Investigating the impact of SMS speak on the written work of English first language and English second language high school learners

Freudenberg, Kristy (2009-03)

Thesis (MPhil (General Linguistics))--Stellenbosch University, 2009.


This study examined the impact of SMS speak on the written school work of English first language (L1) and English second language (L2) high school learners. The general aims of the study were to establish how widespread the use of SMS language is among high school learners, and to assess whether there is any evidence of the use of features of SMS speak in the English written work of these learners. Eighty-eight learners from an English-Afrikaans dual medium school in a middle class neighborhood in the Western Cape participated in this study. The participants included 43 grade 8s and 45 grade 11s, of which 51 were English L1 speakers and 37 English L2 speakers. The participants completed questionnaires from which the frequency and volume of their SMS use was determined, as well as the features of SMS speak they reportedly use while SMSing. In addition, samples of the learners’ English written work were examined for specific features of SMS speak. These features included (deliberate) spelling errors, lack of punctuation, over-punctuation, the omission of function words, the use of abbreviation or acronyms, and the use of emoticons and rebus writing. The results of this study indicate that high school learners are avid users of SMS and/or MXit. All participants reported using features of SMS speak in their SMSes, and many reported using SMS speak in their written school work. Despite this, the samples of written work did not contain a great number of incidences of SMS speak features. It seems that the general lack of SMS speak in the written work of these learners is a result of being able to assess when it is and is not appropriate to use a certain variety of language: These learners are proficient in SMS speak and use it when chatting to friends on MXit, but they can produce written work that adheres to the formally approved standards of written high school English. That said, a number of SMS speak features were indeed present in their formal written work, which indicates that SMS speak had some impact on the written work of these learners, which could in turn be attributed to the high frequency of their SMS usage. However, not all of the non-standard features of their written English could necessarily be attributed to the influence of SMS speak; specifically some of the spelling and punctuation errors could be unrelated to SMS speak, as they have been noted in the written English of high school learners from before the advent of cellphones. The learners in this study were from a school that has a strict language policy, one which does not tolerate the use of SMS speak in written work. Seven of the teachers completed a questionnaire compiled for all teachers at the school in question. Responses to this questionnaire, especially those of the language teachers, indicated that teachers either deduct marks for features of SMS speak in written language or refuse to mark written work that does not conform to the formally approved standards that the school has set in place. It is possible that the actions of the teachers and the language policy of the school play a significant role in the lack of SMS speak features in the written language use of the learners.

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