According to professors at the University of Waterloo, a significant proportion of Canadian students are more or less illiterate. About thirty per cent of students in their first year at the school failed an English Proficiency exam, which tests basic grammar and spelling. At Simon Fraser University, ten per cent of students are required to take a remedial writing course because they do not qualify to enroll in a more advanced one, which is mandatory for graduation.
This failure rate confused me: we’re the generation raised with a little red or green line under any misspelled word, sentence fragment (which I always consider revising), or run-on sentence. It’s like having my mother hiding inside the medium through which we form most of our sentences, the computer, with a sharp eye for English and a free way with the strap.
Not only do we have constant auto-correction of our mistakes, but also at our fingertips are thousands of websites dedicated to easy, simple, step-by-step guides to the proper usage of the semicolon, comma, apostrophe and exclamation point (hint for the latter: never).
Parents are blaming everything from texting and tweeting to teachers and, well, the parents. Whoever is to blame, the fact remains that kids are incapable of expressing themselves using the English language, and that will cause them problems for their entire lives. In the age of email, spelling and grammar can be a major handicap in modern communication.
Those people who can’t properly put a sentence together or distinguish between “there,” “they’re,” and “their,” or who spell “definitely” with an “a” are shooting themselves in the foot, provided that their foot happens to be the respect of the addressee. Also, the use of emoticons, LOL, ROFL, OMG, WTF and the letter U on its own, it should go without saying, is strictly reserved for instant messenger chats with younger siblings.
There are people who would argue that this lazy, bland e-speak is destined to be integrated into mainstream English. There is probably some truth in that; the English language, after all, has been in a state of constant evolution since its birth, and why should we be so arrogant as to assume that we’ve finally got it down to a science? Especially given the rapid progression of communication technology and its social integration over the last two decades, it shouldn’t be surprising that its vocabulary has worked its way into popular speech.
However, teachers have to be wary of the dumbing-down of our vocabulary, and the passive adoption of a generation’s newspeak. Clearly teachers at the high school level aren’t beating it out of kids’ written lingo, and this is reducing professors’ jobs from teaching those same kids the subtleties of Milton and Marlowe to that of teaching them that apostrophe’s don’t pluralize noun’s.