There’s lots of rules …

The 2015 edition of IH Barcelona’s ELT Conference featured a world-class line up of speakers. Coincidentally, three of the plenary speakers, Michael Swan, Scott Thornbury and Martin Parrott, all talked about a similar issue: how the English language is changing and what impact these changes might have on the language that we teach in our classrooms. The consensus of opinion of all three speakers was that while English has always been subject to change, the pace of change is increasing fast and the TEFL industry is lagging behind.

One example: we have all been told that we should use ‘less’ when we speak of uncountable nouns and ‘fewer’ for countable objects. But according to Martin Parrot, this distinction was unheard of until the 18th century. Previously ‘less’ was used for all nouns. A few centuries later and ‘less’ is evidently reclaiming its right to be used on every occasion, although students who write ‘less cars’ in an end of course exam are still likely to be marked down.

Would a student be marked down for saying “I so don’t agree with you” or “I was sat there for hours” in an oral exam? Probably not. What about a written exam? Probably yes.

Martin Parrott, who’s talk was entitled ‘The Tyranny of TEFL speak’ made the point that most English language course book writers seems oblivious to most of these changes and consistently produce a version of English that essentially reflects the way university educated, middle class people living in the Home Counties spoke in the 1970s and 80s.

So how should this natural evolution of language impact our classroom teaching? Should we accept any utterances that are commonly used, however much they might grate on our ingrained sense of correctness? Should we teach students how people actually speak in this day and age, but warn them that certain commonly used words and expressions shouldn’t be used in exams? That might be one solution, but it doesn’t feel quite right.

As Scott made abundantly clear, all languages change over time and globalisation has hastened the changes.  That said, not all languages are quite as amorphous as English seems to be. In some cases this is because the natural process of change is corralled by institutions which seek to keep some semblance of control. Spanish is overseen by a collection of highly prestigious academics and authors who collectively make up the Real Academia Española. These eminent minds meet periodically to discuss which changes to Spanish are acceptable and which are not.  Whatever they say goes. Students taking the Instituto Cervantes’ Spanish language exams don’t therefore have to navigate the fast expanding grey areas that students of English are increasingly faced with. If the Real Academia says something is admissible, that’s fine. Otherwise it just ain’t.

Cultural historians may like to consider why Spain has an official body of language overseers whose role is to determine what is and isn’t allowed in Spanish, whereas the free market seems to hold much greater sway in England, at least outside the “tyranny” of most EFL course books and exams. But that’s a debate which goes way beyond the scope of this blogpost, innit?

One comment

  1. Interesting stuff. In my case, I just try to create/follow communicative goals and not worry too much about stuff that doesn’t affect them. You mention that students often get marked down for grammar “rules” in writing, but not in speaking. I think that’s because in speaking we can easily focus on non-grammar stuff like pronunciation. In writing non-grammar stuff exists, but it’s not emphasized in most classes. And it feels more subjective. I’m thinking specifically about brevity. It’s a huge element of strong writing, but more difficult to criticize compared to something like less vs. fewer.

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