On Language – Social – NYTimes.com – and a short post on language change and variety

Leslie David

In our Web-driven era of social media and social networking, we are all learning more sophisticated ways to “socialize” that go far beyond cocktail-party chatter. But being social in the 21st century can sometimes be downright unsettling.

Consider the anxieties over a linguistic trend that The Wall Street Journal’s Overheard column expressed last month. “A new catchphrase in meetings is ‘let me socialize that,’ ” The Journal wrote. “No, they aren’t suggesting they will see if they can get a government bailout. Or introducing some left-wing political theories to business. Instead the phrase means ‘I’ll discuss this with my colleagues and circle back to you.’ ”

Fun (for the linguist in me) treatment of the word “social”.

The changing uses of words makes it difficult to teach language. Regional, age, and SES differences (to name a few) all influence language use. This is why learners fluent in English can have such a difficult time communicating at a fast food restaurant, in the dorm with undergraduates, or with any language variation outside of the standards they have had exposure to (difficulties many native speakers face as well).

How can I teach a language that is always changing? As with most teachers of English, I focus on academic language that, while it changes over time, is more much resilient to change than less formal domains. I fall back on standards (as ephemeral as they are) to provide a foundation.

The foundation is not enough, though. Standards create expectations that, when challenged, cause communication to falter. This is where variety comes in. Language variety increases exposure to language outside of your classroom standards. It’s faster/slower, drawl/clipped, enunciated/mumbled, male/female, formal/informal, and all the other wonders of language variety. Working outside of your classroom standards can encourage skills to process non-standard varieties, thus providing tools to learners to interact with the greater world of English speakers.

Most of us in EFL contexts are preparing learners who are less likely to interact in English with someone who sounds just like us than they are to encounter a fast network of global English speakers. In my neck of the woods, Korea, learners are more likely use English with Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese, Taiwanese, Malaysian, and Thai speakers of English than they are with Americans, Canadians, and speakers from the other (preferred) English-speaking countries. The reality is that we do them a disservice if we teach them otherwise.

This post went way off topic, but I’m procrastinating, so whatcha’ gonna do? 😉

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