Monday, January 25, 2016

The ‘Weird’ and the ‘Cool’: The ‘Awesome-Ness’ of the Language of Gen Y by Johan Jaaffar

Keynote Address Presented at
Gen-Next English Language Learning Symposium
Faculty of Modern Languages and Communication
Universiti Putra Malaysia
23 January 2016

The ‘Weird’ and the ‘Cool’:
The ‘Awesome-Ness’ of theLanguage of Gen Y

Presenting keynote address at UPM

(Two cases of “Millennials Speak” from the Internet)

Case 1:

Fomo : Acronym for fear of missing out.

Anne Marie — Fear of missing out – I personally get ‘jomo’ – joy of missing out ;)
David — Fear of missing out… that’s easy. Come on!
Alison — Fear of missing out, boom.
Alex — It means, “I’m scared to be in my own company”.
Tim — Formal, official.
Genevieve — Fear of missing out. Something I’m acutely aware of.
Adam — Nope.
Sarah — Fear of missing out – such a first world problem.
Luke — Fear Of missing out.

Case 2:

Fresh to death : Really cool or looking very fashionable.

Anne Marie — New and awesome (?) I know Estelle says in American Boy, “sneakers looking fresh to death…”, so I have always assumed it means new and awesome?!
David — Someone dying really fast?
Tim — Very fresh.
Genevieve — I genuinely have no idea. So fresh . . . you’re dead?
Adam — Nope.
Rae — Something my little sister had as her email address.
Mark — This is old school. Means I’m looking good or whatever.
Sarah— Like so fresh it could kill you?
Linda — I feel so old… I don’t know.
Luke — Being murdered by vegetables.
Rob — Recently dead?

From my WhatsApp Group:
  1.  “P’Ngh. Bil nk beli brg yang ckp tu. Nti lmbt hrg up,”
  2. “Tmpg hapi coz dpt baby. Look like mre angpau dis yr,”
  3. “Gua cool aje Bib. Lu nak gi gua ok aje. Place tu cool giler,”

I humbly surrender!

I am totally lost. This is not my language. Or the English that my teachers taught me. Poor me! Poor Mr Shakespeare.

They have,in fact,a note for people like me:Now listen up, all you ‘fossils’ (Gen Y term for anyone over the age of 40!), we totes (totally) need to get up with things and learn the new lingo of the current generation.

‘Fossil’ – that’s what I am in the incredible world of Gen Y!

But I am not giving up! Seriously!

I am learning. For this is a learning curve for me. I am 62, and I ain’t gonna stop learning just because they call me a ‘fossil’ (So brutal of them!).

I am gonna pick up their lingo too.

This is what I have learnt so far (which I picked up from the Net):

A is for awesome– an overused word that describes pretty much everything that is good!
B is for barred – as in “you got totally barred by that person”.  Means you got fooled.
C is for cooked – which our generation would describe as being stoned.
D is for de bomb– the best.
E is for emo – short for emotional and means an emotional person.
F is for frothing– as in “I’m frothing my new skateboard”.  Means you are stoked.
G is for gay – no, it not only means that you are homosexual. It is also used to mean you are uncool or inferior!
H is for hooking up – as in “I hooked up with a girl last night”, meaning ‘getting with’.
I is for indie– short for independent, meaning you are unique and a free thinker.
J is for jelly– short for being jealous of someone.
K is for kicks– doing something for fun.
L is for LOL – acronym for ‘laugh out loud’.
M is for maggott – you are extremely drunk.
N is for nailed it – you did good!
O is for owned – you defeated someone, as in “I owned it”!
P is for photobomb– to drop into someone’s photo unexpectedly.
Q is for quipster– a queer hipster (an individual who enjoys indie or underground music, frequents coffee shops and bookstores, and shops at thrift stores).
R is for rig – as in “look at the rig on that girl”, meaning a good body.
S is for shotty or shotgun– as in “I shotty the front seat”, meaning bags or claim.
T is for tool– you are a loser!
U is for uggsvery trendy boots, which are suede on the outside and sheepskin on the inside.
V is for vajazzling– the act of adorning one’s vagina with glitter and jewels!
W is for wig out– becoming fearful.
X is for xenophile – a person who is especially interested in foreign cultures, languages, and people.
Y is for YOLOacronym foryou only live once’!
Z is for zeds– as in ‘catching a few zeds’ (zzz’s), meaning getting some sleep.

