WhatsApp doesn’t cause language deterioration

Date of news: 9 January 2019

Active users of social media like WhatsApp don’t write more poorly at school, although there’s a small relation between passively using WhatsApp and poorer writing. This was shown in a study done among young people by linguist Lieke Verheijen, who will receive her PhD on this subject from Radboud University on 25 January.

‘Heeey J sup!?! RU OK? ly 4ever xoxo <3’. Many parents are worried that such unconventional ways of writing on social media will lead to language deterioration. Verheijen: “What they mean by language deterioration is that people are less inclined to follow the Dutch spelling and grammar rules and an increasing influence of English.” Verheijen studied Dutch youths’ language use in chats, text messages, tweets, and WhatsApp messages and how this affects the way they write at school.

whatsapp doesn't lead to language deterioration


Verheijen’s research confirmed that, when communicating online, today’s youth uses language that is more informal, expressive, concise, and playful. But does this cause young people to actually write more poorly?

Verheijen found that active use of WhatsApp had a direct, positive influence on spelling in written school work: teenagers in particular made fewer spelling errors. Moreover, young people who use social media in an active and linguistically creative way write school texts of higher quality.

Passive reading

However, passively receiving messages from others is related to poorer written work at school, particularly among young people with a lower educational level. In addition, young people on social media who rely on word predictors and auto-correction make more spelling mistakes at school. So the way in which youths use social media determines whether or not ‘WhatsApp language’ can damage or stimulate their writing at school.

Another conclusion is that teenagers deviate more from Standard Dutch than young adults. Verheijen: “And the number of deviations depends on the medium. Online chats contain more deviations than text messages and tweets. This is probably because tweets are more public and we thus tend to use more Standard Dutch.

Texts, tweets, WhatsApp messages, and MSN chats

Verheijen studied a large corpus of texts from diverse social media: text messages, tweets, WhatsApp chats and MSN chats written by youths. She also asked hundreds of young people to complete a questionnaire about their use of social media and tested their writing skills. She found more positive than negative relations between the use of social media and how well someone wrote at school. There were in fact more of these relations among students with a lower level of education than among those with a higher level of education.

In addition, Verheijen conducted a large-scale experiment in which she compared two groups of young people: a group that had to communicate via WhatsApp for fifteen minutes and a group that, as a diversion, had to colour so-called mandalas. The result? Those mere fifteen minutes of typing messages already caused the WhatsApp group to make fewer spelling errors in the immediately following school writing task. That effect was even stronger among secondary school students than among university students. Verheijen: “My study suggests that active use of language on WhatsApp can actually benefit language development.”

Language change

Verheijen: “You could also consider digi-talk as a form of language change; we certainly don’t talk and write in the same way now as centuries ago. It’s just more visible now because we are sending many more informally typed texts. So new media themselves aren’t the cause, but rather they make language change more visible.”

Verheijen states that, if used well, social media can stimulate rather than damage young people’s language skills. Verheijen: “Make sure that you type a lot yourself and be creative with language. And don’t forget to turn off the auto-correction and word predictor functions on your telephone!”

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