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August 04, 2006

How's this for Good News?

The Speculist turns three today!

August 02, 2006

Instant Messaging Builds Language Skills

This could well be our most counter-intuitive good news story of the week...or month, even:

Are you worried the acronyms and other linguistic shorthand used in casual computer instant messaging may be corrupting your kids' grammar and syntax?

Relax.

New research by two University of Toronto sociolinguists, to be presented tomorrow at the Linguistics Society of Canada and the U.S. annual meeting, shows quite the contrary.

"Everybody thinks kids are ruining their language by using instant messaging, but these teens' messaging shows them expressing themselves flexibly through all registers," associate professor Sali Tagliamonte, 46, said.

"They actually show an extremely lucid command of the language."

We were pleased to report last week how SMS is saving lives in China -- so we're second to none in promoting unexpected benefits of this kind of technology -- but I think the best anyone could have hoped for in regard to what instant messaging is doing to teenagers' language capability would have been that it isn't somehow completely destroying it (along with good-size chunks of their brains.)

But, no. Apparently it isn't doing any particular harm and may be providing some help.

While parents still might cringe at much of the spelling and grammatical usage displayed in instant messaging, the researchers report that kids are actually developing a:

[L]linguistic hybrid, a fusion of formal and vernacular features of language.

No doubt, purists will continue to wring their hands about "what's happening with kids these days," but there is clearly an argument to be made that developing and practicing with a whole new modelof communication allows kids to flex lingusitic muscles which otherwise would have remained dormant.

As long as they don't carry too many of the alternate spellings and weird abbreviations into more formal written language, maybe there's something for us all to be happy about.

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July 29, 2006

SMS Saves Lives

Here's an example of a government making use of changing technologies and new infrastructure to positive ends:

SHANGHAI, China - With Typhoon Kaemi roaring toward China's crowded southeast, Dr. Yang was sealing his apartment windows against the pounding rain when his cell phone buzzed to life.

"Typhoon forecast to make land this evening," said the message sent to millions of mobile phones in the coastal city of Jinjiang and surrounding Fujian province. "Please attend to preparations."

The article goes on to describe how the government of the Fujian province has sent more than 18 million SMS messages so far this typhoon season. There's no telling how many deaths and injuries this effort has helped to prevent, especially when you consider the fact that everyone who receives an SMS typhoon warning probably spreads the word to several folks who did not.

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When the 2004 tsunami devasted Indonesia and other parts of southeast asia, there was a good deal of discussion about what kind of warning systems could be put in place to mitigate against such horrific loss of life in the future. My contribution to that discussion was that we need a better educated and more proactive mass media, that institutions like CNN and the BBC could do a lot more than they did to help spread the word. One of the shortcomings of that plan was that not very many people in some of the most hard-hit regions -- remote areas in Indonesia, particularly -- have access to a TV or radio. Certainly, an SMS swarning system such as described above would have been some help in Bandar Aceh and other developed areas, but again no help at all for those who live outside the reach of electronic communications.

I have long asserted that technological development represents, overall, a net plus for humanity -- both in our ability to survive and in our ability to find meaning and to lead more fulfilling lives. I can't think of anything that makes that case better than the contrast between those folks in Jinjiang who received early and sufficient warning to stay away from the water and their doomed counterparts in Indonesia a year and a half ago for whom no warning was possible.

Technological development. Faster, please.