Debates over the effects of typing on children’s spelling and grammar skills are as old as the internet. When texting first became a popular method of communication, stories abound of stuffy academics wondering whether young people typing “cya l8r” instead of “see you later” would spell the demise of the English language as we knew it.
Now, the same argument is emerging again, but this time the culprit is emojis - those icons on your devices that represent everything from facial expressions to fruit and veg. In 2015, the ‘Face With Tears of Joy’ emoji - 😂 - became the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year, and iconic works of literature like Moby Dick
and the Bible
have even been re-written entirely in emojis.
The emoji question feels particularly important right now, when lockdown measures are forcing children to do more and more of their learning with a keyboard and mouse than a pencil and paper. But are pupils in danger of regressing if they use too many hearts and smiley faces in their typing?
As with any other form of communication, context is key. The relationships we have online vary as much as the relationships we have in real life. Rather than simply outlawing the emoji wholesale, we should make children aware of when they are and aren’t appropriate. Sending a joke to a friend with an emoji sticking its tongue out makes sense, but a winking face or a heart isn’t going to impress anybody if you’re applying for a job!
We should also consider the benefits of using emojis in our digital writing - particularly when it comes to recognising and regulating emotions. Emails and instant messaging may be convenient ways of keeping in touch but they can also be simplistic, since they lack the nuance that can be conveyed by tone of speech or body language. How many times have you spent hours trying to find the hidden meaning in a seemingly straightforward text? Putting in an emoji can help make it clear that your stern-sounding comment should be taken as a joke, or express your feelings more explicitly.
Emojis also have a much broader, more flexible range of meanings, making them suitable for many different contexts (just ask a teenager what they think of when they see a peach 🍑 emoji). The ‘Face With Tears of Joy’ can mean you find something hilarious, or it can be used to show embarrassment instead of a blushing face. Looking at an emoji in the context of a message in order to determine its meaning is a subtle skill. Children who master it will find it easier to understand and consider the emotions of others - a crucial skill in forming relationships.
At Natterhub, we believe that the best way to teach children about being online is to create an environment that reflects the online world, and that providing children with a space in which they can better understand emotions will make them more resilient and empathetic. With this in mind, we see emojis as an essential part of our platform. Pupils and teachers can use them on the news feed or during lessons to show how they feel, and the applications for teachers are endless. Imagine asking pupils to describe their favourite book using only emojis, or rewrite an emoji-filled email using more formal language.
Instead of feeling 😬 about emojis, we should show them a little more ❤ and accept that they are just the most recent update to our language. To quote the eminent linguist David Crystal: “Language changes to reflect society. The only languages which do not change are the dead ones.”