See, I am learning! Short of trying to delve further into what “vajazzling” is, I am a fast learner, really.

When I was contemplating to write this keynote address, my daughter, Syahida, who wrote her dissertation for her Masters of Arts on “Weird English”,advised me, “To do that, you have to be fluent in millennial language.”

I must confess I am not only “not fluent” but “lost.”

But this is not “weird English”, as Evelyn Nien-Ming Chien famously wrote in her book (2004) nor Syahida’s idea of the term to mean “the dialected, accented and rhythmic cadences that non-English speakers have when they speak English.”

‘Weird’ is “the jargon, lingo, patois, slang, nonsense, blabber and gabble of the English language in speech, in articulation, in conversation, in tete-a-tete and importantly, in writing by those who learned it, acquired it (either by force or otherwise), who assimilated it.”

A lot of it has something to do with multilingualism and poly-cultural backgrounds. But weird as it is, the language in today’s social media especially propagated by Gen Y is more than just weird, it is also ‘cool’ and ‘awesome’ as defined by the users.

And those who are not able to comprehend them or are not ‘in it’ are… fossils!

Yes I agree, every generation has its own nuances and tendencies, and their own vocabulary. My generation too – the Baby Boomers, they label us.

Generation Y is no different.The language per se isn’t changing with each generation, but the way words are used, paired together and/or perceived change. I read that somewhere. And I fully agree.

This is not just lingo or slang. It is part of an identity construct. How my Generation (the Baby Boomers) ‘appropriate’ a certain word is different from how Gen X’ers understand them. We are talking relevance here!

Between me and my children, there is a huge ‘linguistic gap’ – I am not talking about semantics or the meaning of meanings but the understanding, nuance, context, difference. It is also about the ‘curation’ of meanings, the etymological relevance and epistemological understanding.

We all know language evolves. It has to be adapted to survive. Even Shakespeare’s good old English is evolving. Many of the terms he used sound strange to our ears now. Yes, we were told he coined at least 1,500 words of his own, some are largely forgotten while others became part of English lexicon.

Even in Bahasa Malaysia, we allow adaptation and the process of colouring. Or else we’d be still using tetuang udara instead of radio, rumah pasung instead of a lock-up or rumah sakit instead of hospital.

Sometimes even old slang will wind up getting resurrected. ‘Groovy’ and ‘right on’ were… er… ‘uncool’ at one time. They were an integral part of the Boomers vocabulary. They are making their way back, and are part of the millennials language.

Now take the word ‘cool’ – probably the ‘coolest’ word in the English language today, literally.

Look at how Shakespeare used the word in:

·         A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Theseus tells his Amazonian bride-to-be, Hippolyta:

“Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.”

·        Hamlet, when Hamlet, confused and angry at the ghost of his dead father, frightens his mother, Gertrude, who exclaims:

“O gentle son,
Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper
Sprinkle cool patience.”

You think ‘cool’ is only ‘cool’ now? Think again. “Yeah, I’m cool” was a phrase of the ‘Cool 50s’, really! The word ‘cool’ back then was as ‘cool’ as it is now. ‘Cool’ was the ‘speak’ of the youth circle of the 1950's too, mind you!

Yet there is a difference in how ‘cool’ is interpreted. It is true that ‘cool’ has entered the lexicon of both my generation and that of the millennials but in today’s ‘speak’, ‘cool’ is not static – it is in a constant state of flux. To Gen Y, trying “to be cool is uncool, while trying to be uncool is cool.”

So, it is ‘cool’ to be ‘uncool’ – whatever that means!

Awesome, yes? Now that is another interesting word in the English language. Just check on the etymology of this word and you will realise that it evolved from the positive (in the Bible no less) to the negative (at one time) and back to the positive.

What is believed to be the root word ‘awe’, which was associated with the meanings of ‘awful’, later began to shift in emphasis, nuance and historical complexity. ‘Awful’ tended to emphasise the element of fear and dread (associated with religious belief) compared to the later usage of ‘awesome’, which is related to human and natural forces, feats and accomplishments.

Gen Y is has hijacked ‘awesome’ to mean good, positive and wondrous. Slowly,‘awful’ lost its relevance. Understandably, being a good dictionary that it is, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) still defines ‘awesome’ as  “inspiring awe; dreaded” but provides  “marvelous” and “excellent” as its slang definition.

