Are we becoming a little illiterate?

Everywhere you turn, every form you fill out and every job you apply for asks about your technical literacy. How good are you on computers and other technologies? Do you know how to use the internet? And what about Excel? But the question is what happened to plain old literacy.

After doing a bit of research into the mobile phone’s impact on literacy I found a whitepaper from mobile makers, Nokia, looking at developing new cell phones that will allow illiterate people to use them effectively. This would include using more icon based interfaces, with minimal features, automated phone settings, spoken menus and audio feedback.

I found this rather alarming. The United Nations estimates that 799 million adults are illiterate, the majority of these come from underdeveloped areas like South Africa. Surely instead of just developing a new cell phone that illiterate people can use easily, they could put that funding towards teaching people to read and write? While logistically, and financially this may not even be an option, in an ideal world it would happen.

What I am more concerned about is not so much people who are currently illiterate and using mobile phones but people who fall into the category of being literate and are using cell phones.

With mobile phones having such potential in terms of use, there is no need for you to find information in the library, everything is at your fingertips. If you need to check a fact, you can use Google off your phone. If you are bored no longer do you have to (gasp) pick up a book, you can simply log onto Meep, Mxit or Facebook and chat to your friends.

This weekend I was marking first year assignments and was horrified when I stumbled upon an assignment that was using the shorthand that is often used in sms.

I was presented with sentences like “This yr Scifest Africa wil b held in Grahamstown, and u can chck out th 500 events.”

This is what is being presented in an academic assignment, and this is one of the milder examples. When I Facebook my younger sister I cannot for the life of me understand what she is saying to me. Half the letters are not there and there are funny little icons in the middle of words. Here is a taste of what I have to decipher:

“Hey trace.lol bout work!skool is goin kewl&goin wel en u?Hwz da digs&hw are ur frends.Spk2amy da oth day.brb!”

I think it may be important to note here that not only does my sister attend a private school, she also appears to be passing.

UNESCO defines illiteracy as a ‘person who cannot with understanding both read and write a short simple statement on their everyday life.’ I would categorise any student who wrote their assignments in the shorthand used in sms as illiterate, or at least having a degree of illiteracy.

With having cell phones moving towards a more visual and voice based functionality, where will people learn to read and write properly? Kids are communicating on Mxit using this odd language and it is being transferred to academic work, without them even realising it. Whether this is laziness and a lack of proofreading or it is subconscious I will never know. The problem is here. The question is what do we do about it?


5 Responses to “Are we becoming a little illiterate?”

  1. 1 funalaakie
    April 29, 2008 at 12:48 pm

    i relly dnt c wat da prob is? fones r gr8! =)

    Ur frend
    Inspector Gadget

  2. 2 Ines Schumacher
    April 30, 2008 at 10:34 am

    Tracey, this is a great post! I really like the way you took a global issue and turned it into a local one (with a twist!).

  3. 3 tracey
    April 30, 2008 at 12:34 pm

    Inspector Gadget, sure phones are great and there are so many awesome features. But if the next generation (which the post applies to) can barely string three sentences together without using cellphone slang then surely that has great repercussions for our future as a supposed literate country?

  4. 4 Amo
    April 30, 2008 at 6:58 pm

    Great blog,
    I couldn’t even decipher that message your sister left you, are you sure she is passing? Ok I’m joking, but seriously, I read somewhere recently that some of this cell phone slang is being incorporated into into the Oxford Dictionary. Technology and the “lingo” that goes with it, has become so entrenched in youth culture that this could be the slow demise of the English language (maybe a bit dramatic, but possible). Someone needs to teach these kids to string a good old fashioned sentence together- one with vowels.

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