Yoon’s report presents interesting data on the effect of mobile phones on the Korean culture. He divides the effects into two categories, health and culture. While the health risks are minimal (such as electronic radiation, which to me doesn’t sound minimal!). The cultural effects are more lasting. Of these, I was drawn to the cultural threat on learning and literacy.
The fear of mobile phone language is similar to the changes in written grammar with the emergence of Instant Messaging and email. Yoon writes that “the emerging technological environment does not necessarily contribute to young people’s literacy.” The new acronyms, abbreviations, and frequent use of numerals and English catchphrases overpower the traditional Korean sayings and characters. For example, emails are now somewhat “coded” in “alien language.”
These new phrases and languages are starting to be researched. Are these abbreviations processed as actual words? Or, as I tested in an fMRI group project last semester, are they processed as the phrases they represent?
When I started the project, little research was available for us to reference. Because of this, we started from scratch and hypothesized that IM words such as “brb” (representing the phrase “be right back’) and “gtg” (“got to go”) would be processed as the phrases they represent, rather than new 3-letter words. By comparing these 3-letter words to 3-letter words, 3-letter meaningless words, and 3-word phrases, we found that American college students process 3-letter words as unique words, not as phrases or nonwords. More specifically, the brain regions responsible for bilingual thought processes (the left caudate nucleus, as discovered by Crinion et al in 2006) activates when processing IM words.
Though our subject pool was not diverse (all were Brown students), the study has interesting implications for people who worry about the future of written language. As stated in Yoon’s article, many worry that the new phrases and codes that we frequently use will destroy our learned grammatical techniques. What we may not have expected, though, is that when you switch from typing an IM to writing a paper, you are actually subconsciously switching languages. So, maybe we have less to worry about than we thought!