Online language – Why do we need to teach it?

This the fifth in a series of blogs looking at online language… What is it? How is it being used? Why do we need to teach it? Here Esther looks at why we need to teach online language as part of digital capability and basic literacy.

I’m in a WhatsApp group with the women from my gym class. We are from different age groups and backgrounds, but for us it’s the obvious tool to communicate – quick and easy for a spur of the moment chat.

The language is easy and relaxed, full of written sounds, awww, emojis, kisses xx, huns and babes. I love being part of it, but I’m too scared to make a comment most of the time. If I make a comment it sounds a bit wrong, a bit too formal – like I can’t really do it properly. And if I tried to add in the appropriate huns and emojis I think it would come across as fake because they know me in person. So I am happy to lurk in the group and pick up recipes and put in the odd comment when it’s needed.


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It’s not a question of being a so-called digital native. That theory has been well and truly replaced by White’s visitors and residents. People of all ages travel around in the internet between places which we visit briefly and leave no mark (which is no problem) – and places we reside in, having relationships and developing a presence. My presence in the WhatsApp group barely registers – I’m a visitor and that’s fine. But my presence in Facebook is quite strong – I have a residence there and come back and forth frequently, engaging with friends and family. When I’m there I use my language confidently!

The problem is that visitors can feel excluded from online communities that they might like to move in to, and one of the reasons could be because they don’t have the literacy skills to participate. Literacy happens in a lot of different contexts – families, work, schools, social groups, political or activist movements, hobbies and interests.  Multiple literacies are needed for individuals to thrive in multiple communities and the same is true online. The way we communicate using Twitter might be vastly different from the language we see in Facebook or when using instant messaging, WhatsApp or Snapchat.

I think we need to teach online language as part of literacy and digital literacy courses. More and more people are getting online – by May 2016 nearly 88% of adults in the UK had recently used the internet and only 10.2% had never used the internet (figures from the ONS). But how many of those are put off from the places that they want to visit or spend more time in by inaccessible language and confidence issues?

Let’s have a look at three big areas where people are encouraged to participate and language can be a barrier.

social media a

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Social networking

Because people live not only in geographical communities but in online communities too, social skills can be vital. Whether we are keeping in touch with family or old friends, new acquaintances or colleagues, fellow students or enthusiasts, we usually prefer to fit in with the conventions and practices of the group so that we can feel comfortable and accepted.

Goods and services

Many of our goods and services are now online and UK governments are keen for citizens to access public services using digital means. We teach digital literacy and skills to help people gain experience, wisdom and confidence online and we need to teach language etiquette and social literacy skills as part of this.

 application form

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Most jobs have to be applied for online; we have to build our professional networks, advertise and promote our businesses, research and learn online; we need digital skills in our own jobs and to be able to support others in their work. There are a multitude of ways in which technology supports our employability skills from starting our careers or companies to collaborating with colleagues or keeping up to date with developments in our field.

Debbie Edmondson, Talent Director at Cohesion Recruitment, recently spoke at Jisc’s Digifest about what employers want. You can see her slides from 17 to 29. She said that what they really want is new recruits who can fill in application forms, write appropriate emails, talk on the phone confidently and demonstrate good face to face communication skills. They want people who are literate in online language and linguistic etiquette as well as offline social skills.

So why do we need to teach online language?

Because we want citizens to be included; to participate; to benefit from access to digital services; and to feel empowered to use their voices and express their ideas when it’s the right time and place for them.


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(We included online language and behaviour etiquette in the Essential Skills Wales Digital Literacy learner qualifications. You can read an FE News article from 2015 here for more information, or check out this Pinterest board.)

(If you would like to see some of my favourite examples of creative online language, here’s a link to my Tumblr collection of artefacts, articles and amusing memes )

(You can read sections of the PhD here )

(Have a look at Jisc’s work on digital capability here )



  1. Online language – Journey to a PhD
  2. Online language – What does it look like?
  3. Online language – A new species of language
  4. Online language – How are communities using it?

Coming next:

  1. Online language – Bilingualism
  2. Online language – Somewhere along the line

3 replies on “Online language – Why do we need to teach it?”

Thanks for this Esther,
as always, thought-provoking and richly enhanced by the personal anecdotes.
What I wasn’t clear about by the end was ‘which online language should we teach?’.

I was struck by your comments about feeling “fake” about adapting to the What’sApp group and I would feel exactly the same. I don’t speak that way in real life; why would I speak that way online?

Isn’t the bigger issue not that we need to teach online language but that we need to promote online inclusivity? Is the evolution of language deliberately intended to create exclusive cliques? Like fashion, is it intended to define outsiders by creating self appointed insiders?

I think I would be wanting to warn people about having a separate online language because the more public the platform the more opportunities to regret what you said or how you said it.

If I was a grumpy old pensioner (hard to imagine, I know) getting online for the first time and felt that I had to learn a new way of expressing myself in order to engage online I’d decide not to bother.
So while I see your points I’m not sure what conclusion to draw…

I have to write another blog post about this now! Look out for ‘How do we teach it – and to whom?’

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