Why a 10-Year-Old Should Run Your Social Media

Last weekend I saw the new movie Chef, and one thing I came away with was that businesses should just hire 10-year-olds to do their marketing on social media. If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about. To recap–the son of a struggling, but brilliant, chef helps him start a food truck. The boy takes it upon himself to use Twitter, Vine, and Facebook to promote the business. As a result of his posts, hungry crowds show up at the food truck wherever it stops. The content the boy produces is written in fluent social media lingo. A current linguistics major, I could not help but find a link between his ability to use social media and a theory of cognitive linguistics called the “critical period” (Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct). The theory states that there is a point by which children must acquire one or more languages before they lose the ability to easily learn language. It explains both why children are much better at picking up new languages than adults and why children who have not acquired any language by adolescence are never able to speak fluently.
Critical Period

Graph of Critical Period

Sugata Mitra demonstrated the linguistic capabilities of children in a real-life experiment. Setting up computers in rural India, he then left children to explore them on their own for several months. The children not only learned about neurons, but taught themselves English in order to understand the information they found using the computer. They were able to put together the vocabulary and structure of English, and in the same way, learn the dialect of English that relates to neuroscience. Learning to put together the pieces of language that are standard in social media is not nearly so complicated, but does require the same capacity to innately associate words with their meaning and utilize grammatical structure—the exact ability that humans lose after the critical period. Words and phrases used online, even when they resemble English, are truly their own language. Children are immersed in this language more completely than even the most tech-savvy adult. Thus, they receive the mountain of linguistic input necessary to inherently understand when—and more importantly when not—to use elements like OMG or a hashtag, and how many posts per day is too many. In Chef, there was a stark contrast between the boy’s ease on Twitter and his father’s lack of it, which persisted throughout the movie. The boy, fluent in Twitter use by age ten, had mastered the grammar of social media before the end of the critical period for language learning. Social-media grammar was precisely what the father could not grasp. Grammar is more important than vocabulary since it is both more complicated and less flexible. Even with an understanding of the vocabulary of social media, an adult has a harder time grasping when one Twitter phrase is preferable to any other, whereas children begin learning to use social media well before the end of the critical period. In effect, social media is their second language. Professional online marketers may create new trends, but only children have the innate ability to take it all in and use the language fluently. While children don’t actually belong tweeting and instagramming for pay, their social media fluency offers the most pure indication of internet trends.   Illustration by: Darius Williams

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