What Harm Is in an Emoji?

When educators teach children the English language, they are guided by standards focusing on mechanics, usage, and grammar. The goal is to not just use language appropriately, but also to make precise word choices that perfectly express the thoughts and ideas of the writer. Living languages, those spoken naturally today in societies around the globe, are always changing. Speakers create new ways to use language, and often technology helps shape how we communicate. So much has changed since people began regularly communicating through e-mails and text messages. Now, those forms of communication are sprinkled with something educators both love and hate: emojis – pictures that represent feelings and ideas as well as that which is tangible in the world around us.

It Started with a Smile

The emoji boom began with a smiley face that had been created on a keyboard by using a colon, dash, and the closing end of a parenthesis. Using those punctuation marks in that order represented a face with eyes, a nose, and a smile. This first emoji was easily interpreted by readers to mean the writer was happy or expressing satisfaction about a subject. Today, the number of emojis continues to grow. Besides an array of faces expressing a range of emotions from shock to indifference, we have a catalogue of symbols at our fingertips. Automobiles, animals, tools, flags, food, and even weapons are at our disposal when we write electronic messages. It is no wonder why children gravitate toward using them; however, educators have conflicting opinions as to how helpful or harmful emoji use is to those trying to learn proper English language skills.

Positives to Consider

On one side of the argument, teachers praise emojis for their ability to break language barriers. Upon entering kindergarten, a student may not yet have the skills required for reading or writing the word pizza. Likewise, a senior may also lack that ability if he or she has just moved to the United States from an area where English is not the native language. The pizza emoji, however, is intuitive. The pizza emoji looks just like the thing it represents. When language barriers exist, emojis can aid one a great deal when communication is necessary. In the same way, they can be helpful to those with learning disabilities.

In some cases, graphics like today’s emojis have a long, useful history. For example, when one finds himself or herself in a hospital setting, a doctor may ask to what degree one is in pain using a scale of one to ten, rating intensifying pain. Since this is difficult for young children to accurately identify, they are presented with a scale of faces from the first – a pain-free happy face – to the tenth – a face crying in agony. Emojis can give speakers the ability to effectively articulate important information. Groups working with children have also found uses for emojis. Since it has become natural for kids to regularly use them in messages, it is easy for kids to share difficult feelings that they are just unable to vocalize. Sharing feelings of depression or pain are easier for kids to do when they can point to a picture reflecting what they are feeling inside. Equally important is how emojis can be used to alert help when dealing with bullying or other abusive situations.

The opposition often decries emojis because of their appeal to the lazier of the student body. Sure, some kids do resort to emojis when they don’t want to be bothered to think of the best words to use in situations, but that should not be one’s sole focus on why emojis should be avoided. They can be a creative medium in which kids can communicate, and even classic works of literature have been translated into emojis. This sounds fun, but reducing Twain and Shakespeare to emojis surely comes with a sacrifice.

Drawbacks of Emojis

When students use emojis, they are taking a chance on the reader misinterpreting the message. Using emojis can create all kinds of ambiguities. The more complex the text, the more opportunities for problems arise. When the reader sees the pictures, he or she may not understand the context behind the emoji. For instance, if one receives a sad face emoji, the receiver could interpret the message to mean the speaker is sad, or the speaker could even be upset with the receiver. More information is needed. Emojis can create confusion when used solely and freely.

Emojis come with a great deal of limitations. They work well for people to communicate simplistic ideas and feelings, but beyond that, they can be misconstrued. When picture after picture is presented to the reader, meaning can be totally lost in translation, especially when the order of the pictures or symbols may change the overall meaning.

Emojis are often critiqued as being a dumbing down of language. Users need to recognize how they can both help and hinder one in self-expression. There is a time and place for using emojis, especially when the communication of one’s health and well-being is at stake and language fluency is lacking.