Code-Switching in the Digital Age: “Text Speak” in Academic Writing
A self-study might allow students to better understand how social media and digital technology has influenced the many facets of communication in their life and work.
If you close your eyes, you might still be able to hear the gurgling beeps and honks of a dial-up Internet connection. Or maybe the gentle buzzing and ping of a notification on your iPhone feels more familiar. Since the 1980s, the invention of the Internet has quickly evolved into home computers, social networks, and personal mobile devices like smartphones and tablets.
The Digital Revolution, characterized by an increased use of the Internet for purposes unrelated to academic research and the emergence of computers for everyday use has, like many revolutions, taken a turn toward the alteration of social and intellectual behavior. While this revolution has offered increased connectivity and access to websites enabling intellectual thought, it has also deeply altered the way human beings read and write. We have become so accustomed to communicating with one another via our cell phones, “you” becomes u, “to be honest” turns into tbh―lmk, brb, lol. Even “too long; didn’t read” is initialized to tl;dr.
Coming of age surrounded by any sort of technology directly affects the persona and psyche of an individual. Millennials and Gen-Xers have grown up in a world in which so much communication is done in a kind of digital shorthand and abbreviation, and some of that shorthand has begun to sneak into academic assignments.
While all language is real and viable, the expectations of some instructors for students to use more formal academic language in their assignments may require students to “code-switch.” Code-switching is the back and forth that occurs when a speaker (or writer, in this case) must alter their language to fit the context and situation they are in. You may recognize this as being common for those who are multi-lingual and who may speak one language at home and another at school or work. This kind of code-switching, which can be important for academic success based on an instructor’s requirements, can also apply to job resumes and cover letters, as well as emails to colleagues and co-workers.
Susan Maushart’s The Winter of Our Disconnect dives into the terms “Digital Natives” and “Digital Immigrants.” Those who were “born into” the digital revolution and the era of email and Facebook are considered Digital Natives, and those who are of an older generation are called Digital Immigrants because they are transplants in a world seemingly built around digital media. Maushart states that Digital Natives “are no more frightened by new media than they are by a new pair of running shoes. They just jump right in and start sprinting” (50).
The ages of college students vary significantly, especially at a community college, but many new students are primarily Digital Natives. In their day-to-day lives, students may be using the Internet mostly for entertainment rather than research, and the negative effect it has on academic writing could be critical if students do not become aware of their own habits when crossing between social and scholarly writing. This is not to say that social media–centric writing cannot be intellectual. In fact, despite how “productive” these virtual conversations may or may not be, we often engage in stimulating conversations about social issues more on social media than in “real life.” However—for the time being, and in many classrooms—abbreviations, poor grammar and spelling, and the use of “text speak” are not considered acceptable within assignments.
While students currently have the most information Internet users have ever had access to, a failure to code-switch can also make them seem less academically driven in their essays or other academic assignments—despite having the knowledge and skill to complete the assignment. When students are able to perform a self-study of their own writing, then they are able to identify how they must cognitively switch between “text speak” and what is traditionally known in Western cultures as “academic writing.” Of course, we need to take great care in how we measure intelligence and capability. And because it is community, family, and education that molds our style of speaking and writing, we must also acknowledge the classist implications of assuming all student writers understand Western approaches to academic writing. This applies to the instructor’s understanding of their own Westernized expectations, but also to students during peer review and discussion.
As students likely already know, and will be reminded of again and again in their English courses, language and writing are resources we use to do, make, and be things in the world. In a self-study of their own writing, students can research and analyze their many writing practices (social, professional, academic, etc) with the goal of reaching critical insight about how they use language and writing resourcefully in multiple aspects of their life. The self-study asks students to use “field research” to collect information, or data, that they will examine to discover interesting ideas about their varied writing practices in a particular writing situation. For example, to compare and contrast their writing styles from particular situations, a student could use text messages to friends, an email to a co-worker, and a research paper they felt was successful. The self-study’s primary purpose is to raise awareness of and think critically about the work a student’s writing does for them and for their intended audiences, ideally garnering a better understanding of academic expectations.
Self-Study Sample Assignment
1. Select at least three writing samples from different parts of your life.
- For example, maybe one is a text to a friend, one is a journal assignment from a class, and one is an email to your boss.
2. Create an analysis of yourself as a writer.
- This analysis will be layered and multi-faceted. Your analysis should illustrate key points about how you use, or have used, writing and language as resources in your life. You will develop content for your analysis by studying the three writing samples you’ve produced and producing other samples throughout the research process. Producing other samples of writing within the same genre will allow you to examine how you might use the same method of communication for different audiences and how the style of writing may shift. For example, more text messages but to your co-workers or spouse instead of a friend.
- You might look at how you portray your identity in your writing sample based on purpose or audience.
- You might look at your process more closely when writing in a particular genre and talk about how that process shapes the features of the writing samples.
- You might look at common features or “moves” you make in your writing and think about how they are unique to the purposes and audiences you are writing for.
3. Reflect on the process of creating this analysis.
- What insights have you gained about your writing practices from doing the project?
- How did it challenge you as a writer?
- How did you respond?
- How can you use what you’ve learned in future writing situations?
A self-study might allow students to better understand how social media and digital technology has influenced the many facets of communication in their life and work. It may also lead them to the conclusion that “text speak” and other digitally-influenced language may have a place in the classroom—a place in which it can be scrutinized and analyzed so that students may discover their own writing abilities, habits, and interests.
Maushart, Susan. The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her iPhone) Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2011. Print.
Acknowledgement and gratitude to Professor Brittany Stephenson, whose ENGL 1010 self-study assignment was adapted for my own course in Summer 2018 and was a major source of inspiration for this essay.