The definition of “unpleasant”, “horrible”, or “of poor quality” once associated with ‘awful’ is now relegated to ‘colloquial’ status, thank God! Or else I would not be using ‘awesome as the title of my keynote address, yes?

Seriously, I welcome these words. I am a believer in the more words, the merrier. We need additions to existing words. According to the Global Language Monitor, which follows every word used, the English language breached the 1,000,000-word mark in April 2008. (How many English words do you know?)

Even Shakespeare, the best known user and coiner of words, was equipped with only a 27,870-word-vocabulary. A million is 35 times that. I believe we take our dictionaries for granted. At best, we have about 10,000 words to prepare us for our communication skills in any language. Henri Bejoint, in Tradition and Innovation is Modern English Dictionaries, was right in arguing that “the dictionary is never consulted in its entirety.”

How many people have read the entire OED – all 1,827,306 citations described over 15,487 pages of text? Perhaps Ammon Shea. He wrote this incredible book, Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages.

Or who has read the Kamus Dewan, which consists of 25,000 root words?

A.J. Jacobs has read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica and lived to tell the tale, all 32 volumes of the 2002 version of the 15th edition extending to over 35,000 pages in 44 million words. He wrote a book about it, The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World.

Words fascinate me. So, I find it enlightening and amusing as well when I came across I Never Knew There Was a Word for It by Adam Jacot de Boinod. De Boinod combines all his three previous books into a volume with additional entries. As a self-confessed bowerbird (one who collects an astonishing array of sometimes useless objects), he has a unique way to help you from mulligrubs (depression of spirits) and onomatomania (the phobia of not finding the right words). Those are words seldom used today.

Lest we forget, there is also “Globish” – a concept made famous by Jean-Paul Nerrier, a French-speaking retired IBM executive. He noticed that the kind of English being used by non-native speakers, especially in the Third World, is no more than “decaffeinated English” with its own format and structures, most of which are informal yet understood.

Informal here could mean ‘weird’ to native speakers.

Globish is as much “a subset of English language” as it is perhaps the nuanced English being used by non-native speakers with limited vocabulary. We are not talking weird Manglish, Singlish, Pidgin or Creole, but “easy, communicable global English.”

As Robert McCrum argued in Newsweek magazine in 2010, Globish is “a newly globalised lingua franca, essentially English, merged with terminology of the digital age and the international news media.”

Some would hail Globish as a truly “natural language” as opposed to “constructed English”. It is “a codification of a reduced set of English patterns as used by non-native speakers of English.”

For now, it has probably an arsenal of 1,500 words but Globish will definitely rule the world! Or could Globish be a new form of language imperialism? Conspiracy theorists love that!

So, Gen Y too are stakeholders in language development, for better or worse. Sub-culture creates its own lingo as we know it. But never underestimate the role of technology in language development. The computer and Internet revolution has given us a dictionary-load of new terms and phrases.  

And it is true how technology is changing the way words are coined. It fact, it is rewriting the way language is learned, understood and communicated. In this age of texting, Facebooking, twittering, Instagraming and blogging, the world of language is severely changing.

Who needs good old ‘spellchecker’ in our computers or smartphones. We are all word creators now. Too fast even for the OED to catch-up.

But we must be mindful of the words we are using. Remember the “power of words”. Some of the most powerful lines by great statesmen and women are simple, in fact, astonishingly simple. I am sure you remember who uttered these words:

“Ask not what your country can do for you…”,
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself…”
“I have a dream…”

Add soundbites to those words. In today’s world of image-managing, given the right soundbites, even a moron can sound like Mahatma Gandhi. 

If you ask me, words are everything in communication. When I was editing a newspaper in Bahasa Malaysia, my first principle was: a sentence must not be more than 15 words. Anything more than that, we shall have problems with the subject and the predicate. I told my editorial team: if a cat is supposed to be bigger than a rat, why do you need anything more than a short sentence to explain that? 

My second principle is: when in doubt, read your sentence aloud. If it sounds funny or awkward, change it. Write as you speak. I also introduced the ‘Sungai Balang Index’. I was born in that village. Any word that my village folks can’t understand, avoid at all cost. 

