In association with Pilgrims Limited
*  Would you like to receive publication updates from HLT? Join our free mailing list
Pilgrims 2005 Teacher Training Courses - Read More
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching


Maja Aleksic, Serbia

Maja Aleksic is an English language teacher to adults at the Institute for Foreign Languages in Belgrade, Serbia. She holds an M.A. in Contrastive Linguistics of English and Serbian languages and is a PhD candidate on Syllabus Design at Faculty of Philology at University of Belgrade. E-mail: majaaleksic@beotel.yu


Changes in contemporary English
How to deal with language change


Once established, a system of values, norms and ideals is very difficult to change in a language. Old habits die hard, not only when the language sends clear messages that it is time for a change, but also when the change incorporates itself into the language. As a rule, novelty is first ignored, then rejected as a deviation, after that labelled as a non - desirable way of behaviour... Nevertheless, if it manages to find a position in the language and among speakers, an artificial status quo can never be maintained.

This paper will focus on these aspects of language change:

  • The changes in English as the spoken language
  • Some features of colloquial and young people's language

The main ideas of the paper are based on several sources:

  • contemporary literature in the fields of applied linguistics and language methodology
  • contemporary language in use
  • practical examples from the spheres of media and information technology.

Most of the practical examples were collected at The Seminar for English Language Teachers at Exeter College in Oxford. That is why the paper is entitled OXFORDENSHIP.

The aim of the paper is to raise the awareness of the fact that continual language change is one of the main characteristics of any language, to point to some of the most recent changes in English concerning the two aspects mentioned above and finally, to suggest language description, rather than language prescription, as a way of dealing with any issues related to contemporary spoken language.

Changes in contemporary English

Changes in English as the Spoken English

This part of the paper opens with a list of illustrations showing some of the most recent changes in English as the Spoken English:

  • Increasing use of the progressive aspect, even with so-called 'stative verbs', e.g.: He's loving being in the army.
  • Less use of classic reporting structures, e.g.: He goes,'It will cost you 75 quid', and I'm, you know,'We can't afford that!'.
  • A wide range of 'conditional' structures, including the use of single 'would' clauses, e.g.: If you'd had told me it was your birthday, I'd have bought you a present.
  • More flexibility about singular/plural agreement, e.g.: Here are the Brodsky Quartet.
  • More common use of double and multiple negation, e.g.: She hasn't got no sense at all, she hasn't.
  • Comparative forms of one-syllable words without –er, e.g.: It's more cool today than it was yesterday.
  • Increasing use of 'less' instead of 'fewer' ,e.g.: There are less people today than yesterday.
  • More flexibility with punctuation, e.g.: Do not overtake cyclist's under the bridge.

The illustrations listed clearly point to a much higher level of freedom in language in use compared to that prescribed by formal and, particularly, pedagogical grammars. (This has always been so). At the same time, they point to a much higher level of freedom in language in use compared to the previous stages of language development. They all stand in support of the main aim of this paper: raising awareness of the necessity and inevitability of continual language change. Some of the points listed have been characteristic of spoken language for quite a long time; others are more recent in origin. Some have always been used by native speakers; nevertheless, they might represent a source of novelty for non-native speakers.

The sentence It's more cool today than it was yesterday adequately illustrates a language feature used for quite a long time; on the other hand, widening the range of the conditional structures would be an adequate illustration of the changes more recent in origin: If you'd had told me it was your birthday, I'd have bought you a present.

What the two sentences have in common is that they are used by native speakers of English, regardless of their educational level. In other words, they are not characteristic of lower social strata. On the contrary, a very educated native speaker of English makes a remark '' We have always used more with 'short' adjectives.''.

On the other hand, when the sentence Here are the Brodsky Quartet first occurred in the Times, it stirred strong reactions among the educated native speakers. Nowadays, such examples are widespread both in spoken and in written language.

