Tag Archives: MLA

We are all twitterers now: revisiting John McWhorter on Tweeting

Angus Grieve Smith over at the MLA group on Linked In pointed me toward John McWhorter’s take on Twitter a couple of years back. [I admit to some embarrassment in referencing an article that’s TWO YEARS OLD!! But the presentism of the writing for the web is a story for another time]. McWhorter’s basic case is that Twitter is not really writing at all, but a form of graphic speech. My term, not McWhorter’s. He points out that most people even after knowing how to read and write speak in bursts of 7 to 10 words, and writing at its origins reflected these kinds of patterns. In other words, as speakers we are all twitterers. Of Twitter, McWhorter says:

 

The only other problem we might see in something both democratic and useful is that it will exterminate actual writing. However, there are no signs of this thus far. In 2009, the National Assessment of Education Performance found a third of American eighth graders – the ones texting madly right now — reading at or above basic proficiency, but crucially, this figure has changed little since 1992, except to rise somewhat. Just as humans can function in multiple languages, they can also function in multiple kinds of language. An analogy would be the vibrant foodie culture that has thrived and even flowered despite the spread of fast food.

Who among us really fears that future editions of this newspaper will be written in emoticons? Rather, a space has reopened in public language for the chunky, transparent, WYSIWYG quality of the earliest forms of writing, produced by people who had not yet internalized a sense that the flavor of casual language was best held back from the printed page.

This speech on paper is vibrant, creative and “real” in exactly the way that we celebrate in popular forms of music, art, dance and dress style. Few among us yearn for a world in which the only music is classical, the only dance is ballet and daily clothing requires corsets and waistcoats. As such, we might all embrace a brave new world where we can both write and talk with our fingers.

via Talking With Your Fingers – NYTimes.com.

 

I mostly agree with this idea, that we are all code shifters. I’m less sanguine than, McWhorter, however. His eighth grade sample takes students before they’ve entered a period of schooling where they’d be expected to take on more serious reading and longer and more complex forms of writing. Twitter may not be to blame, but it’s not clear to me the state of writing and reading comprehension at higher levels is doing all that well. There’s some pretty good evidence that it isn’t. So just as a foodie culture may thrive in the midst of a lot of fast food, it’s not clear that we ought to be complacent in the face of an obesity epidemic. In the same way, just because tweeting may not signal the demise of fine writing, it’s not clear that it’s helping the average writer become more facile and sophisticated in language use.

The United States–Land of the Second Language Illiterates

Approximately 80% of American citizens are monolingual, and the largest part of the rest are immigrants and their children. This statistic from Russell Berman, outgoing President of the MLA, in his valedictory message to the MLA convention in Seattle this past January. Berman’s address is a rousing and also practical defense of the humanities in general, and especially of the role of second language learning in developing a society fully capable of engaging the global culture within which it is situated. From his address:

Let us remember the context. According to the National Foreign Language Center, some 80% of the US population is monolingual. Immigrant populations and heritage speakers probably make up the bulk of the rest. Americans are becoming a nation of second-language illiterates, thanks largely to the mismanagement of our educational system from the Department of Education on down. In the European Union, 50% of the population older than 15 reports being able to carry on a conversation in a non-native language, and the EU has set a goal of two non-native languages for all its citizens.

Second language learning enhances first language understanding: many adults can recall how high school Spanish, French, or German—still the three main languages offered—helped them gain a perspective on English—not only in terms of grammar but also through insights into the complex shift in semantic values across cultural borders. For this reason, we in the MLA should rally around a unified language learning agenda: teachers of English and teachers of other languages alike teach the same students, and we should align our pedagogies to contribute cooperatively to holistic student learning. We are all language teachers. For this reason, I call on English departments to place greater importance on second language knowledge, perhaps most optimally in expectations for incoming graduate students. Literature in English develops nowhere in an English-only environment; writing in any language always takes place in a dialectic with others. With that in mind, I want to express my gratitude to the American Studies Association for recently adopting a statement supportive of the MLA’s advocacy for language learning.

Berman goes on to recognize, however, that this strong and reasonable call for educated people to be conversant in more than one language is largely sent echoless in to the void. Less than .1% of the discretionary budget of the Department of Education goes to support Language learning. Indeed, I suspect this is because so many of us, even in higher education, are dysfunctional in a second language. I often tell people grimly that I can ask how to go to the bathroom in four different languages.

Nevertheless, in an age where we call for global engagement and in which we imagine the importance of preparedness for a global marketplace and want our students to be citizens of the world, it is irresponsible to continue to imagine that world will conveniently learn to speak English for our sakes.