The New York Times: Nu Shortcuts in School R 2 Much 4 Teachers (registration required). This is an interesting convergence of two conversation threads I’ve been carrying on over the past couple weeks.

The first conversation deals with current IM slang, something I started wondering about a few months ago. I’ve been absently curious about how IM/chat slang has been changing over time. Someone recently pointed me to, which I doubt contains cutting-edge slang but that does include a dictionary of assicons that you might find useful. Or not.

The second thread has to do with slang in academic writing. K, an ESL teacher, has been working with her students to help them avoid using swear words in their academic writing. “She was all happy and shit” probably has no place in a paper for school.

Part of why her students write things like this is because foreign words do not carry the same emotional weight that words in one’s native language. The Japanese, for example, use English rather than Japanese as a polite way of saying “toilet.” I doubt very much that native English speakers would name a movie Fucking Åmål, but it seems to pose little problem for the Swedes. Since K’s students are non-native English speakers, and because they are teenagers, these words tend not to carry the same stigma as they do with adult native speakers.

It is also, I think, a question of learning to write differently than you speak. This is very much an acquired skill. I see evidence of this all the time in colleagues’ writing at work: colloquial usage worming its way into what should be a formal register. Some of you have quite likely noticed the conversational tone and grammatical structures that I use here, a deliberate decision that I know irritates some. It takes careful practice to learn to communicate using different registers, verbally or in writing.

Of course, K pointed out to me that she would love to have her students write the same way they speak, since their conversational fluency is impressive but their command of written English needs work. Come to think of it, this is by no means limited to ESL students.

These two running conversations come together in the NY Times article. It does take instruction and practice to learn to write differently for academic purposes. I’m not surprised that these students are using their IM slang in homework. I am pleased that some teachers are flexible enough to allow slang in early drafts, while expecting a switch to “standard” English while editing and revising, and using it as a springboard for discussion about language evolution.

My favorite part:

She realized that the students thought she was out of touch. “It was like `Get with it, Bova,’ ” she said.

This is great. What better demonstration of the evolution of the language than this use of “like” — despite what many detractors assert, a useful and by no means random discourse particle.

I remember when I first started to hear complaints about this apparent misuse of “like.” Didn’t understand what the fuss was about: it would either go away, or we had a new construct. Witness how English evolves. It has not gone away, and now I hear it all the time, even from those who used to attack it.

Don’t believe me? Still driving you crazy? Listen to this interview on NPR yesterday with someone who’s recently published a study of this new use of “like”.

Mind, it will be a while before I’m willing to accept this in most formal writing. Doesn’t fit the register. But in casual speech, it’s quite useful and so has become common.