English in times of social media

Poetic compositions, Twitterature, memes, and more… several new options can help learners to acquire proficiency in the language

We need to liberate ourselves from the pedagogical belief that English is acquired chiefly from teachers, textbooks and classrooms. This restrictive perception has only created hatred and phobia for the language, and led learners to doubt their cognitive capability, which has adversely affected their learning of other subjects, too.

The universal truth is that languages are acquired by employing them dynamically, and not by passively consuming them. With 3.96 billion — roughly 51% of the global population today — accessing social media sites, there are immense possibilities for learning English realistically and effortlessly. Of course, there are grave concerns such as fake news, deepfakes, hate speech, cyberbullying, stalking, trolling, phishing and data theft but the inherent strengths of social media sites, such as multiple directions of communication, focus on personal to general concerns, and integration of a variety of audio, video, photo and graphic features also offer immense positive benefits. Besides allowing generation and sharing of content, social media sites brim with creativity and are a laboratory to deploy language. The consequence is the subversion of literary genres practised from the distant past, and now embraced by people in droves.

Poetic compositions: The poetic compositions of social media may not even be regarded as poetry if benchmarked against epics, which use stylised, formal language replete with figures of speech. But the current compositions celebrate the deeds of ordinary humans in an ordinary language, making them relatable to all. The stunning range of Villanelle, Sestina, Ekphrastic, Tanka, Found poetry and more, each with its own characteristics, has gained overwhelming acceptance. The spoken words delivered with emotion has become slam poetry and words written in visual shapes have become concrete poetry.

Flash fiction: While word counts of past narratives ranged from 1,500 to 10,000, social media has no bar on the number of words. Narratives are classified as ‘flash fiction’ (1,000 words), ‘sudden fiction’ (750 words), ‘drabble’ (100 words), ‘dribble’ (50 words), and ‘six-word stories’. The setting, character, conflict, plot, and theme remain intact but the story is shaped practically by one’s status update.

Twitterature: A portmanteau of Twitter and literature, this is a new way of writing with new constraints, spellings, and codes. It ventures to rework literary classics to reduce them to 20 tweets, each with 280 or fewer characters. Practitioners state that it is “a free-for-all of voices clamouring for a split-second’s attention with zero quality control.” Even those who find creativity beyond their bounds can meddle with texts as there is a ‘ready text’ to work on.

Meme: This multimedia creation incorporating images, audio, video and texts, based on topical issues, aims to spread awareness in a humorous manner. Offbeat thinking, coupled with the liberty of spelling and grammar, often goes viral to produce the desired effects.

Such creative forms ensure an active engagement with the language and, unlike the rote learning mode, lead learners to willingly acquire proficiency. So, recognising and giving value to them even in academia is the way forward.

The writer is National Secretary, English Language Teachers’ Association of India and former Professor of English, Anna University.

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