No Need to Worry, Teens are Not Ruining the English Language

Although some people are convinced that teens are ruining the English language due to abbreviated “textspeak” and the overuse of slang, new research at Kansas State University says we have nothing to fear.

The English language is indeed continuously evolving to meet the needs of its speakers, but these changes are actually a good thing, notes study author Dr. Mary Kohn, assistant professor of English. And these changes occur throughout an individual’s lifetime, Kohn added, not just in the teen years.

“Very commonly, people think that teenagers are ruining language because they are texting or using shorthand or slang,” Kohn said. “But our language is constantly developing and changing and becoming what it needs to be for the generation who is speaking it. As a linguist, I find this really exciting because it shows me that our language is alive.”

Kohn studies language variation and how language changes over time. Her latest findings show that teenagers are not solely causing language change. Rather, language changes occur throughout a lifetime and not just during the teen years.

“All languages, throughout history, change as generations grow up and move through life,” Kohn said. “As long as there are people who are living and breathing and speaking, we’re going to invent new words. We’re going to invent new ways of speaking.”

“Our research has shown teens are being dynamic with language, but not necessarily in a consistent way,” Kohn said. “We aren’t eliminating the possibility that teenagers are driving sound change, but we might be grossly overstating the role of teenagers.”

Her findings have shown that there is not one consistent language path that a person takes from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood. Language change is more individualistic and varies for each person, she said.

For example, teens in high school may choose to change their pronunciations and use language as a part of their identities. When these teens grow up and graduate from college or get a job, they may change their language again to sound more professional and meet the demands of their jobs and pressures of the workplace, Kohn said.

For the study, Kohn evaluated data from the Frank Porter Graham project, a database that tracked 67 children from infancy to their early 20s. The database includes audio and interview recordings from nearly every year of the children’s lives and also has recordings of family members, friends, and teachers — all valuable information for understanding how language changes as individuals grow up, Kohn said.

Kohn focused on 20 individuals during four different time periods: fourth grade, eighth grade, 10th grade, and post-high school at age 20. Using soundwaves, Kohn measured pronunciations to see if the participants dramatically changed during the teenage years. Her approach offered a before-and-after look at linguistic pronunciation during the teen years.

“The teenager subgroup did not stand out as a group from the rest of the subgroups, meaning there was nothing special about being a teenager,” Kohn said. “Just because you are a teenager doesn’t mean you will change your language.”

“Perhaps our stereotypes about how teenagers speak are often based on subgroups of teenagers that stand out to us as most distinct. We notice the kids who make bold fashion statements, so we also might notice the kids who are making dramatic linguistic changes.”

Source: Kansas State University

 
Teenager using cell phone photo by shutterstock.