WEDNESDAY, Aug. 8, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- As mobile messaging has taken off, so has an abbreviated form of text-specific jargon, a kind of linguistic shorthand that helps speed up the texting to and fro.
But a new study warns that the widespread adoption of texting among so-called tweens could be undermining their grammar skills.
The concern stems from the results of standardized language testing and surveys conducted among more than 200 middle school students living in central Pennsylvania.
The more a young teen embraced shorthand while texting, the poorer their use of proper English in a non-texting context.
"I should first point out that this is correlational, not causal," stressed study co-author S. Shyam Sundar, co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Pennsylvania State University. "That means that while we see an association between texting and grammar problems among teens, we cannot say that one is actually causing the other."
"However, it is clear that compared to those who text very little, those middle schoolers who texted a lot did much more poorly in terms of their offline grammar skills," Sundar said. "[This] suggests that kids who are using a lot of word adaptations while texting -- saying 'gr8,' for example, instead of 'great' -- are unable to switch sufficiently back to proper grammar and spelling when not texting".
The study recently appeared online in the journal New Media & Society.
"Tech-speak" involves the omission of non-essential letters and the use of modern-day homophones -- shorter words or character sound-alikes.
Examples include replacing the word "your" with "ur" or using the figure "2" for the word "to." The lingo also uses wholesale abbreviations and acronyms, such as the immensely popular shorthand "LOL," used to convey "laughing out loud."
The research team assessed and polled a group of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade boys and girls between the ages of 10 and 14.
In addition to testing grammar skills, the authors asked the teens to indicate the number of texts they send and receive and to discuss their views on the importance of texting in general. Participants also specified exactly how many tech-speak adaptations they used or received over the course of their last three text exchanges.
The more a tween used word shortcuts while texting -- both sending and receiving -- the worse their overall grammar performance.
No gender differences were found.
Slipshod sentence structure while texting -- such as dropping periods and capitalizations -- was not linked to making similar grammatical mistakes offline, the researchers observed.
The authors suggest that teens may want to imitate their peers, picking up the shortcuts friends and family members already use and, in turn, serving as a role model for their friends to do the same.
"They're getting used to this kind of tech-speak because they are imitating, which is common in this peer group," Sundar explained. "The kids who received word adaptations in their texting were then likely to use those contractions in their own texting, which, in turn, predicted their own grammar performance."
"What parents can do is try to inculcate the correct use of grammar in their own text messages to their children, which can be hard to do, as mobile communication has its own rhythm where speed is more important than accuracy," he said. "But if you send your kid a text message with these kinds of compromises of grammar, the chances are they will imitate that and become unable to switch back to proper grammar."
"Parents can also try to impart to their kids the difference between this kind of shorthand language and the expectations of the school system," Sundar added. "These are rules of grammar that are in the book, and while there is no saying how language will evolve, while they're in school these rules are not really negotiable. So it's important they learn proper grammar."
Sam Gosling, a social psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, said the findings made sense.
"As the authors note, the causal link between texting and grammar can't be established in this study because it could be that tweens with poorer grammar skills are already using more adaptations in their texts," he said. "However, I would not be at all surprised if texting did influence grammar skills."
"[But] it's important to remember," Gosling added, "that language is always changing and always has been, driven in part by developments in technology and cultural changes society at large."
"Just as the unnecessary 'u' in British spellings of words like 'behaviour' was dropped in American usage ... it's quite likely that some of these texting conventions will eventually filter through to everyday language too," Gosling said. "The pervasiveness of social technologies like phones and Facebook -- and the rapid transfer of new conventions that they permit -- means the rate of change is increasing."
For more on teens and texting, visit the American Academy of Pediatrics.