Teenagers ‘only use 800 different words a day’
A generation of teenagers who communicate via the Internet and by text messages are risking unemployment because their daily vocabulary consists of just 800 words, the Government’s new children’s communication tsar has warned.
By Aislinn Laing UK Telegraph 11 Jan 2010
Although, according to recent surveys, they know an average of 40,000 words, they tend to favour a “teenspeak” used in text messages, on social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace and in internet chat rooms like MSN.
One poll, commissioned by Tesco, revealed that while children had the vocabulary to be articulate, the top 20 words they used – including the Vicky Pollard lexicon of “yeah”, “no” and “but” – accounted for about a third of all the words they used.
According to Jean Gross, England’s first Communication Champion for Children who started in the post this month, the lack of range will impact negatively on their chances of getting a job.
Miss Gross is planning to launch a nationwide campaign next year to ensure children use their full language potential and are not impeded in the classroom and later, the workplace, because they are inarticulate.
It will target children in primary and secondary schools and she intends to ask QI presenter, author and prolific Twitterer Stephen Fry to back it.
“Teenagers are spending more time communicating through electronic media and text messaging, which is short and brief,” she told The Sunday Times. “We need to help today’s teenagers understand the difference between their textspeak and the formal language they need to succeed in life – 800 words will not get you a job.”
She plans to send children with video cameras into workplaces so they can see the range of words used by professionals and share what they have learned with classmates, and wants parents to limit the amount of children under two watch to half an hour a day, replacing it with conversation.
Her concern was raised, she said, by research conducted by Tony McEnery, a professor of linguistics at Lancaster University sponsored by Tesco, who examined 10m words of transcribed speech and 100,000 words from teenagers’ blogs.
As well as establishing that teens use their top 20 words in a third of their speech, he discovered words likely to be entirely alien to adults, including “chenzed”, which means tired or drunk, “spong”, which means silly, and “lol”, the shorthand version of “laugh out loud”.
Both Marks & Spencer boss Sir Stuart Rose and Tesco’s Sir Terry Leahy have recently lamented the lack of school-leavers with the right skills for the workplace.
John Bald, a language teaching consultant and former Ofsted schools inspector, said the poor use of language was a deliberate, anti-establishment act.
“There is undoubtedly a culture among teenagers of deliberately stripping away excess verbiage in language,” he said.
“When kids are in social situations, the instinct is to simplify. It’s part of a wider anti-school culture that exists among some children which parents and schools need to address.”
But David Crystal, honorary professor of linguistics at Bangor University in Wales, told The Sunday Times that experts simply did not understand the complexities of teen language and had judged it by their own standards.
“The real issue here is that people object to kids having a good vocabulary for hip-hop and not for politics,” he said. “They have an articulate vocabulary for the kind of things they want to talk about. Few academics get anywhere near measuring that vocabulary.”
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