You may argue, if that is the case, we will forever be stuck with old, common words and phrases and there will be no dynamism in the language. Mind you, language is a living thing. Even my kampung folks move with the time. When words such as canggih, prasarana, transformasior lestari were introduced, they picked them up sooner or later. But how you introduce such words is critical. Of course, there is what is termed ‘levels of communication structures’. You don’t speak about finance, medical matters or philosophy in the language of my village folks. There are terminologies and concepts involved.

I was in Jogjakarta a couple of times after the eruption of Merapi in 2012. Local koran (newspapers) would prefer erupsi rather than letupan, which is commonly used here. Just read this sentence: “Namun terjadi erupsi, Gunung Merapai adalah laboratorium, seluruh dunia mengikuti aktivitasnya.” It was statement made by the head of Pusat Vulkanologi dan Mitigasi Bencana Geologi, Badan Geologi Kementerian Energi dan Sumber Daya Mineral. There are seven words derived from the English Language in the name of the department.

You will read about words and phrases such as: masih aktif normal, peningkatan aktivitas, jalur evakuasi, intensitas gempa, membawa anamoli, debu vulkanik, meningkat drastik, hembusan fumarol and status waspada. I will not translate them for you for you can easily figure out the English words.

Let’s talk about Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (KPK), the Indonesian equivalent of our Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC). They have a komite etik (ethics committee). How do you figure out the meaning of this sentence issued by the committee for the press: “Kami menganjurkan keberatan tim kuasa hukum dalam kasus wisma atlet, mengaktifkan surat dakwaan bagi menenuhi syarat formal dan materiil.” Not to mention orang yang dituduh (the accused) becomes yang tersangka.

Fortunately for us, we have Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP)!

So, it is understandable that Gen Y are creating their own words and lingo (however confusing the words are to fossils like me!).

Perhaps it is true that we are welcoming a whole new world of language construction. Take the case of those SMSes and notes on WhatsApp today. To language purists, these messages are nothing more than an aberrant world of abbreviations, numerals, pictorial icons or emojis. These messages have rewritten the way we communicate.

Formal language as we know it is under serious threat. What we are witnessing today is the increasingly popular use of ‘anti-formal communication structures’ that is alarming linguists and language purists alike.

Such messages have created a totally new ‘language’ in cyberspace – not the kind my English or BM teachers taught me! It is a simplified, sometimes coded and mostly convoluted, informal structure.

I believe that there is such a thing as ‘language centaur’ – part speech, part writing, and almost everything else. Perhaps oversimplification has made these messages a bit too informal. Or brevity is the rule. Not many write the way words, phrases and sentences should be written anymore. It is a cowboy realm out there, the anything-goes school of thought.

Some are lamenting that social media has dealt a death blow to, among other things, letter writing. I fully agree.

My late father couldn’t even read. Yet I had to follow a certain convention when I wrote to him from the University of Malaya (UM) in the early 1970s. My letter, written on a colourful writing pad, started this way:

“Adapun pada masa anakanda menulis surat ini, anakanda berada dalam keadaan sihat walafiat, diharap berlebih-lebih lagi bagi pihak ayahanda dan bonda serta keluarga.”

Any BM teacher will tell you that some of the words used are archaic, even royal-sounding and never used in today’s communication or even back then. My father was a rubber-tapper in the morning and a barber in the afternoon.

Call it etiquette: adab bersurat.

Letter-writing was serious business to the Malays as far back as the early 1970s. What I wanted to say to my father then was that I wasn’t able to balik kampung during the university break, but I had to do it right and proper.
Flash-forward to my daughter in London: “Ayah, I am broke, Please send money!”

Call it a cataclysmic shift in interpersonal relationships or, better still, that times have changed. I wrote in bahasa buku or bahasa bersurat because, back then, there was no other way. Letter-writing had its adab, like everything else.

I can’t blame my daughter for being brief. It is a matter of pragmatism. It is today’s reality.

What has happened to the tradition of letter-writing of the old days that manifested prose that is “more polite, more gentrified, more elegant, more conscientiously rhetorical, more bookish, and more distinctively written in style”? Don’t ask me!

You can’t say that of the WhatsApp messages you receive on your smartphones now!

So, who are these new, brave, cool, awesome users of contemporary language? Get used to this word: Millennials. The Y Generation.

The millennials are said to be those born between 1980 and 2000. There are 80 million of them in the United States alone, probably about 11 million in Malaysia. They are representing probably a fourth of mankind. They are a generation to be reckoned with. These are, as Time magazine puts it, the “Me, Me, Me Generation”.

