Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Shrinking Vocabulary and Contentless Conversations

On my way in to work today, I heard a story about the shrinking vocabulary of this generation.  Over the last few generations the shrinking vocabulary of young people has been lamented often and blamed mostly on television.  In today's report, a British researcher studied young, Internet savvy teenagers and determined that as a generation they have a shrinking vocabulary due to excessive Internet chatting.  I guess the new words like LOL and BRB don't make up for all the multisyllabic words that kids don't use due to unique time/space constraints in this kind of conversation.  I am sure that there are studies that also note (bemoan) the quality of the content in Internet conversations between young people.  I have watched my daughter manage what appeared to be about ten different simultaneous conversations via chat programs on Google or Facebook while text messaging several people as well.  I have been amazed how little one can say and yet keep a conversation going for a sustained period of time.  A really long time.  This form of entertainment can go on apparently all day when the circumstances allow.  While I suspect that this form of communication has both positive and negative social and intellectual consequences, it is worth noting that conversations with very limited vocabulary (about 800 words tops according to the British researcher) and very limited content manage to sustain the voracious appetite that young people have for social connection. It makes me rethink some of the much more complex conversation content that I have sometimes set out to teach a youngster with Autism Spectrum Disorder.  The content of a text messaging or Internet chat seems to be stuff like this:
  • Hi friend
  • I like what you wore last time I saw you
  • I don't like someone/something
  • I don't like something that someone did
  • Someone is dating someone
  • Someone broke-up with someone
  • This is funny--look at this url
  • This is horrible--look at this url
  • This embarrassing thing happened to me
  • This or that activity is going to happen
  • Are you going?
  • I don't know if I am going.
  • I am planning on going to this activity and you have to go too
  • I feel bored/sad/upset/excited.....
  • I have so much homework but I don't want to do it
  • My mom keeps bugging me about dinner and she made something revolting
This kind of short sentence type conversation is punctuated by long, long pauses while the conversational partner has a similar conversation with several other people. Pausing for a long time is socially appropriate, apparently, unless one of the conversational partners is your mother who is trying to find out immediate information like Are you coming into the dining room to have dinner with us or not?  Luckily, it is possible to bring a cell phone to the dinner table and maintain at least half of your conversations while eating revolting food.  Unless your parents object.

Regardless of the limited vocabulary and minimal content, keeping conversations like this going requires communication skill--skill that I neither have nor fully understand.  But, as an involuntary researcher in my own home, I have to admit that the conversations do have social content and there are social rules and norms. Studying this kind of thing is what Speech Language Pathologist do all the time so I was not really surprised to learn that my colleague and former Clinical Supervisor, Linda Hinderscheit is taking up the challenge of teaching youngsters how to communicate on sites like Facebook.  It is a perfectly appropriate communication goal for a young person who has Autism Spectrum Disorders--a functional goal which could yield great social connections for a young person and also could help a young person avoid terrible social disasters.  The teenagers or young adults who might struggle with conversations of the more traditional variety could find some more success where the vocabulary is limited, the content is limited, and there is a lot of repetition in what is said--to say nothing of those long pauses where he or she can think about what to type next.

Now that I think this through, I think that there should be an online guidebook to social norms in texting and e-chatting. It probably should be written with a lot of input from native Internet speakers.  It should be online so that as things change, the guidebook would change as well--maybe with a subscription option so that those who need to know will be updated on any new words/norms or trends in transmission.    Maybe there is something out there already.  Let me know if you have heard that there is.


Sue said...

It's good to see that the patterns of communication, via chat and text, are exactly the same on the other side of the world. My teenage boys keep telling me that they are members of the global community. We also have exactly the same social issues regrading phones at the table at meal times.
Now, have you got any avice for getting my son to communicate with us. He spends most of his time as a warior on World of Warcraft talking to his 'Asian friends' in Singapore:)

Paulene Angela said...

I've just googled what BRB means ... I'm still learning.
Really dislike the abbreviation PAW.

Another excellent post.

Tahirih said...

I have more to learn than I realized, Paulene. Good resource!