IATEFL 2016 – Q and A follow-up to David Crystal’s plenary

Thank you British Council/IATEFL Online for enabling me to catch up with the follow up Q and A session for David Crystal’s fantastic opening plenary. Seeing David talk is always a treat.

I am not going to write up the whole session – I recommend that you instead spend half an hour watching it here. You might want to watch the recording of his plenary here first, though, to contextualise the Q and A!

Instead, I am just going to pick out a few things and comment on them:

  • Language play is taking place in all languages not just English – students are aware of that, whatever their age. They know that people play with language. The teacher’s job is to somehow grade their encounters with variety in both spoken and written environments. This enhances the standard learning experience: standard is standard because it is not non-standard and vice versa. The two things are always playfully interacting with each other. A teacher doesn’t teach standard English alone, or non-standard English as a separate subject, but somehow the interplay between the two so that one learns when one is learning a standard feature of the language that there are also non-standard variants.

I love this idea of teaching the interplay between the two! I think it’s important too – teaching standard English alone wouldn’t prepare students for the reality of English as it is used in the world today. 

  • The most popular component of the A-Level English Language course is language change. Both dimensions: language development (in the sense of a child learning to speak) and the deterioration at the other end of the spectrum, but also the change in trends of usage through the centuries and through living memory. The students love it because it gives them a sense of ownership of the language. They can discover for themselves the changes that are taking place. Last week’s cool words are not this week’s cool words. E.g. text messaging, of the “C U L8R” variety. Used to be popular, in 2003/4/5, messages were full of abbreviations. It was fashionable. (David always gets the teacher to get the students to collect text message data in advance of his visits). Last year, there wasn’t a single abbreviation to be seen. Not even an “lol” to be seen. They are not cool anymore. Why? Because adults started doing it! “I stopped doing it when my dad started” David predicts the same thing will happen to emojis. He gives them five years. Language change is happening now, as well as being something that has happened.

I feel old… Also, for anyone who, I was, is unsure about the difference between emoticons and emojis, here is a Guardian article that explains it! I wonder what will come after emojis? Am I old if I still use emoticons rather than emojis unless they auto-convert? For example, in WhatsApp you can select from a menu of emojis but if you put : – ) (without the spaces) then it stays that way rather than auto-converting into the relevant emoji. The only reason I really use emojis is because they have appeared as conversions of my emoticons. I don’t tend to bother selecting them from emoji menus. I must definitely be old!

Anyway, I love the idea of students collecting and analysing their message data!

  • Language doesn’t have an independent existence from society. It is explained by what is going on elsewhere. E.g. in the UK, breaking down of social class system, increase in cultural diversity, things to do with gender, race and stereotyping. We have become a more egalitarian society. You would expect language to reflect those trends. So, once upon a time certain accents were considered subservient because RP developed at the end of the 18th century into upper class English. Then came the middle class, the nouveau riche, build the railways, made textile machines, built roads etc. One day, the Duke invites the industrialist to dinner and suddenly the industrialist realises he does not know how to behave. So books on etiquette and elocution appear, with the elocution movement. Elocutionists became millionaires in those days. The people writing the manuals on pronunciation use words like “horrible” and “vile” to describe other accents. RP developed as a contrast with the regional accents of the time. As soon as the class distinction starts to break down, so attitudes change, the accent changes and people would modify their RP accent to sound ‘less posh’. However, not all regional accents have gone up-market equally. Some accents are considered positively but some inner city accents have got a long way to go before they achieve a complete range of positive responses. But give it time.

Isn’t the history of language/society fascinating?! And accent/attitudes to accent as well. I love non-‘BANA’ country English accents. And regional accents. With regards to my own accent, whenever people delve into the “where are you from?” question with me, they always go something like “aha! I thought you didn’t sound English” (as in England English)! When my sister and I were young and we (as in the family rather than us two personally!) got our first telephone with an inbuilt answering machine (very exciting! It was able to send and receive faxes too!!!), my sister had a great time recording variations of the message that people would get if they rang and we didn’t pick up. Amongst others, she took off to perfection a posh English accent, saying we were back home in the UK and had gone to London Zoo! Which was all the funnier because neither of us thought of the UK as home, of course. For me, Botswana English accents as well as some other African country English accents sound warm and homely, because they remind me of my childhood I suppose. 

  • You can never predict the future when it comes to language. Who, 1000 years ago, would have predicted that no one would know Latin? What will we be speaking in 1000 years? Could be Martian, if they have landed. One of the penalties of success – i.e. if a language becomes a global language – is that the language becomes owned by everybody. Then you get two forces – the need for intelligibility and the need for identity. In many parts of the world, you have standard English taught in schools and a non-standard English spoken on the streets. Language is messy, though, and things start to overlap. Things start to creep from one to the other and vice versa. The important thing is: when you encounter this problem, don’t think of it as a language learning problem, it’s just an issue inherent in a global language. You go backwards and forwards between standard and non-standard English.

I wonder if Martians would use emojis too… Anyway, I love the image of the back-and-forth-ing between standard English and peoples’ own varieties of English the world over, as intelligibility breaks down and is restored and stabilised then breaks down again. But rather than “breaks down” which has negative connotations, I want a more neutral word for it. I think there’s a lot of fun to be had in trying to build meaning with different people from different places, as long as everyone is aware that it may occasionally go astray! 

Anyway, as I said at the beginning, I highly recommend that you watch the full recording of both the plenary and this little Q and A session!

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