Languages: still the world’s all-time greatest invention

A friend of mine posted on social media in the past week about the widespread use of abbreviations and text language.

The post noted that when history is written in the future it probably won’t have correct spelling and punctuation. Some of the replies lightheartedly joked about the trend. Other replies were more serious about what’s happening with the process of verbal and written communication.

I think there’s a serious side. In everyday life, many people aren’t mindful of grammar, sentence structure and vocabulary. It’s become acceptable to just go with convenient acronyms.

Nobody says “sport utility vehicle” because they’re simply SUVs. We always say ATM rather than “automatic teller machine”. Most people say MRI without even knowing the complete name.

Phrases like TTYL, OTOH, OMG and LOL have not only become standards on the phone, they’ve also made their way into conversation.

It becomes a question of how much is too much. How far should we go toward shortening our everyday use of languages?

Sooner or later, most likely sooner, it could interfere with our understanding of concepts. Knowing what MRI stands for makes someone more aware of the health care purposes for which it is used. Hearing the complete phraseology for computer terms such as URL can provide starting points that broaden someone’s understanding of computer networks.

Another kind of insight that could be affected involves how we interpret each other’s comments. The abbreviation LOL could mean anything from “that’s halfway funny” to “that’s the funniest thing I’ve heard all week”.

It’s worth a few extra words to get a better context. It leads to mutual understanding, which shouldn’t just be taken for granted. If we do that, we’re likely to stop short of appreciating what someone is trying to say.

Good communication takes practice. Children should get plenty of opportunities in their earliest years of education to speak and write in complete sentences.

They should spend more time developing those communication skills than they spend working with keyboards. I’ll go so far as to say that it might even be worth delaying hard core keyboard instruction until third grade, a point at which students should have plenty of experience in reading comprehension, verbal expression and math-related problem solving.

The keyboard shouldn’t be completely delayed until third grade, but its usage needs to balance out with the overall development of thinking skills and self expression.

If children just plow ahead on the keyboard, there could be a lot of trial and error. It’s important to master machines rather than being mastered by them. All the technical skill in the world won’t reach its full potential unless it comes with an ability to relate to other people and a capacity to understand ideas.

Languages are still the best tool for asking questions, for instructing students, and for putting technical concepts into a format that any educated person can comprehend.

It remains to be seen what will happen in the future. We make choices every day about how to express ourselves.

Words that are hard to spell or difficult to pronounce have historically tended to drop out of languages. To some extent that’s inevitable. The structure of a language, however, should continue to have a solid foundation filled with vocabulary and anchored by appropriate grammar and usage.

It’s a pleasure to read the work of authors who have a strong command of their language. The same ones who seemed cumbersome when I first began to be assigned readings in high school are now many years later easier to enjoy. It takes practice.

Hopefully we’ll continue to have high standards. Hopefully we’ll still make complete use of everything our languages have to offer.

— Jim Muchlinski is a longtime reporter and contributor to the Marshall Independent


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