Some have even predicted that this generation is going to be the Next Great Generation after the Baby Boomers.

Take notice, those of Gen Y will redefine societies, lifestyles, the economy (yes, that too) and politics (that can be scary!). They are changing the look and feel of nations. They are largely well educated, articulate and independent. They can be intensely cynical and distrustful of establishments – including governments.

True, the Baby Boomers were the hippies and the radical generation of their time but their influence was different. Either in Western countries or in Malaysia, back in the 1960's and 70's, radical thinking and anti-establishment views were largely confined to students, the intelligentsia and politically inclined individuals.

Today’s new media landscape is changing all that. The millennials are getting their voices heard, loud and clear. They are sounding their positions without fear and favour. They are being influenced by peers, ‘friends’ in the social media, and information from all over the world. They are children of the globalised world in the true sense.They can be gullible but they are not stupid. They are even perceived as lazy, selfish or even shallow and narcissistic, as the Time piece suggests. Not true, someone argues noisily.

Ignore them at your own peril. Grand old political parties born during a different era suddenly realised that they are dealing with a totally new set of voters altogether. Old approaches don’t work anymore. These are the creatures of the C21st, a different species altogether. They think and behave differently. 

The latest applications in telecommunication and information technologies are meant for them – to satisfy their wants and needs. That is big business. Humans are never more wired and connected than now – thanks to them. They are rewriting the rules of engagement in communications. They are spending more money than any other generation in the history of mankind.

They are changing the entertainment landscape too. They have sophisticated tastes in music, songs and movies. They patronise the creative content industry. They are the viewers, listeners and readers that matter most today. Media owners realised the need to accommodate them. The ‘what-ever, where-ever and when-ever’ options are prepared for them. They are the kings among consumers.

Lifestyles are changing rapidly too, thanks to them. Some say they are ‘the Uniqlo Generation’ – a new Japanese brand name that redefines youngish-ness, and the idea of hip and chick. It is a cool brand for cool people. Uniqlo’s clothes are simple yet essentially universal. It prides itself as a brand as unique as its name. It is about “constant change, diversity and challenging conventional wisdom.” Yes, it claims to be for all ages but you know if you can’t fit into a Uniqlo, you are not cool anymore.

Branding to the millennials is everything – nothing expensive, nothing out of the world, just cool and awesome. Thanks to the millennials, businesses are being revitalised, work places have changed, new ideas are being generated, creativity and innovation re-engineered.

And they are networking! Feverishly!

But is it all good? Is unrestrained social networking good for humanity?

It was Justin Timberlake who kept me thinking hard about social networking. Yes, that Timberlake – songwriter, singer and actor. It was the character, Sean Parker, that he played in the 2010 movie The Social Network, who pricked my consciousness about how addicted I am to social media. The fictionalised version of the President of Facebook famously said, “We lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we are going to live on the Internet.”

How true! 

The movie about the drama, intrigue and betrayal involving Facebook founders was anything but astonishing. The tagline for the movie is: “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.”

Today, the number of Facebook users is a staggering 1.3 billion, or equivalent to the population of China.  Every single day in June 2014, there was an average of 829 million users in the world. There are 645 million registered Twitter users today and another 500 million WhatsApp users worldwide. And many have all three accounts.

The Internet is now home. Social media is where we live now. We are not defining the way we communicate. The Internet and social media are redefining us. Online social revolution is changing the world and us. The dynamics of communication is undergoing massive transformation, so too how we live in today’s world.

The ‘friends’ we have in Facebook are virtual friends that we get to know virtually. Many are strangers to us, yet we embrace them as ‘friends’. Mark Zuckerberg has made us think that we are engaging ‘friends’ in his creation. He defines what ‘friends’ are for us.So too the word ‘like’, which has become part of communication lexicography. We define ourselves from the number of ‘friends’ and ‘likes’ in Facebook and ‘followers’ in Twitter.

But are we more informed? Are we more enlightened? Or are we a lot friendlier to start with? The debate will rage on. Detractors are finding fault with social media. Ban them!, some would argue. The supporters believe that it is the greatest creation by mankind after the invention of the wheel. Thanks to the Internet, we have access to almost everything now. Wikipedia is fast making libraries irrelevant.

Knowledge is now at the tip of one’s finger, literally. We are inundated by facts and figures by the billions – information that is, in fact, choking us. The Internet is the river of knowledge as well as trash.

