How Twitter Is Making English Better

Jim Pennucci/Flickr

Jim Pennucci/Flickr

Is Twitter bad for language? Some research shows that it may actually make language more efficient, forming new linguistic norms and language-learning methods.

Grammar enthusiasts have long lamented the decline of “proper” language caused by social networking sites. The 140-character limit on Twitter has been a source of especially volatile controversy. New research, however, suggests that tweets are streamlining more efficient language use than average.

Christian Rudder, co-founder of OkCupid and author of Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One’s Looking, compared language use in tweets to language use in the Oxford English Corpus (OEC), which is a collection of journalism, novels, blogs, papers and other types of literature.

In an excerpt from Dataclysm in The Huffington Post, Rudder reports not only that the average Twitter word is 4.3 characters compared with 3.4 in the OEC, but also that the most frequently tweeted words tend to contain more meaning than the most frequently used words in the OEC.

Rudder’s findings suggest that, rather than dumbing language down, Twitter forces users to be more concise in their expressions. Rather than using short words with many spaces in between, users have adjusted by packing meaning into fewer words.

Twitter Literature?

Twitter has, in some ways, created its own genre of literature. Works of “Twitter Fiction,” arguably coined by user 140 Characters (@twitterfiction), are “short stories,” flash fiction in 140 characters or less. User Seven by Twenty (@7×20) hosts Twitter Fiction competitions, in which other users can submit their short stories for publication.

In fact, many classic stories have been retold through “Twitterature,” a series of tweets. Penguin published a collection of these retellings by Alexander Aciman and Emmett Rensin called Twitterature in 2009. Twitterature may not be limited to retelling classics, but may also include new and personal stories, such as comedian John Fugelsang’s inspirational story, as covered by NPR.

Literary genres as extreme as Twitter Fiction and Twitterature are far from new, however. Japanese traditional haiku poetry contains only seventeen syllables. The six-word short story form, popularized by “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” and often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, continues to present itself as a popular challenge for writers.

Avatar Languages compares Twitterature to Japanese keitai shousetsu, which were stories written in a series of text messages, back when texts had small character limits.

It seems that literature is progressing towards profundity in simplicity, especially as technology and literature become more mobile. Language learning will surely be influenced as more and more mobile tools become available.

Twitter as a Language Learning Tool

While only reading short tweets in a target language may seem like a counterintuitive way to study language, the concentration of meaning in a 140-character post may actually make Twitter an ideal tool. The platform also has other functions that may make the site an effective supplementary tool to language learning.

Tweets, unless the privacy settings have been altered, are visible to anyone. Since users do not need to have a formerly established relationship to follow or view tweets, language learners can follow twitter conversations to catch up on the latest slang and idioms.

Twitter also allows users to easily find information on a specific topic. Following a Twitter account in the target language a user is interested in may be an entertaining way to acquire some more vocabulary. Because tweets go out instantaneously, this kind of targeted following even allows a language learner to participate in real time discussions, on Twitter or elsewhere.

Twitter is unparalleled in its ability to serve as an information and article sharing tool. Following relevant publications for news on language learning may be beneficial.

Remember to Follow Language Trainers on Twitter (@langtrainers) and, if reading about learning language via short form messages has piqued your own interest, Contact Us for more information on how you can get started or take a free online language level test to test your skills.