The progressive aspect is also worthy of attention. Namely, the use of the progressive aspect has become so widespread today that it seems perfectly legitimate to question whether there are still any verbs which are not used in the progressive. The verb to know seems to be one of the few: * I'm knowing it.

The fact that there is more freedom in the use of spoken language does not imply that this freedom is unlimited. To support this, the apostrophy in the sentence Do not overtake cyclist's under the bridge, is commonly referred to as 'the greengrocer's apostrophy'. Apart from raising the question of general acceptability, it also points to the differences in language in use among different social strata.

Some features of colloquial and young people’s language

Young people's language has always been characterised by a strong need for freedom, for breaking the established rules and setting the new ones. As such, young people's language has always been a rich source of language creativity and language novelty. Some features of young people's language have always been characterised as substandard; others have overlapped with standard colloquial speech. It is often difficult and sometimes, seems impossible, to draw the line between the two. This becomes evident from the list showing some features of colloquial and young people’s language:

  • informal words and expressions It's gonna be well good.
  • double or multiple negation She hasn't got no sense at all, she hasn't.
  • ain't as a negative contraction No, it ain't. It's gonna be boring.
  • use of 'us' for me Give us a ring tonight.
  • accusative personal pronoun as a subject Me and my sister got lost.
  • reporting structures: I go, I'm, I'm like I'm like,' Hello?'
  • use of fillers like, you get me?
  • use of 'all purpose tags' such as right? yeah? innit?

Some of the features are increasingly present in colloquial language in general, not necessarily the language of young people. These are informal words and expressions, reporting structures like I go, I'm, I'm like, fillers, or 'all purpose tags'.

Others are often considered to be unacceptable, substandard or indicating the lack of taste. Among the features listed above, these are ain't as a negative contraction or double and multiple negation Nevertheless, they survive. They also stand in support of the fact that an artificial status quo can never be maintained if a certain language feature manages to find position in the language and among its speakers.

How to deal with language change

From the perspective of foreign language teaching, the question is how to deal with language change in a foreign language classroom. The fact is that students are aware of these changes. Students come up with the questions about the features mentioned, or sometimes use them in their own speech.

One of the ways of dealing with the changes is to disregard them. Teachers can stick to formal pedagogic grammars.The alternative is to introduce the changes into a foreign language classroom. How the changes will be introduced depends on a number of factors: the students' age, their linguistic level, the particular students' needs and others.

The main ideas this paper suggests are that:

  • Students' questions regarding different aspects of contemporary language are worthy of attention and deserve space in the class ( not necessarily the end of class)
  • The changes should be introduced during the presentation of formal grammar elements, with a reference to when and how they are used, as well as to who uses them. Their use in spoken language should also be suggested as recommended or not recommended.
  • Media, information technology and other ways of modern communication should also be exploited in the class in order to demonstrate the aspects of contemporary language. To serve this purpose, various visual, audio, tactile or kinaesthetic aids should be introduced in the course of studies.

In addition, Carter and McCarthy(2006) also suggest a way of dealing with the language change which seems quite acceptable from this perspective. A specific language feature can be suggested as:

  1. In widespread use in spoken and written English, e.g.: He always pronounces my name wrong;
  2. In widespread use in spoken and written English but not prescribed, e.g.: Which line is the shortest, A or B?;
  3. Rarely or never used in written English but widespread in spoken English, e.g.: I was like, 'Oh, thank God for that!' you know;
  4. Regionally or socially marked, e.g.: Your ice cream is bigger than what mine is;
  5. Unacceptable or non - occurring in all varieties, e.g.: Can you open the window?.

In conclusion, there is no need to label language change as either progress or decay. Language changes, just as people do; language change is inevitable just as birth and death are. Thus, there is no space for prescription; the description of the present status of language elements is the best that can be done with language.


Please check the What’s New in Language Teaching course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Methodology for Teaching Spoken Grammar and Language course at Pilgrims website.

Back Back to the top

    © HLT Magazine and Pilgrims