Children use emojis differently than adults, but do they learn anything from them?
There are two representative positions when it comes to the use of emojis. The first is that its use represents the democracy of language across cultures, that its meaning and communicative capacity is similar to that of music and not to that of a formal language; therefore, it can overcome social and cultural barriers.
The second is that emojis represent the destruction of language and its rules. That they alone have affected the way humans communicate and that if this continues there will be a significant delay in our language and in how we understand and practice it.
However, as we will see later, learning to use emojis is similar to the learning process we have of a formal language and it is enough to observe how young children use them to understand that, although they are not a tool that unites all languages, neither are they the total loss of language. Rather, they are another way in which humans communicate.
How girls and boys use emojis
In a survey of parents by linguist Gretchen McCulloch, they were asked how their children use emojis, what their favorites are, and how and how often they use them. The results showed that:
Girls and boys aged three to five commonly use emoji before reading.
Some children tend to organize how they type emoji depending on their location on the keyboard (for example, the green heart [💚] appears before the blue heart [💙]). But others combine emojis from different sections of the keyboard, their favorites being animals, hearts and food.
They do not commonly use those that are popular with adults or teens, such as “crying with laughter” (😂) or “praying” (🙏), but they do use much more fruit or animal emojis.
Smileys are popular with all ages, but children do not use those that can have an ironic meaning, such as “sobbing loudly” (😭) or “thinking” (🤔). Instead, they prefer simpler ones like “sending a kiss”. (😗).
Above all, children under seven use long, random emoji lines, such as:
By the time they reach an average age of 10, they have put aside emoji lines and are using their native language in understandable sentences. This is relevant because it is the age at which they can usually write and read properly.
What they learn when they use emoji?
The process by which children learn to speak occurs from their first months of life; it is even thought that they are born with a predisposition to learn a language naturally. Linguist and philologist Noam Chomsky called this predisposition “universal grammar”, which mentions that the human brain has an innate “program” that can construct a limited number of sentences through a finite number of words (Prieto, 2010).
Children, he says, have the ability to develop these “programs” more easily and therefore can learn languages easily and quickly.
This capacity becomes visible at the age of three, when they start using emoji, they already have the ability to form complex sentences. At the age of five they can speak their native language that would be advanced for any foreigner.
Although at the age of three they do not use emojis properly, their relationship with them is relevant because the random emojis lines they use (🥀🌻💐🍁🐘🐁), are similar to the way they start talking, i.e. babbling.
Writing lines of emojis without any sense plays an important role in the way children communicate. It helps them to understand the rhythm and coherence of written conversations, reading them and the computer knowledge needed in online life, where symbols are used instead of words.
More importantly, emojis help them understand how a conversation is formed in a written way.
When adults respond to a message full of emojis from a child, either with another emoji or with some written idea that complements the message, they are teaching communication contexts that do not appear in other media. This is because they are conversing with them in a direct and personalised way, implicitly teaching how to write a coherent message and even, for the youngest, how to read.
For detractors who mention that the use of emojis can ruin the use of language and therefore their use should not be encouraged, emojis do not replace the grammar of established languages, they function as an extension of the gestures already used by people.
Gestures that have a certain meaning long before they become emoji are called “emblems” gestures such as “OK” (👌), “luck” (🤞) or “peace” (✌). These already appear in the form of emoji, but there are also gestures that have no solid meaning and can be used for emphasis: A series of 😂 exalts a humorous statement and 🤔 emphasizes doubt or irony. Emojis do not replace grammar, they enrich our system of communication.
That said, encouraging the use of emojis is also promoting new forms of written communication. Today we communicate much more through text messages than in any other past era and to deny that they are important to the understanding of how existing communication mechanisms work is to deny a way of expressing what we think and feel; a part that cannot be denied to any child.
Sources and references:
McCulloch, G. (2019, January 1). Children Are Using Emoji for Digital-Age Language Learning. Wired. https://www.wired.com/story/children-emoji-language-learning/
Gawne, L. (s. f.). Emoji aren’t ruining language: They’re a natural substitute for gesture 🔥🔥🔥. The Conversation. Retrieved on 22 January 2020: http://theconversation.com/emoji-arent-ruining-language-theyre-a-natural-substitute-for-gesture-118689
Prieto, C. (2010). Cinco mil años de palabras: comentarios sobre el origen, evolución, muerte y resurrección de algunas lenguas (3ª ed.). Ciudad de México, México: Fondo de Cultura Económica.