Why emojis and #hashtags should be part of language learning
Learning a language after the mother tongue in infancy is often referred to as learning a second language (despite the fact that people can actually learn their third or fourth language). In Canada, an officially bilingual country, English and French are widely taught in hyperdiverse urban centers.
Increasingly, a popular avenue for adult language learners is mobile language learning via free or inexpensive downloaded apps. A number of apps for mobile language learning claim superior market shares: Duolingo claims to teach 200 million language learners worldwide; Busu, 90 million learners; Babbel and Memrise are also major players.
I analyzed these four apps for their approach and treatment of language and language learning. I found it they problematically relied on past models of what language is and what language does.
How apps teach grammar
None of these four best-selling apps capitalize on the changing language in online communication, where features like emojis or hashtags – the conventions used in texting and tweeting – are fundamentally changing the way people communicate.
On the contrary, these applications tended to teach by testing, deepening vocabulary and simple sentences. Thus, “I read a book” is presented for memorization and contrasted with “she is reading a book”, with little or no grammatical explanation.
Grammar is the backbone of a language; it is the structure in which words fit so that they make sense to users of the language. Online grammars have diverged from standard “sentence” grammars, which characterized printed texts, in many ways.
Meaning of language structures
The study of grammar mainly concerns two levels of language structure: the elements added to a word (morphology) and the organization of words in a sentence (syntax).
Languages that are organized primarily by word order in a sentence, such as English, are described as analytic. Languages that put more information on word formation, such as Russian, are described as synthetic.
Some languages are extremely synthetic or polysynthetic, using what is called “agglutination” to create long sentence-like words that, in an analytic language, would require several words in a sentence. Agglutination builds meaning by sticking parts of words together. An excellent example is the Ojibwe (or Anishinaabe) language (Anishinaabemowin).
For example, in The Book of Mishomis: The Voice of the Ojibwaysspiritual leader and teacher Edward Benton-Banai
breaks down the Anishinaabe word rooted in the people’s creation story: ani (From where) nishina (lowered) abe (the male of the species).
Ojibwe scholar and historian Alan Corbierewho developed the Anishinaabemowin Revival Programexplains that adding the final morpheme “-monthto the word Anishinaabe refers to vocalization and language practice.
To add “-to earnto Anishinaabemo, explains Corbiere, restores the verb to a noun meaning the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) language. Saying the single word Anishinaabemo in English requires an entire sentence (“speaking the Ojibwe language”)!
This grammar lesson is particularly interesting because number-word conventions, such as #OscarsSoWhite, follow the agglutination rules. These rules are different from the grammatical model of print-age English, which would require something like, “The Oscars are biased toward white people.”
Word-like forms such as #topic or @onlinehandle are immediately understood as typical communication in their respective digital genres. Moreover, these digital forms are shifting from online platforms to paper media: see the #MeToo titles in the New York Timesthe Telegraph and the Globe and Mail.
Circulating #hashtags contain consistent sets of information, such as #nolitetebastardescarborundorum. This feminist rallying cry the hashtag clumps together words (nonsense) that reference a fake Latin phrase that rose to prominence in pop culture with the popularity of Margaret Atwood The Handmaid’s Tale.
On Twitter, users learn the forms and limits of the grammar of tweets, limited by characters (280) and not by words. Tweets, like texts, use abbreviations in a grammatically systematic way, like RT for retweet or DM for direct message.
Texting works like a typed conversation at the speed of speech – otherwise it wouldn’t work like a quick, unedited speech bubble. Emojis in texts suggest how digital users can share pictorial and graphic information alone or with words to show immediately readable emotional nuances: consider OMG😂 (with a laughing face emoji) vs. OMG😡 (with an angry face emoji).
Impact on language learning
Most second language courses even that in mobile apps, continues to focus on old-school grammar according to print, not digital, conventions. The teaching of grammar, which has faded considerably in formal primary education, is still alive and well in second language teaching and test in particular.
Such teaching ignores the creative interactive language that occurs in digital exchange, which breaks the old mold of how English grammar works. Language education programs need to recognize that new word forms and grammar forms are here to stay and use them in language teaching and learning. Language learners could then rely on cross-linguistic elements such as: #, @ and 😊 (happy face).
All grammars adapt to changes in language use over time and through use in particular contexts. We can’t use English quite like Shakespeare did, it seems to mebut we can turn to his first modern update on Chaucer me think as proof that language change is constant.
The emergence of the #hashtag as a new kind of word form with its own form and spelling conventions is actually reshaping the way we construct words and their meanings in a new way. Why not teach languages as we actually use them?