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English is Alive: Recent changes in the English language and how we can keep our English up to date

By Mike Bridge

 

> Since leaving the UK seven years ago, change has both interested and intrigued me. On my biannual visits to the UK, I have observed many small changes such as different notes and coins, a range of free magazines at the stations and craft beer in cans. And hasn’t the EFL world changed in such a short period of time? Online teaching is taking off, more technology is being used in classrooms, “low cost” academies are springing up everywhere and, in Spain at least, I have witnessed the number of C1 and C2 students increasing markedly. Additionally, the industry – or parts of it at least – is finally coming to sense about the native/non-native teacher issue.

Against this backdrop, as with any living language, English continues to evolve. I knew this of course but it was only recently when a C1 student apologised for “phubbing ” in class and I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about that I started thinking more about our changing language. The longer we are away from an English-speaking country, the more our English becomes out of date.

 

How English is Changing

As Lloyd-James highlighted in The Broadcast Word as long ago as 1935 (cited in Foster 1970:9) “…let us remember that a language is never in a state of fixation, but is always changing; we are not looking at a lantern-slide but at a moving picture”. I love this quote because the use of vocabulary from that time (a lantern-slide is a projector of still images) only serves to emphasise our language’s changing nature.

There are of course many influencers on our English including:

Words enter – or become popular in – the language all the time as these “Words of the Year” demonstrate (Oxford Dictionaries 2018):

The word “omnishambles” was invented by the UK TV series “The Thick of It” (Oxford 2018). The trend of invented words becoming “established” will continue. In March 2018, Merriam-Webster added “embiggen ” – a word originally invented by the long running TV show The Simpsons in 1996 – to its dictionary.

During the recent Winter Olympics, a US snowboarder tweeted “Wish I finished my breakfast sandwich but my stubborn self decided not to and now I’m getting hangry” (Kim 2018). Hangry? Was it a spelling mistake? Of course not. The BBC (Amos 2018) followed up the tweet the next day with an article describing the condition of “hangry ” and a Google search provides over 4 million “hangry” references. The word had entered the Oxford English Dictionary on 7 February 2018 (Oxford English Dictionary 2018).

And grammar changes. When McDonald’s introduced “I’m lovin’ it” some grammarians were angered but are we now more able to deal with the continuous use of stative verbs?

 

Influencers on Englishes’ development

English has been described as “…a language which consists of many varieties, each distinctive in its use of sounds, grammar, and vocabulary” (Crystal, 1997:24). In other words, there is not a single version of English and different varieties are used – and are developing – across the world.

Kachru (cited in Crystal 1997:53) saw the spread of English as three concentric circles:

Just as Spanish influenced the developing US English (Engel 2017:18), so other languages have influenced different versions of English. We are all influenced by our surroundings and the language that is used. EFL teaching can be seen to have its own version of Englishes. Before I started teaching I had never elicited anything, never heard of an interlocutor and didn’t realise that board was a verb!

Equally my Spanish has influenced my English. Words that I used rarely or have different meanings to the ones I knew before moving to Spain include: perfect; …yes/no?; obliged; disconnect; invent; and transmit.

Of course communication isn’t impeded but they are changing my own version of English. Again, does this matter?

 

The use of different “Englishes” for global communication

In his 1992 essay Commonwealth Literature Does Not Exist (cited in Crystal, 1997:130), Rushdie claimed that “The English language ceased to be the sole possession of the English some time ago”. Although a worrying prospect for some, it is even more true 25 years on. Rushdie’s belief is reinforced by the fact that even after the UK leaves the EU, English (through second language speakers) will still be “the most widely-spoken language in Europe” (O’Grady 2017). In a UK-less EU, more people will speak English than German or French!

Although estimates vary, there are approximately 380 million English L1 speakers in the world (Ethnologue 2018). This compares with an estimate for the number of global English L2 speakers of over 1 billion (Crystal 2000). It is thought that the vast majority of the English spoken around the world is not between native speakers but between people using version of Englishes as a lingua franca.

As the world changes so do the reasons English is being used. My students often talk about using English when gaming online – it is the lingua franca of the online gaming community. The most popular Youtube blogger is Swedish but blogs to his 60 million subscribers across the world in English.

 

Why it’s important to keep our “Englishes” up to date

As EFL teachers, our job is to enable students to communicate in English. We need to be aware that they are likely to be communicating in one or more versions of English and therefore should not be restricted to our – possibly outdated – version of English. The English language(s) change and move on. So should we in order to help our students communicate in 2018 and beyond.

 

Ways to keep our “Englishes” up to date

We need to both consider how to keep our English “correct” and uninfluenced by the L2 around us whilst simultaneously keeping up with an evolving language.

To help us achieve these two aims, there are a number of activities we can, and should, do. These will help us challenge what we write and say whilst helping us live in less of a
“language bubble”. Many of them of course are similar to the activities we tell our students to do to help them with their English:

Please see the digital version of the IH Journal for references.

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