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The TEE view on the English language - Part 1

This is a much-revised and rewritten text that was originally published in the website's companion book, Typical Errors in English, and may be used for a possible second edition of the book.


The English language is changing all the time. The ways of teaching also change. (Well, they do with me.) 


While I was looking back at the first edition of the book, I came to agree with a correspondent who happened to be a research scientist – along with other people also telling me this – that it was just a little bit on the prescriptive side.


In other words, I was telling people what I think they must do without considering what other alternatives of expression are available that may (or, perhaps, are best not to be used) either in casual speaking, formal speaking, and writing (both formal and informal).



I suppose at this point I’d better just explain that there are ways, methods or approaches of teaching English which can be placed into three categories.


The descriptive tells you not only how the language is used and the correct way of using it, but it also describes other ways in which it is used by others, even if it may not necessarily be correct as far as what could be considered Standard English. But it may be okay in other forms of English - American, local dialect, colloquial, whatever.


The pedagogical method gives you descriptions of ‘standard’ English, with lots of examples taken from course books and other material designed for learning English as a foreign language.


Finally, there is the prescriptive which tells you rules based on the belief that there is a system of grammar rules and English language expression that has to be strictly followed and obeyed!


Now there are a lot of English language users - particularly native speakers teaching English as a foreign language – who subscribe to all three methods (whether we like them or not).

So as you can tell, teaching English is not always that easy for the teacher.

For many students attempting to learn English as a foreign language, the frustrations it can pose could be summed up in this little poem:

A Dutchman by the name of Van Dammar
Had trouble with his English grammar.
He said, 'If I had my way
I would spend the whole day,
Smashing it all up with a hammer!'

(If you go through my book, you will realise I like poems.)

English is the third most spoken native language in the world (after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish), but when you include everyone who uses it as a second language, it is probably the most widely spoken language on the planet. It’s a language that contains more words than any other. And as of January 2012 (according to the Global Language Monitor, a website that gives you the statistics on the English language), it now contains over one million words.

And if you’re interested, it was on 10th June 2009, at 10.22pm (GMT) that the millionth word was declared as Web 2.0.

Now did that make you go OH!! or …oh. Yes, I was disappointed too.

Indeed, if all the statistics we read are to be believed, the English language is adding one new word every 98 minutes, or 14.7 words every day. It’s like a hungry monster in reverse: it is feeding on, absorbing, and then excreting all these new words and expressions in order to fatten itself up. It is, with very few people noticing, shaping and even reshaping its grammar along the way. In fact, I did consider calling the book (and of course, by default, this website) Typical Terrors in English as there are so many traps in the language that both the learner and the native speaker can fall into.

Such as? Well, it sometimes decides to contradict some of the things that we believed we already knew.

As publishers know very well, dictionaries and grammars have to be updated all the time, with new editions coming out every five years or so. The language is continuously evolving, uncontrollably, in many different directions. Diversification is emerging in the varieties around the world, particularly with American, Australian, British and Indian English.

Although modern media – satellite communications, the internet, and to a lesser degree, text messaging and social media – have probably ensured that the different English speakers around the world should continue to understand each other for some time yet, it is also an additional reason - and responsible for - often needing the unofficial English grammar rulebook to be updated.

Around 80 per cent of internet traffic and international business is conducted in English. It is often described by some people as a ‘killer language’, that is, it’s responsible for many minor languages around the world becoming extinct as it defeats all others to position itself to being the lingua franca. The Indian government does business using English in a country where several other languages are spoken. (Although only around 10% of Indians speak English as a native language, this still makes around 100 million speakers.)

Many people and professionals in the field disagree on what is right or wrong with the language as regards structure and grammar. Put simply, the English language is an impossible beast to catch, to put into a cage, to be locked up and then to be told how it should behave.

One possible reason for English’s uncontrollable behaviour is that it doesn’t have an academy or organisation that regulates or monitors the language – although whether such an organisation would be truly effective is a cause for debate for a language that’s constantly in flux; in other words, changing. There’s no official rulebook. Not even this book is any kind of official rulebook: it is only a guide to what we already understand and know about the language. British English, particularly when written and spoken by native speakers, is often used in the vernacular (non-standard English) and is subject to errors, mispronunciations, incomprehensible dialects, and sometimes unfathomable colloquialisms when spoken.

And a lot of big words.

Now often what we believe we understand about the language is frequently debated among writers, teachers and professionals (usually high-profile journalists) to the point that many of them disagree – often considerably – as to what these ‘rules’ should be. That is, knowing what the rules of Standard English are. 

Coming up next... In part 2, what is Standard English?

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