We are fast becoming a society unsure of what to do with the loads of information that descend upon us every second. We have become the ‘Forward Generation’, not forward-thinking but for the penchant to ‘forward’ everything we receive, even if we disagree with them. Trash begets trash. This is a world in which nothing is sacred or sacrosanct. Everything goes. It is a lawless world.

Are we really ‘sharing’ what we should? Or is it true that, despite our connectivity, we are becoming lonelier than ever? Is there such a thing as the politics of privacy or has privacy gone with the wind, with no secret being secretive enough to remain a secret, just as in the case of the Wiki leak phenomenon?Is the age of privacy over? Nothing is sacrosanct.

We need a better understanding of the brave, yet frightening new world that we are embarking on. If not, we become merely slaves of the social network revolution. Just ask ourselves: how much have we given up our lives on the Internet?

That brings us to another equally important matter: the maturing of society. Yes, it took a long winding road back then. We had to mature forcefully. Societies are now in disarray, social norms are a thing of the past, even children are dazzlingly embracing everything online. What kind of society are we expecting in the future?

The social media revolution is here to stay. We are being coerced and seduced to embrace it. The argument is: we can’t stop it. It is with us. The young are using it. We need to embrace social media to reach out to them. And one simply can’t fight the digital tsunami.  

Andrew Keen warned us in his daring 2012 book, Digital Vertigo, about the social media revolution. He argues that today’s social media revolution “is the most wrenching cultural transformation” since the Industrial Revolution. The transformation, sadly, is weakening, disorienting, diminishing and dividing us more than ever before. Instead of heralding the dawn of a new era, the revolution is, in fact,suffocating humankind. We have lost the ability to stand apart from the crowd, to be our own self, to act as individuals, not as a herd.

There are times when I wish I could prove Sean Parker wrong. But alas, like everyone else, I am shackled by the yoke of social networking.

Perhaps too much networking – twitting, Facebooking, Instagraming, WhatsaApping are not good for us. Too much freedom and too little discipline are never good anyway.

I read about ‘digital detox’ vacations in the Japan Times recently. While many travelers go to great lengths to be digitally accessible on their holidays, there are others who are ditching their smartphones and iPads for digital detox outings.

It is a growing trend in Japan now, where users simply ‘log off’ and become disconnected for some days. They are discovering the joy of digital-free time – without instant connection to the digital realm.

According to the report, such holidays are getting popular in Japan. The spokesperson of a travel agency, based in the Shizuoka Prefecture, which specialises in such vacations said that,by turning off their smartphones and gadgets, his clients become “more appreciative of moments and things around them.”

The company launched digital detox holidays last year. It is a ‘two-day, one night’ retreat at a facility in the prefecture. Clients must surrender their digital devices as they check-in and abandon their watches. There is not even a clock in the guestrooms.

Other companies are offering digital-free excursions to various places in Japan. You can visit famous shrines, join sun-bathers in summer, ski in Sapporo in winter, be among the young at Harajuku or go shopping at Shibuya or Akihabara, but you must stay disconnected. More and more people want to unplug as they travel. 

Japanese today are discussing ‘gadget fatigue’in the media and cyber-space. After all, Japanese people are one of the most connected in the world. According to a recent survey, they spend 49 hours on the average each week tinkering with their smart gadgets.  There are horror stories about young people living in ‘digital caves’. And more alarming to educators and parents, many young people are becoming digital addicts.

On 15 December 2014, there was a news item about ‘detox for teens’ in the New Straits Times. It is about the world’s first virtual school for social recluses to cater for Japan’s growing population of Internet-addicted teenagers. These teens simply cannot function in the real world. They can’t mix and socialise.

The shocking thing is that, in Japan, there are 120,000 students who simply refuse to go to school for that reason. They have become hikikomori (literally shut-ins) who are not able to cope up with fellow humans socially.Its Ministry of Education estimates that there are 700,000 such students in Japan. Some even put the figure at a staggering three million. Parents are ‘losing’ children that way, and knowing many parents have one child in Japan, the impact is devastating to say the least. 

A special school is catering for them. The Cybernation School near Tokyo will enable school dropouts to continue their studies. The concept is ‘studying anywhere, anytime’, and in the case of these teens, in the comfort of their own bedrooms. They will be attending virtual classes. But the issue here is that even if they graduate,they will still be social recluses.

