06 Dec English Is Alive. Recent Changes in the English Language and How We Can Keep Our English up to Date
Article originally published in the IH Journal, issue 44. Author: Mike Bridge.
Are you occasionally taken aback by a student question like, “What does ‘youthquake’ mean?” Do you sometimes feel out of your depth trying to clarify the latest slang or tech jargon in some article? Being an English teacher means, among other things, being up to date with how the language changes every day and with the myriads of new words and phrases that evolution generates. This article makes you aware of the changeability of English and explains how we can keep up with the most recent lexical developments in it.
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 The longer we are away from an English-speaking country, the more our English becomes out of date.
The aim of this article is to discuss the following:
- How the English language is changing
- The continued development of different Englishes
- Whether it matters that the English we use is no longer as up to date as it could be
- Ways to keep our English up to 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:
- Other Englishes. E.g. I used to correct students for saying “chapter” when they meant “episode” but with the popularity of box sets and TV streaming services, the two words are becoming interchangeable when referring to television series. Just as US English influences British English, so different Englishes (see below) will continue to influence each other.
- Technology. Changes in language can often be due to trends or the popularity of new lexis rather than new words being invented. E.g. “cloud storage” was coined in the 1960s but came to real prominence in 2006 (Mohamed 2009). Youngsters, traditionally earlier adopters of technology, are developing a new language and style of writing through different forms of communication such as WhatsApp. Does that make me sound my age? Please don’t answer that!
- Political Correctness. As outdated phrases such as “lady doctor” and “male nurse” are no longer in popular use, other obsolete terms that date from an era where professions were dominated by one sex are also on the decline. An actor is an actor regardless of their gender.
Words enter – or become popular in – the language all the time as these “Words of the Year” demonstrate (Oxford Dictionaries 2018):
- 2011 – Squeezed Middle
- 2012 – Omnishambles
- 2013 – Selfie
- 2014 – Vape
- 2015 – Face with Tears of Joy emoji
- 2016 – Post truth
- 2017 – Youthquake
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:
- The inner circle refers to countries where English is the traditional first language. e.g. UK, USA.
- The outer circle refers to countries where English has become a lingua franca in multilingual societies, e.g. India, Nigeria.
- The expanding circle represents nations where English has no historical/governmental role but is recognised for international communication, e.g. China, Russia.
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:
- Watch TV
- Listen to podcasts
- Peer observation feedback
- Listen and learn from our students (they are our greatest resource)
- Follow blogs about the English language
Amos, O (2018) Chloe Kim: Why do some people get ‘hangry’? BBC. [Online] 14 February. Available from: https://bbc.in/2s8tiRe [Accessed 17 March 2018]
Crystal, D (1997) English as a Global Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Crystal, D (2000) Emerging Englishes in English Teaching Professional Journal [Online]. Available from: www.davidcrystal.com/?fileid=-4038 [Accessed 17 March 2018]
Engel, M (2017) That’s the Way it Crumbles – The American Conquest of English, London: Profile Books Ltd
Ethnologue (2018) English [Online] Available from: www.ethnologue.com/language/eng. Accessed 17 March 2018
Foster, B. (1970) The Changing English Language, Middlesex: Pelican Books
Kim, C (2018) Twitter feed, Available from: https://twitter.com/chloekimsnow/status/963234868615196673?lang=en. Accessed 17 March 2018
MacMillan (2018) Open Dictionary [Online] Available from: www.macmillandictionary.com/open-dictionary/index.html. [Accessed 17 March 2018]
Merriam Webster (2018) The Dictionary Just Got a Whole Lot Bigger [Online] Available from: http://bit.ly/2kmVpIX [Accessed 17 March 2018]
Mohamed A (2009) A history of cloud computing. Computer Weekly [Online] March Available from: http://bit.ly/2ILewuZ [Accessed 17 March 2018]
Oxford Dictionaries (2018) Word of the Year [Online] Available from: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/. [Accessed 17 March 2018]
Oxford English Dictionary (2018) January 2018 update [Online] Available from: http://bit.ly/2sbF3av [Accessed 17 March 2018]
O’Grady, C (2017) After Brexit, EU English will be free to morph into a distinct variety. The Guardian. [Online] 25 September. Available from: http://bit.ly/2GMoZ3l [Accessed 16 March 2018]
Author’s Bio: Mike is a Delta-qualified teacher working at Albany School of English in Cordoba, Spain. He is originally from York, the UK and has never looked back following a career change in 2011. He is passionate about coaching/professional development within ELT and fascinated by the English language. He specialises in teaching exam classes and following declining sports teams.