How well do you know your language?

So, you plan to teach English abroad. It’s your ‘native’ language, you reckon you know your grammar, and speak ‘well’. Here’s a whirlwind tour of the history, current usage and variations of the world’s lingua fraca.


Some 1.5 billion people can now claim to speak English, though only about 360 million speak it as their native tongue, with a further 400 million regularly using it as a second language (L2). It is taught in almost every school system from North Korea to Iran.

English has emerged as the largest lingua fraca ever, although not the first. Persian, Roman, Arabic, French and Spanish have all been used as languages of dominant international communication over time. English enjoyed two major quirks of history to catapulted it into stardom. First, England ruled the seas after the Age of Exploration and went on to dominate the world during the Age of Colonization. Not all its ‘subjects’ were made to speak English. But one former colony came to dominate the world in the 20th C, the United States. With the expansion to a ‘global village’ for instant international communication and the development of TV, movies and the internet, English has now dominated trade, tourism and logistics around the world, much to the disgust of the French!

English is now used for diplomacy, airline communications, computer programming, tourism (so that the French have to use English when on holiday in Thailand), aid and many other global initiatives. But who claims to own English?

It seems logical that England is the heart and home of English, but there are far more native speakers in the United States, and not everyone in Britain is ‘English’. There is Austraaalian English, and Sef African English, Jamaaaican English, New Ziland English, Sin-ga-por Eng-lish, Indian English and all, and even a whole new English-based creole called Tok Pisin, which is now the official language of Papua New Guinea.  But even in the United Kingdom itself the dialects are numerous; someone from the Tyneside in the North can barely understand a Cornish speaker, and Glaswegian English is often unintelligible to an East London Cockney. Each variation has its own slang, peculiar grammar, and broad accent, and speakers of each think their variety is normal. So just what sort of English is correct or proper? Before we answer that let’s briefly investigate the history of the language.


A brief history of English

Throughout its history English can be said to have amalgamated a variety of language influences, evolved, consolidated and more recently expanded by borrowing vocabulary. In it’s current state it is exposed, through international usage, to many other language speakers who use it as a second language, further adding to its richness and altering it. Words such as hammock (Carib), safari (Swahili), lychee (Cantonese), boutique (French), yacht (Dutch), cameo (Italian), curry (Dravidian), caravan (Arabic), and guitar (Spanish) have all been borrowed over time.  

English as we know it is a relatively new dialect, having evolved into its present state, known as Late Modern English (L. Mod E.) in about 1750, with the standardisation of grammar and the widespread aggregation of newly minted dictionaries thanks to the arrival of the printing press and emergence of a ‘reading’ middle class. Shakespeare (who spelt his name several different ways) wrote in Elizabethan English, at a time when the language was reckoned to be evolving from Middle English (ME) to Early Modern English (E. Mod E), which is why Hamlet isn’t that easy to read.  

Texts such at The Canterbury Tales or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, dating from the (14th and 15th C) are barely readable, what’s more they were written in different dialects, one from Kent and the other from the Northwest of England, so that their original texts are virtually two languages unintelligible to each other. The reason for this is that English evolved out of a number of dialects or separate languages layered over a pre-existing Celtic language by invading Angles, Saxon, Jutes and Norse. Centred on the dialect of London and the Midlands, a proto-type Old English (OE) evolved. When the Normans invaded in 1066 the country came under a ruling class that spoke French, so that much of the ‘elite vocabulary’ is similar to French (such as porc and boef, whereas the working class settled on eating plain old chicken). 

English, therefore, is so full of differing grammar structure and unusually spelt vocabulary that it’s one of the more difficult languages to learn (and teach) on account of words not written how they are spelt and rules with multiple exceptions.


The English Standard

So, we now have English that may or may not include ‘u’ in colour, and pronounces bouy booey. Do we fill in or fill out a form? Does it matter whether you use ‘that’ or ‘which’ to identify the subject’s relationship to the object? What exactly do we mean when we say ‘now now’? Should we say ‘them cups’ or ‘those cups’. 

Standard English is a bit controversial to define, but it certainly is the English that TEFL teachers strive to teach in the classroom. It is the English of text books and newspaper articles. Standard English is spoken by newscasters, but not reality TV actors. Standard English can be formal or informal, while vernacular English (i.e. your local variety) is generally less formal.

Standard English does not need to sound posh, that’s Received Pronunciation, or BBC English, which is now out of favour with the politically correct Britain of the 21st Century. News announcers are now from Scotland and South Africa or even the Philippines. But the Queen of England still speaks, well, the ‘Queen’s English’. The closest Britain now gets to a ‘neutral’ accent is known as Estuary pronunciation/usage, as spoken most commonly in London. In the United States, standard English can come in a variety of accents, as in Arkansas or New England, but African American Vernacular English (AAVE) has been striving for decades to be recognised as a separate dialect.

 English usage is also closely associated with social perceptions, and people tend to speak more formally or use standard English for business, education or showing respect, often adapting their accent somewhat to suit the audience and occasion. This is known as socio-linguistics, and indicates people trying to give false ‘class’ pretensions, or conversely patronise someone by sounding like ‘one of them’. We must admit to ourselves, we tend to make assumptions about people’s intelligence, education level, manners and trustworthiness based on their accent. Those with a strong accent might get passed up for a job. Certainly, you will have more difficulty landing a TEFL job with a thick Scottish accent.


Prescriptive versus descriptive grammar

Grammar is a tricky monster, so full of rules and protocols that it could take us a life to perfect it. The truth is, English is an evolving language under constant influence from contemporary and modernising informal ‘spoken’ form. There was a time when ‘back home’ was incorrect or bad grammar. At some point in the future ‘my bad’ will possibly be integrated as acceptable idiomatic English.

This means that grammar has a long yardstick of scale, with high grammar at one end – favoured by academics in thesis writing, and informal or lose grammar at the other, such as the text or Line conversation you might have (e.g. ‘where you bin’, ‘home’, ‘k’, ‘see ya later’). At some point in the past the double negative (‘I ain’t got no…) was in fact correct grammar. In fact, every day grammar can ‘appropriate and correct’ somewhere in the middle of the scale, depending on the context of use. As a TEFL teacher you should try to teach formal grammar, but settle on the objective of encouraging your students to converse, even with less-than-perfect grammar (e.g. omitting ‘that’, or the plural form inflecting nouns or verbs). Your old English teacher might rap you on the knuckles for starting a sentence with ‘and’ or ending it with a preposition, but as long as the meaning is not ambiguous then it’s perfectly aceptable, otherwise we would all be speaking a rather clumsy, rearranged syntax.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out the significant difference between ESL and EFL. English as a second language is taught formally by an education system to achieve a bilingual state, such as the Philippines, Singapore, South Africa and so on, relying on plenty of local qualified teachers. English as a foreign language is that which countries try to teach their students for usage in tourism, international trade etc, It relies on native English speakers from abroad to assist local teachers, aiming for a general conversant level in an environment where not much English is ever spoken in public. 

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