Are We Losing Written Language?
For political reasons (education reform school closures) and lifestyle choices my son had been to three schools by third grade. The studies showed that kids who move a lot struggle with math, but MLM does not. He is very smart and will monologue at you forever about whatever’s caught his interest. It’s currently global political conflict history. He can sing you many country’s national anthems, except ours, and talk about all the country flags ala Sheldon on Big Bang Theory. But when asked to write something down, he struggles.
His handwriting is terrible. Unreadable, 3-year-old terrible. Every we talked to his teachers, and every year they said they’d try, but teaching writing specifically isn’t part of the curriculum. Apparently, children are just supposed to know how to write when given an essay assignment. His handwriting was unreadable into fifth grade. We had him tested, believing the teachers had tried, but it wasn’t a disorder (thank goodness because the school district didn’t support those and we would have had to find and pay for outside help). He’d taught himself to write, so, he never learned the rules of writing: where to start sentences, how to space letters and words, how keep letters the same size and on the same line, which words to capitalize.
After a few months of tutoring and practice, his handwriting is mostly readable. But his hand does not work as fast as his brain yet, and so when he gets going he will slip into the bad habits he created in teaching himself to write: backward “s”, random capitalization, weirdly spaced letters and words. And worse, he just won’t try. He’ll write incomplete sentences with no thought, analysis, or insights. “It’s bad.” “I liked it.” Etc.
The teachers’ defense was the use of computers. Like so many ideas boiled down to their most simplified state that sounds good. “We don’t teach handwriting because they use computers for their assignments.” This would be great if they still taught the rules of writing, but they don’t. He got the basic: capitalize the first word, punctuation at the end. But nothing about indents or format, and he wasn’t graded on punctuation. And, “using computers” implies being able to use them, to type. However, at no point has he been taught keyboarding or typing. So his fast brain is left with hunt-and-peck to share his thoughts in written form. It’s too slow and cumbersome, and so he often doesn’t even try to express himself unless he’s allowed to use videos. Of course MLM is not the only child in this predicament.
Many older folk bemoan the loss of cursive, which I understand. It is an efficient way of writing, and being able to read it allows us to literally read our history. And it is no longer taught at all. But now schools are dropping all handwriting and not replacing it with keyboarding. So we have a generation of kids who are being taught science (remember when it slipped from schools) and critical thinking, but not how to share their ideas. Where will this lead us?
I read an article about ten or fifteen years ago about how western humans have gone through phases—science, athletics, and art—repeatedly throughout history. The writer was positing that we were in a gladiator phase because of the money put into and the popularity of our professional sports. With Climate Change for inspiration, funding, and pro-science/anti-writing curriculum it’s possible a scientific age is next. So, perhaps we won’t mind the loss of writing. This does not mean we will lose all sports and art, but just that it won’t be a priority.
The loss of writing isn’t the loss of communication. We will adapt. Someone will improve keyboards to have easy scientific notation. Presentations will be given in person or via videos. Research papers will be dictated to computers that will transcribe them. Texting will remain, and our emoji language will grow. Voice texts and voice to text emails will prevail. Perhaps even talking on the phone will come back. (Though if current behavior persists, we won’t respond or communicate at all most of the time.)
The loss of writing is not a crisis. But it is an interesting idea as a writer and coming from an era when writing was important. We used to write beautiful letters to each other. When I was a kid penpals were still a thing. Schools would connect children around the world. European kids would practice their English writing, and American kids would practice their English writing. We’ve bought so completely into the idea of social evolution (created by a philosopher, not an archeologist or historian) that we tend to think that whatever “advances” we’ve made are permanent—save some outside disaster like solar flares that could kill our computers. But, it’s been coming for a while. When I got to college, there were kids in my English comp and fiction classes that didn’t know the difference between are and our. Telling what hour is was must have broken their brains. Admittedly, though I was a good student, I learned a lot of grammar rules from Grammerly and trying to outsmart Word. if I hadn’t been a writer, I wouldn’t have learned to write. So we shouldn’t be surprised.
What will be lost when we largely share and process information verbally? Are we facing a new library of Alexandrea situation? Or will it be more like Star Trek where everyone has communicators (cell phones) that they can talk verbally to each other (again they are actually phones) that can translate any language and record at will? Alexa please record my diary entry. Maybe someone will finally invent the brain chip that will directly bluetooth my thoughts to the computer. I used to think it would be the ultimate in lazy awesomeness, but think what I could get some while running, or biking, or rowing. People like my son, who can process loads of verbal information, will be fine, successful. Those of us who prefer to read to process information will become the new neural diverse, but then we’ll age out of the work force. People have shared stories and knowledge orally for ever. Perhaps it’s not that big of a deal.
Luckily, (most) kids are still being taught to read, and think, and value ideas. With less writers those of us who can will be more highly valued. Mid-list authors and script writers will be highly paid. (Imagine a world without writers strikes. LOL) Publishers would go back to marketing and selling all of their books (not just potential block busters). Writer/editor relationships could go back to the storied versions the writers of yore brag about. And with less competition my books could finally be published (as audiobooks of course) and read.
I’d love to read ;) about your experiences with non-writers or verbal communicators, or what your view of a writerless world might look like. Join the conversation and share your thoughts with a paid subscription.