrary norm, I think we need to consider what children are doing when they send messages. That could lead to a new way of looking at how children and young people communicate, and indeed to a new level of appreciation for it. Of course it remains important that children also learn to use standard language well. If you're composing a letter applying for a job, you need to be able to do so without mistakes.'

Looking at the same question in a different way

'One of the nice things about this research within Dynamics of Youth was the collaboration with the Faculty of Humanities. Sergey Avrutin and I have overlapping interests, with different priorities and areas of expertise, and that worked very well. He looked at parts of speech and sentence structure in the messages, while I was specifically interested in how children with SLIs used the medium. We were able to conduct our research on a small scale thanks to the seed money available through Dynamics of Youth. It's important that smaller grants are also available so that researchers can try things out.' 

Photo: Steven Snoep

Blom would like to do more research into texting, and she continues to work on topics that people are concerned about. 'For instance, there's often a concern that children who speak in dialect find standard Dutch more difficult. This doesn't appear to be the case. There are some things we shouldn't be worried about, they are just part of normal language usage and the variation that you find in any society. On the other hand, I try to focus on areas where there are real problems so that people can worry about them instead. I think that's my main goal!'

In this project, Dr Elma Blom collaborated with Prof. Sergey Avrutin, Chantal van Dijk, Dr Nada Vasić & Merel van Witteloostuijn, MA (UvA). Elma Blom is also involved in the new Dynamics of Youth project entitled The first 1001 critical days of a child’s life.

Dynamics of Youth

This project was carried out within Dynamics of Youth, one of the four strategic themes of Utrecht University. Dynamics of Youth connects excellent child and youth research from all seven faculties, and looks for the answer to a crucial question for future generations: how can we help our children develop into well-balanced individuals, who can successfully hold their own in a rapidly changing environment?