There’s no evidence for a link between a decline in writing standards and texting. Photo: Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty
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No, the internet is not destroying our ability to read and spell

If anything, we are living in an age of unprecedented literacy – in the Western world, at least. The internet just makes our pre-existing mistakes far more visible.

Immediacy is the attribute that most defines the internet. Everything, from shopping to films to pornography, lies, as the cliché has it, just a click away. Online life also brings us into close proximity with the opinions of others – friends, family and total strangers alike. It’s not always pretty of course, generally a reminder that people have a tendency to stupidity, that is often amplified by its appearing in black and white; what would ordinarily be laughed off down the pub as benign ignorance and quickly forgotten is taken a great deal more seriously when couched in the discursive context of an online debate, however inane that debate might be. (And one needn’t throw the first stone either – given the proliferation of opinion online it is likely we have all at least once in our life posted a comment on an internet forum that we wouldn’t care to stand over.)

Officialdom (and its officious henchmen) has long afforded the written word greater importance than the spoken variety, partly out of social prestige but often out of practicality – people, businesses and bureaucracies request something “in writing” to have a documented record of a commitment or an attestation. And not everyone, to be sure, writes to the same degree of elegance or ability. Texting (and, to a lesser extent, Twitter) has been the main bugbear of those Jeremiahs, who bewail falling standards in spelling, grammar and literacy. The reality is, however, that successive studies in various cultural contexts around the world have shown there to be no correlation between a decline in writing standards and SMS use. Standards have remained fairly constant. It is simply that the internet and social media have made what errors there are in spelling and punctuation far more visible these days. If anything, we are living in an age of unprecedented literacy – in the Western world, at least. Until two decades ago, the majority of people, once their formal schooling was over, rarely wrote anything longer than a shopping list or a Christmas card, and rarely was what they wrote intended for a readership of more than a handful of people. That has all changed, and the information revolution affords people greater opportunity to write on a regular basis, and, of course to expose what they write, good and bad, to a greater audience. Minority languages like Irish have found new life in written form online and Cantonese, previously thought of as beneath literary use even by its native speakers, who opted for written Putonghua instead, has, thanks to social media, blossomed into a living written language, and has been emblematic of the current protests in Hong Kong. If the internet has made people their own bureaucrats, it has also made them, in however fanciful a way, their own poets, journalists and chroniclers. 

Illiteracy is a different thing entirely. If you want a gauge for how reading and writing standards are falling or rising, the internet is not really the place to look, because the truly functionally illiterate are not present there. They are generally hidden, in official statistics as well as in society – wealthy countries usually trumpet 99 per cen literacy rates, but the sole metric used, by the CIA handbook, for instance, is people aged 15 or over having completed five or more years of schooling (UNESCO’s yardstick for youth literacy is slightly more demanding). The estimates for adult illiteracy in industrialised societies tend to be as high as 20 per cent (the National Literacy Trust puts the figure for England at 16 per cent). Many of these are people who slipped through the net of the education system and others whose reading and writing ability has declined through disuse – more than half of adult illiterates in France are over the age of 45. Two thirds of those adult illiterates are men, which is itself a direct inversion of the worldwide gender imbalance in illiteracy rates, where two thirds of those that cannot read or write are women. 

One is rarely exposed to illiteracy in everyday life – many of those who genuinely struggle manage to keep it a secret to all but family and close friends. In my bartending days, I once checked myself when a customer asked, during a particularly busy rush what beers we served (there were no brand logos on the taps to help him out) and I impatiently pointed to the chalkboards overhead. It quickly became clear that he wasn’t able to read them and, embarrassed, I made time to run through them with him. Occasionally I will be stopped by someone on the streets of Paris, pointing to an address on a computer print-out they are looking for but which they are not able to make out. They are invariably sub-Saharan Africans perfectly fluent in French, but this doesn’t mean that that social group are the most likely to be unlettered – at least 75 per cent of adult illiterates in France are native-born, having grown up speaking French alone. It is just that an immigrant’s straitened circumstances mean he or she cannot afford to go to lengths to hide his or her inability to read in the same way a native can. 

France’s economy minister Emmanuel Macron recently caused an uproar when, in his first media interview after taking the job, he remarked that workers facing lay-offs in a factory in Brittany would have trouble finding other jobs because of illiteracy. Macron was not wrong (some 20 per cent of the workers in the factory were believed to have reading difficulties) but the blitheness of his comments was understandably wounding. The insensitivity of his remarks are symptomatic of the difficulty any educated person would have empathising with an illiterate person’s predicament. 

Most people these days agree that raising literacy standards can only be a good thing – though there are, of course, those of an authoritarian bent who disagree, like former Portuguese dictator Salazar, who saw a literate peasantry as a threat to his rule, and the Taliban, who take violent exception to girls being educated. Still, even in countries as unfree as North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran, literacy, if not always part of a fully rounded education, is certainly taken seriously. In China, Mao even simplified the alphabet to make it easier for the peasantry to learn how to read, albeit depriving the written language of much of its richness. Traditional Chinese now survives only in the spheres which were then out of the PRC’s control – Taiwan, Macao and Hong Kong. It certainly doesn’t follow that literacy will, in of itself, bring about freer societies, nor, as we have seen, does it have comprehensive reach even in wealthy liberal democracies. It does, of course, make economic sense, both for individuals and societies, for people to be able to read and write. It is for this reason that “benefit of clergy” existed in times past, where someone would be spared the death penalty if they could read – a valuable economic commodity. Playwright Ben Jonson was one such beneficiary, escaping hanging for manslaughter in 1598 because of his education. This benefit had originally come about to give clerics the right to be tried by an ecclesiastical court but it was later modified to benefit anyone who could prove their literacy, reflective of the gradual “democratisation” of the educational franchise. 

Increased literacy, no doubt, ultimately has its cultural impact, as Richard Hoggart’s most famous work attested (as did the success of the very Pelican imprint which published it), and, as Dickens observed in Our Mutual Friend, “no one who can read, ever looks at a book, even unopened on a shelf, like one who cannot”. Still, literacy, once again, will not necessarily lead to cultural bounty – there are plenty of places in the world where most people can read or write but remain largely unmoved by things cultural. Literacy is not even a prerequisite for culture, as much of it predates mass literacy. The great Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré never learned to read or write yet he was a tireless campaigner for education as mayor of his native village – in developing countries, it is often illiterate parents who are the most eager for their children to learn to read and write. But even literate parents in Western countries worry about their offspring – the older generation hail Harry Potter and the Twilight books as the cavalry rescuing teenagers from certain ignorance fostered by TV, video games and the internet. I tend to agree with Tim Parks that such books aren’t really a gateway drug for weightier literature, and neither do I think that reading would all of a sudden die out among younger people if it weren’t for J K Rowling or Stephanie Meyer. Illiteracy is a real problem for many adults (and children too) but it is engendered mostly by being locked into an environment where reading or the encouragement of it is absent. If your children are getting anywhere near books without having to step into a schoolroom, you need not worry too much, any more than that texting will destroy their ability to spell.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses