I have always been a lover of language, in all of its various forms. A voracious reader since the age of three, I became fluent in a second language by the time I reached high school, was pleasantly surprised in college to discover that I spoke a third language called “Black English,” and, since then, have learned “un poco” of four additional languages. Other language forms I have studied and learned are the language of dance, the language of health and fitness, the language of love (I think) and the language of digital technology (even less sure). My fascination with language, as a method of expression and communication, is precisely because of what it can do and that it exists in so many various forms.
It is also why I am so concerned with the direction of current trends in language and, ultimately, our communication. While today’s digital technology advances seem to have increased our “communication capabilities,” our actual communication seems to be worsening; we are effectively communicating less. And it all comes down to language. As either an enabler or barrier to communication, our very existence depends on whether we share a language that enables us to communicate effectively with each other. When we use the language of digital technology, are we all speaking the same language? Is it enabling effective communication?
First, there are the words themselves, i.e. the verbal. The same principles apply to social media, text and email that I learned in that “Black English” course in college; current digital technologies have introduced a new “language” with new terminology, phrases and words. If our digital terms, phrases and words are different (and constantly changing), are we “speaking the same language?”
Second, ever heard the old adage “communication is only 7 percent of what we say?” Even conservative research measures nonverbal communication at 60 percent of human communication. This includes our facial expressions, body language, voice tone, pitch, flow or volume, words of emphasis or style of speaking. If these other language factors are even more important than words for effective communication, and we lose them in cyberspace, can we truly communicate?
Lastly, there is culture and how culture influences the language we use, how we express ourselves and, as a result, what we hear when others speak. Cultural influences can affect our language and communication along multiple aspects of cultural diversity (and our identities) – region, ethnicity, religion, politics, etc. A quote from Anthony Robbins reminds us that “to effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way that we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.” In the digital world, when we are effectively homogenized behind the keyboard, how does this lack of awareness of culture affect our ability to communicate effectively?
The loss of any part of the equation of verbal and nonverbal language expressed through the lens of culture is a loss of our ability to communicate. By challenging our ability to use verbal, nonverbal and cultural cues and “read from the same hymn book,” it is easy to understand how the language of digital technology is negatively affecting our communication.
And that’s not all. The language of digital technology also has an underacknowledged ripple effect on our physical and mental health.
Various studies have proven that language and communication abilities are linked to levels of frustration and/or engagement. It’s simple. If you can’t communicate, you get frustrated. Mental health experts generally agree that, due to the influence of social media, we are not only more frustrated, we are more depressed and more isolated, less interested in learning and listening and less able to communicate with others in person. In addition, the new digital language of likes and new communication norms setting expectations for instant responses have increased our levels of “digital stress” and “technology addiction.” For college students (and earlier), studies have shown that the use of current technology is having a negative effect on language, cognitive, social and emotional development. Negative adaptations for concentration, memory, learning and increased risky behaviors have been observed.
And, the more we speak the “language of online” and use our digital devices, our physical health also suffers. We spend less time moving around and going outdoors. Physical therapy studies have shown reduced core strength in young children and adolescents due to lack of physical activity, mostly as a result of constant online gaming.
And that’s the simple stuff. It gets more complicated (and unhealthy) when we look at some of the other, more direct impacts of our use of digital technology on our language and communication abilities. Studies have demonstrated that our overuse of digital technology can result in overwork of the left brain and atrophy of the right brain and pre-frontal cortex resulting in symptoms of “digital dementia.” The right hemisphere of the brain controls nonverbal features such as body language, eye contact, intonation, emotions, memory, thinking; the prefrontal cortex houses impulse control and long-term consequence analysis. If we lose these functions, how can we communicate?
How can we save language, communication, and in the process, save ourselves? Higher education can be critical in its role as role models and educators of the next generation. Here are a few suggestions:
- Higher education must remain a haven for intellectual discourse, maintaining a commitment to face-to-face interactions and the ability to develop critical thinking and listening skills.
- Educate students about the short- and long-term consequences of communication in the digital age.
- As a model for its students, higher education must model moderation with respect to digital technology and devices. The “always on-always accessible/available” mantra must be tempered.
- Encourage faculty, staff and students to self-reflect on their use of technology for classes and groups. Promote awareness of the signs of Internet Addiction (Take the test!)
- Develop top-down leadership and sponsorship of efforts to “unplug” occasionally. (There is a National Day of Unplugging!)
The language of digital technology is becoming more and more a part of the communication process in education. Even as it enables new educational frontiers, there is a responsibility, especially at the higher ed level, to balance that with the education of students around the potential pitfalls of the new medium. This quarter, I am myself taking an online Organic Chemistry course (with online Lab) so I understand that it will be a delicate balance. However, I believe that the long-term consequences – our ability to communicate and, ultimately, our physical and mental well-being – are well worth it!
Based in Atlanta, Tanya Leake is a certified health coach, group fitness and dance instructor, wellness educator, presenter and author of “GET A GGRiPP: The Health and Wellness Movement Rooted in Black Cultural Traditions.” She is also co-host of the podcast “No Stupid Questions”. Her column appears in Diverse every month.