Is the digital detox revolution underway here? Perhaps not yet. But there is a movement to relief humans of digital obsession.

Let’s learn from the Japanese experience. Without doubt, we are heading towards that direction. Even toddlers are now intoxicated with gadgetry. Old-fashioned family relationships are now under threat. ‘Gadget lust’ is taking over, as a piece in the New York Times opines. For couples, ‘pillow talk’ time is almost a thing of the past, for each one is engaged with his or her smartphone. Should a gadget-free bedroom be part of marital vows in the future? These days, it is a familiar to see families going out to dinner and eventually not engaging with each other.Everyone is busy texting or scrolling for something.

Should families ban smartphones during outings? Or create a gadget-free zone at home?

It is reckless to say that gadgets are destroying humanity. It is, however, equally important to remind ourselves of the need to strike the right balance between the need for technology and not abusing or over-using it. It is certainly a tall order for most of us. But the Japan experience tells us: we have to act now. The last thing we want is to create thousands of full-fledged hikikomori in our midst.

This is a wake-up call for us!

Gen Y matters. In 2009, Pricewaterhouse Coopers of Malaysia conducted a survey on millennials at work. The title is tantalizing to say the least, Malaysia’s Gen Y Unplugged.

In the nutshell, the study provides this portrait of Gen Y:
  1. Bold
  2. Brash
  3. Facebooking
  4. IPhone lovers
  5. Multitaskers
  6. Twitting

Check this out too (The 10 Pillars of Gen Y-ing):
  1. Consistency sucks
  2. Job-hopping is overrated
  3. Green is in
  4. Gadgets, gadgets, gadgets (they are being defined by the gadgets they use)
  5. Flexible work hours, please
  6. Respect my space, ok?
  7. Coaching ok, but on-the-job deployment better
  8. Cash is king
  9. We are all made the same (gender equality matters)
  10. I rely on me (Let me plan my future, ok?).

Little wonder that my daughter asked me, “Are you fluent in millennial language?”

There is another study conducted with a panel of 100 millennials by MTV not too long ago. It advocates that marketers take the time to understand the everyday language of these people. Fluency in ‘Gen Y-speak’could serve as a valuable tool for marketers in packaging relatable messages to their target audience in their ad campaigns.

The study shows what millennial lingo reveals about Gen Y, namely:
  1. The desire to be seen as smart and funny
  2. Appreciation for clever and quick wit
  3.  Originality and authenticity
  4. A heightened sense of drama about their own lives
  5. Optimism over rebellion.

The MTV study, titled What Millennials Are Just Sayin', confirms that throughout the 2000s, millennials have ushered in their own vernacular reflective of digital culture and gaming influences. Which is not surprising.

Perhaps it is also pertinent to look at social media in Malaysia as a whole, which I believe is probably one of the most intense in the world. We are, in fact, a very intense society. We are an angry people. Is that maturity, many would ask? Are we a disciplined lot? Can we use the platforms wisely and judiciously as required of us as responsible citizens of the Net?

Are we aware of the dangers of misusing the applications? Why should we use social media purely for venting our hatred and anger upon others? Why are we not utilising them for what we envision them to be – powerful tools for communication, knowledge and information, for creating a truly knowledgeable and informed society?

I am here to provoke, to be the devil’s advocate. I am neither a scholar nor a student of language. I am a user. I was a journalist and I am a writer. You guys know better than me on matters pertaining to teaching Gen Y. You are the experts, I am not.

But we take advantage of whatever problems we face in reaching out to the millennials for whatever purpose – especially teaching, sharing and imparting knowledge. We must not be deterred. We must engage them. We have taken time to learn their language (even a fossil like me) but we must move on.

We can’t blame them for the state of language we are in. We are part of the problem.

I suggest that we ‘lean in’ the world of Gen Y to bring forth knowledge and language skills to them. We must take advantage of their ‘tech-savviness’ to teach them. Gen Y individuals are said to be kinesthetic and visual learners. They are bombarded by images and visuals by the millions. It can’t be any other way.

The whole of communication, entertainment and marketing have being revolutionised, thanks to the Gen Y. Teaching methods too must change. I believe there is a need to revolutionise the classroom environment.

We must create a totally new eco-system for them and (we have to make the adjustments ourselves).

Thank you.

with UPM Vice Chancellor