Internet language use is not wrong, so we shouldn't correct it?

A while back, Traci Gardner at the NCTE Inbox blog wrote about "abbreviations and shortcuts" used in IM and elsewhere as not being incorrect grammar. She stated:

The systems that I see Internet writers use don’t indicate laziness or a lack of education. Far from it. They require complex understandings of how language works. When students use Internet language in the wrong place, we shouldn’t mark their work incorrect any more than we would mark students’ use of dialect and home language wrong. What we should do is talk about code-switching and how the uses of Internet language and Standard English contrast.

I responded in two comments over there, but I thought I'd expand a little more on it here. I agree with much of what Gardner wrote. In this particular paragraph, although I agree with the first and last sentences, the middle two sentences, I can't.

Although it might seem that internet language requires a complex understanding of language, most people don't understand the language they use in every day conversation. Linguists do, and people who study a foreign language get some inkling of the mechanics of their native language. But most people don't understand how language works any more than the non-biologist understands how mitochondria synthesize ATP. I remembered taking an English syntax class in my thirties, learning for the first time that the difference between blue bird (a type of bird) and blue bird (a bird that is blue in color) is understood through stress. The former has equal stress on blue and bird, while the latter has stress only on bird. Until that class I didn't even know that I was making that distinction. It was all unconscious (which is how we acquire our languages). So, no, although language itself is complex, most people do not have "complex understandings of how language works," at least consciously.

Yes, dialects and home languages are not wrong. They just are. However, any dialect can be "wrong" in a particular context. Imagine using text-messaging abbreviations in a resume or on a company's business report to shareholders. Imagine pontificating with academic verbiage to your parents. Or using "ain't" and southern double modals in an academic article.

In some ways, it's a natural progression to go from saying that something is not wrong to not evaluating it as wrong. But, again, what is not "wrong" per se can be wrong in a particular context. Most people applying for a construction job are not going to wear a tuxedo or evening gown. There's nothing wrong with tuxedos and evening gowns in and of themselves. At a construction site, however, an employer might question your ability to do the job and might interpret your choice of apparel as indicating a lack of common sense and consequently perhaps a lack of trustworthiness. If your purpose were to obtain a job, then you would have failed an important test.

Similarly, dialect use depends upon audience, purpose, and context. We are not helping our students if the resumes they send out do not have a formal dialect, if the company's reports they write do not have a business dialect, and so on. So, although we need to explain and help our students learn contextual uses of language, we also have to evaluate and give feedback on how well they use a dialect for the audience and purpose for which their text is intended. Generally speaking, internet abbreviations don't cut it in school and business writing.

Another reason that Gardner gives for not correcting dialects is,

The problem is that marking language “wrong” doesn’t work.

Yes, there's research that shows that traditional grammar instruction and correction doesn't work. And there's research that shows certain types of error feedback do work. (For more on error feedback, see my series of posts on error feedback, beginning with Error Feedback in L2 Writing.)

Of course, simply marking something as wrong may not work. Even in sports, if a coach simply says, "Wrong, do it again!" it's unlikely that a player will improve much. But coaches give feedback on what to do, and the players practice hours on end for months to incorporate that feedback. In addition, coaches don't tell players everything that is wrong, only a few crucial points at a time. The problem with most grammar correction is that, although explanation often accompanies the correction, often the amount of correction may be too much to attend to and also students generally do not practice hours on end to change their grammar. So, it's to be expected that much research will show error correction doesn't work. Not because it doesn't work but because it's implemented in ways that will not work. However, many extrapolate from this finding and jump to the conclusion that all types of error correction will not work. That's an unjustified jump.

Having said all of that, it really makes no sense to apply research findings of grammar correction to Internet-speak correction. Teachers may be marking Internet-speak "wrong," but this is not the same "wrong" as in correcting grammar. As Gardner notes,

Wheeler and Swords point to the research of applied linguistics and the work of educators such as past CCCC president Keith Gilyard that indicates the correction of vernacular language, the languages used with family and friends in the home community, just doesn’t work (4).

However, Internet-speak is not a native vernacular language that people grow up with. I'm not sure it should be considered a language as distinct from English. At best, it might be considered some sort of pidgin, as Anil Dash (whom Gardner cites) says, learned around or past the prime time for acquiring a native language. In fact, although we might mark it "wrong," we are not correcting it in the way that we expect students to modify their native language. Instead, we are saying, "Don't use Internet-speak. Use your vernacular language."

Again, the issue is not whether a dialect or abbreviations are "wrong." They're not. The issue is, How can we help our students use the language expected by their audience in a particular context? Of course, as Gardner states, we must orient our students to noticing contrasts between Internet-speak and academic language. Their ability to do so, however, should be evaluated just as we assess other aspects of their writing.

If you're interested in reading how others are handling Internet dialect differences in email from students, read the following:
Bullshit Meters are Blowing Up
An Academic Outsider Gets Real About Email Communication
Email headaches: small bother? good lesson?
Write a perfect email
How to send Krause email
How to email a professor