Tuning in and zoning out is the enemy of communication

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 May, 2008, 12:00am

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many youngsters in tech-savvy Hong Kong are more proficient at interacting with electronic gadgets than they are at communicating with their fellow human beings. One aspect of this was highlighted recently in the South China Morning Post ('Alarm over child speech development', City, April 30).

It was reported that 1,878 cases of communication disorder were being handled by the Hong Kong Speech and Swallowing Therapy Centre. It said one cause was parents being 'too busy to talk to their own children', resulting in them not developing speaking skills well. This is one part of a much bigger and rather troubling picture.

A generation and more ago, larger families were the norm. Thus almost everyone had brothers and sisters to interact with at home. Now, single-child or two-child families are more common.

Especially for the only child, the development of inter-personal skills with peers is something parents need to take active steps to encourage. Having a child at home communicating only with the parents and maid is not enough.

Single children would benefit greatly from attending such organisations as the Girl Guides, Scouts or Cubs. There they can mix with many other children from varied backgrounds and so escape the 'preciousness' syndrome of an only child.

This too often gives them an exaggerated notion of their own importance, combined with a marked lack of inter-social skills with their peer group. After-school cramming institutes which aim to manufacture mini-swots are unlikely to help them much in terms of developing inter-personal skills.

Professor Tony McEnery's 2006 study at Lancaster University - reported in Ars Technica, 'Are i-Pods shrinking the British vocabulary?' December 15, 2006 - found that British teenagers used only about half the average vocabulary range of 25- to 34-year-olds, and that about a third of 'teen speak' consisted of a tiresomely restricted range of only 20 common words.

The parents of many teenagers will be familiar with them - 'no', 'but' and 'yeah' being some of the most common.

However, it is difficult to draw a distinction between a person's active vocabulary (words they actually say or write) and their passive vocabulary (those words, generally of a much wider range and extent, which are recognised and understood, if seldom used).

We must all use but a small fraction of our passive vocabulary in our everyday speech. On the other hand, this very limited active vocabulary range, at least as exhibited at job interviews, can give the unfortunate impression that the applicant is uneducated.

Being inarticulate can hinder the career ambitions of the next generation of jobseekers.

'Does the BBC News cause Technology Isolation Syndrome?' was another review of the problem (Linguistic Anthropology, December 30). This syndrome is the cutting-off from the rest of the world of a youngster fully engaged with an electronic device.

The culprits here include i-Pods, mobile telephones, headphones, laptops, video goggles and the like.

In my view, it is the wide range and extended use of such portable electronic devices which both entertain our youngsters and restrict their development.

It is a common sight to see children leaving school already plugged into their headphones or mobile telephones. Not much social interaction will occur with their peers on the way home.

And what happens when they get home? Straight to the personal computer and/or personal TV in the bedroom, where not only is the child isolated, but there is no adult oversight of what that child may be viewing.

Perhaps this is an old-fashioned view (when I was at school, we still used inkwells, and mobile phones hadn't been invented), but I fail to see the necessity of a six-year-old having his own mobile phone. In any case, extended use, especially by young children, is thought to be potentially damaging to health.

I recently observed a blind man asking for help as he attempted to board a bus. Each of the three young passengers he approached, before I could reach him to offer aid, was completely unaware of his requests: all three had headphones on and were almost completely unaware of what was going on around them.

Perhaps there is a link between those many who merrily eat and drink on our MTR, and headphone-wearers, who do not hear the regular public announcements prohibiting such consumption?

It is seldom that you see anyone on our public transport reading a book. Doing so could enlarge a young reader's vocabulary, and imagination.

What you do see is youngsters, apparently in groups, but in reality not. Each will be fully engaged with an i-Pod or a mobile telephone or be listening to music through headphones, thus isolating him or herself from those around.

Daily opportunities to build up the inter-social skills are thus regularly wasted, for the sake of temporary entertainment.

The widespread and constant use of such electronic devices can doubtless provide uninterrupted entertainment (of a mostly passive, mind-numbing kind) to many a youngster. But if this comes at the price of hindering that youngster's personal development, especially in terms of inter-social skills, it must be asked if the entertainment is worth the high price being paid by today's younger generations.

Paul Surtees is a Hong Kong-based commentator.