Communicating through text messages

Canada is contributing to an international centre of expertise

Date published: 2013-07-10 4:10:00 PM

Students texting

New digital applications are changing how academia uses information and communications technology for research. Researchers now face the challenges posed by the complexity of collecting, managing, analyzing and sharing massive amounts of data.

A professor in the Department of Linguistics and Translation at the Université de Montréal, Patrick Drouin is well versed in these new challenges. He leads the Texto4science project, the Canadian component of “sms4science”—an international study involving fifteen universities from around the world as well as private sector partners like Swisscom and the Société française du radiotéléphone. The main objective of this study is to build an extensive collection of text messages* covering a wide range of languages, in order to better understand this thriving medium and the dialect it fosters.

To assemble a Canadian database of text messages in both official languages, Drouin issued a call for voluntary text message “donations.” Despite the constraints posed by copyright and carrier transmission fees, he received 7,300 text messages in French and 15,000 in English. Nearly 75 per cent of the participants were between 12 and 39 years old.

“This is the first database of French‑English text messages in the world. For the time being, the French database is available, upon request, to all researchers, and the English one will follow shortly,” Drouin says.

The project’s success is significant for the research community. Communication by texting has resulted in lot of numerous research projects in various fields—including linguistics, sociology, anthropology, psychology and others—all around the world, but the lack of “authentic” data limited their scope. Texto4science helps bridge this gap.

And when the linguist is asked about the potentially negative effects of texting—where words are often written out phonetically—on the quality of written language, he is not overly concerned: “I think people are conscious that they are distorting words, and some even demonstrate great creativity and a mastery of the language, like that shown by authors such as Quebec’s Fred Pellerin. Certainly, texting shows how young people are writing all the time, which is not a bad thing,” the researcher concludes.

*Text messages, also referred to as SMS messages (short message service), are short messages of roughly 160 characters and exchanged between two people using a mobile phone. Over the course of a single month in September 2012, Canadians sent 8.2 billion text messages. SRSLY!

SSHRC-funded research: Texto4science: A bilingual study of the language in Canadian text messages