For centuries, people have bemoaned the downfall of the next generation’s language. The latest rendition of this fear comes in the form of a fear of the digital age. The New York Times just published a piece decrying the lack of handwriting – especially cursive handwriting – in the new Common Core standards. To support their claims, the article cites a study which links handwriting to greater activation in the brain.

Typing is just using an abstract series of buttons which get translated into the 1’s and 0’s of computer code and output onto the screen as text. By using more senses (touch, motion) the brain is able to make more connections, making handwriting more cognitively integrated than typing. By being physically connected to what you write, handwritten language is somehow more real, more tangible. Numerous studies like this one have shown that writing by hand is beneficial for learning. And handwriting is full of quirks that give uniqueness to our signatures, not to mention the intangible sentimental value of the handwriting of a loved one. There’s even a heartfelt TED talk about this. Clearly handwriting has benefits.

But that does not mean that digital readers and writers are at a disadvantage. Indeed, any amount of reading or writing, in any form (text messages, kindle books, War and Peace, the wugology blog, etc.) improves literacy. In fact, children who are better at the slangy “txtspk” are actually better spellers, since being able to use language creatively and playfully (c u L8R!) requires… well, creativity and a considerably high degree of linguistic prowess. There’s a whole TED talk about this too. And a half-hour interview with David Crystal.

As I said at the beginning of this post, this hysteria against the new isn’t new. Even Socrates feared that new-fangled technology would be the downfall of mankind. The Greek philosopher worried that writing would weaken the mind, and that if people wrote things down they wouldn’t have to keep them all in their head. People would forget things because they wouldn’t need to remember them anymore. Once it was written down, they could just look it up. People frequently argue against the use of calculators for the same reason; if you use a calculator, you’ll lose your ability to do arithmetic in your head.

Are we seriously going to ban writing (at all!) and calculators because doing things “the old-fashioned way” might make you remember things better? Of course not! Writing (and reading) is useful, and some calculations are too important and complex to rely on humans doing them by hand. So why are we arguing that writing in cursive is better than printing, which is better than typing? Sure, there may be some cognitive or emotional benefits to the old way. But the new way also has benefits. I type faster than I write by hand, and with CTRL+F and Google I can find things quicker digitally than in print.

The big take-away here? Yeah, writing by hand has benefits. So does txt spk, and so does not writing at all. There’s always at least two sides to every story, especially in science, so be cautious of any sweeping generalization the media makes. After all, science reporting isn’t always the best.

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