With the advent of the internet and smartphones, written communication has been enriched with informal expressions. To write to someone is no longer necessarily to adopt the codes of the letter. What is often called “SMS language” is enjoying a certain success, even if its use is far from being generalized, even in digital writing…
These alternative uses are often associated with the writing practices of young people, even if they are not reserved for any one generation. At the same time, the decline in the spelling level of pupils educated in France for several decades is well documented. It would then be tempting to make a link between the two: wouldn’t the younger generations be aware of the social utility of spelling? Do less standardized writing practices, linked to digital uses, influence their relationship to writing?
A survey conducted, as part of a thesis, among 178 students preparing for a tertiary BTS (higher technician certificate) in 2017 provides some answers to these questions. This is a limited sample but which has the advantage of being varied in terms of educational origin since it includes general, technological and professional baccalauréat holders.
In addition, these are students preparing to work in a profession where writing plays an important role since they are training to become executive assistants, work in tourism or IT support for organisations. It was therefore particularly interesting to collect their representations concerning the social role of spelling.
Giving a good self-image
The students surveyed were asked about the importance given to spelling in school, professional and private contexts. The academic importance of spelling is recognized since 46% of them consider it necessary and 47% important to pass exams. But the professional importance of a good mastery of spelling seems even more marked in their eyes, since 57% declare it necessary and 38% important to succeed in professional life.
Some respondents were also exposed in their training to spelling lessons that met this professional need. If some contest the terms, sometimes perceived as infantilizing, none questions its usefulness.
The interviews show that this importance given to spelling in a professional context is linked to the idea that spelling influences the image that the reader has of the author of the message. A student uses a rather eloquent metaphor in this regard: “having good spelling is like being well dressed in real life”. It would therefore be a question, in situations of communication mediated by writing, of respecting the standard that will make it possible to be perceived as a serious professional.
The types of writing mentioned by these students in the process of professionalization are sometimes professional writing (letters, reports, etc.), but above all writing associated with the recruitment process which concerns them in the first place: the CV and the cover letter. . Their view of spelling within this process is also particularly relevant since it has been shown that spelling errors have a very negative influence on the way recruiters judge these documents.
Adapt to the communication context
In professional and school contexts, respondents are therefore fully aware of the social role of spelling and very few of them question it. But what about in the private domain? And in particular in digital writing practices, such as social networks or SMS?
The attachment to a standardized spelling is also illustrated in this part of the survey. About 40% say they always pay attention to spelling in text messages, regardless of the context. They are less than 10% to declare that they pay attention to it only rarely, or never. The remaining 50% said they sometimes pay attention to it.
The interviews made it possible to show that it is mainly a question of an adaptation to the recipient of the methods of communication. Exchanges with unfamiliar people, adults and, a fortiori, teachers or professionals are thus most often done in a standardized spelling. These students thus demonstrate that they are aware of the need to adapt communication to the addressee.
It is also noteworthy that those who say they have recourse to alternative procedures such as the abbreviation do not in any way assimilate it to spelling negligence. Some declare on the contrary to remain attentive to the agreements even if they allow themselves abbreviated forms. It is a question of adapting the code used to the material constraints of a communication which must be fast.
More generally, the spelling choices appear to be linked to the social network, in the broad sense, in which the communication takes place. As one might expect, some say they are more relaxed with their friends because they know that they don’t pay much attention to spelling. But the opposite situation also exists and a student even says that she made progress in spelling at college thanks to SMS exchanges with her best friend who had excellent spelling and whose influence thus enabled her to progress.
The challenges of a very complex spelling system
The same is true of online exchanges which can take various forms, some of which prove to be favorable to the development of spelling skills. In our corpus, this is particularly true of the few students who state that they participate in role play game forums.
This practice of online role-playing indeed involves making characters exist textually. It is therefore based on a practice of writing and reading, which suffers from non-standard spelling. All the students concerned testify to the pressure put by the coordinators of these forums on the participants so that they conform to the spelling standard.
On the scale of our corpus, digital writing practices do not therefore appear to be an obstacle to the development of spelling skills. Compliance with the norm does not depend on the support but on the social context and, in accordance with what we know about the relationship of French speakers to spelling , this is often favorable to a standardized spelling.
The paradox remains, however, that our survey also confirmed what we opened our article with, that is to say the difficulty of these students educated in France to produce texts devoid of spelling errors, in particular with regard to the grammatical spelling.
If this does not come from a lack of interest in spelling, if they are acutely aware of the role that spelling could have in their professional life, where does this difficulty come from? Our results suggest that it is not a question of negligence, but of difficulties in implementing the spelling system of French, recognized as extremely complex . One can legitimately wonder about the practical consequences of this discrepancy between a strong awareness of a social demand and the actual difficulty of responding to it.
Author Bio: Helene Lelever is a Lecturer in Language Sciences at INSPÉ Strasbourg at the University of Strasbourg