Language Natives – It’s Complicated

I recently read “It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens” by Danah Boyd, a book I sought out because I have two children of my own who will become teenagers a lot earlier than I want and will be prepared to deal with. The book is excellent, Boyd succeeds in providing exploration and explanation of the subject from the teenager perspective. This perspective creates understanding more than critique. I recommend it, even if you don’t have kids.

In one of the final chapters, she tackles the concepts of digital natives and digital immigrants. These two terms were popular a decade ago, but haven’t really stuck around since the initial meaning for these concepts haven’t really held up. From the book:

It has become popular in public discourse to promote the idea that natives have singular technical powers and skills. The suggestion that many take from Barlow’s proclamation is that adults should fear children’s supposedly natural born knowledge.

Boyd spends time dispelling but also exploring this idea, and almost shifts the discussion from natives and immigrants to a discussion of literacy. Which I wish she would have. Another quote brings up language and language learning, only to focus back on the native vs immigrant divide:

He [Rushkoff] metaphorically describes the differences in linguistic development between older immigrants and children who grow up in a society who’s dominant language is different than their parents native tongue. He uses the concepts of immigrants and natives to celebrate children’s’ development in the digital age.

The word ‘literacy’ has probably evolved in meaning during my lifetime, and this is where the real distinction lies when we think of how children develop in the digital age – there’s a certain degree or culture of digital literacy that many youth are born into. However, similar to how children learn language incidentally, ‘literacy’ is something that must be learned intentionally. Even still, ‘being literate’ says nothing about the degree to which that literate person can use language.

People learn mother tongues in daily life, starting from before birth. But does this mean for these ‘language natives’ that literacy development will take care of itself? No, because not everyone can write like a novelist or a journalist, and not everyone can give speeches like a sports team coach. People need to learn these skills. The same could be said for digital literacy.

It’s probably true that the concept of digital natives doesn’t offer very much. Digital literates and degrees/specializations of digital literacy might be a better concept to explore.

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