Critical ThinkingCultureEducation

English Has Never Been Better

I got trolled by the The Economist the other day on Facebook:

A Facebook ad from The Economist magazine that features an article apparently entitled "The English language" and a preview that says "The English language, we all know, is in decline. The average schoolchild can hard..."

It wasn’t the fake spelling joke that got me. Based on the Facebook preview of the article, it sounded like the linked article (which is actually from February 2015) was yet another tired condemnation of The Youth of Today. I was just angry enough to fall for their trap. I clicked the link and saw that the preview was paraphrasing William Langland, a famous fourteenth-century writer, about the schoolchildren of his day. It then mockingly surveys other writers from Langland to the present who have criticized the state of modern English. As the author says,

The wailing throughout the history of the language, by people convinced that the end is nigh, can be a bit exhausting over a full survey. But it holds a lesson: language is not constant. Change is—and anxiety about change is constant too.

So, congratulations, anonymous Economist blogger: I thought you were a jerk, but you’ve actually got it right. You have mocked the too-easy contempt that the old have for the young. But there is another way to disprove the idea that the English language is in decline. Namely, that more people around the world are speaking it than ever before.

According to Wikipedia, English is spoken by about a billion people as a native or additional language. It is an official language in sixty-seven countries and some territories. There is a high demand for people to teach English as a second language and even a high demand to receive the credentials to teach English as a second language–just Google “TEFL/TESOL certification” and look at the prices. So many books are published in English annually that it’s probably a bad thing. These are not the signs of a language in decline. True, the major reason behind these numbers is the former imperialism of (especially) the United Kingdom, but the business and cultural success (that is, economic imperialism) of the Western Anglophone countries ensure that English remains a popular language to learn, if sometimes grudgingly.

Of course, the authors quoted by the Economist article are more concerned with the quality of English than with the quantity of English speakers. Well, fine. But the overwhelming quantity of people speaking English means that there will be enough people who know the language well enough–through natural talent, if nothing else–that the overall integrity of the language will be guaranteed. In other words, it doesn’t matter if a relatively small number of English-speakers can write in “advanced, elite” English. As long as they can read it, there will be enough people who will find a way to learn how to write it.

My scare quotes bring me to my next point. What is “good English,” anyway? It is easy to dismiss contemporary l33t-speak or texting culture as poor English, but hey, if people understand each other when they text, it’s working. It is the tendency of European languages to simplify their grammar over time, even as they add words. In its earliest days, English had clear cases, as German still does. “Cases” are when a noun changes based on whether it is the subject of the sentence (the “nominative” case), the direct object (the “accusative” case), the indirect object (the “dative” case), and so on. (The difference between “who” and “whom” is one of the few relics of this period). Verbs change whether they have a singular or plural subject, but back in Anglo-Saxon times, some verbs also changed if they had exactly two subjects–the “dual.” Thank goodness that we no longer have to deal with all of that.

And then there is the matter of dialects of English other than the “proper” one. What might be grammatical in one dialect may not be in another, and vice-versa.

So the Economist author is completely right when they say that languages are ever-changing, but I would like to extrapolate on that point. Because English is changing based on who is using it, nobody can ever own English. Ultimately, the statement that “You are not speaking English correctly” can never be true, because there is no such thing as correct English. Now, I’m all for trying to get some consistency out of children and pupils, at least within dialects. I have grammar pet peeves just like everyone else–I hate it when people use “impact” as a verb! But teachers should strike a note of humility when it comes to teaching English. We should be giving the next generation the tools to make their own English, not bludgeoning them with blunt instruments with an aim to valuing conformity over creativity.


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I have a Ph.D. in English, specializing in Medieval Literature. I teach critical thinking and literature here and there. I drink too much tea.

1 Comment

  1. August 17, 2016 at 10:54 am —

    Great piece.

    I hate it when people treat grammar as some set of clearly delineated logical rules handed down from on high, when it’s really an evolved system like biology, with all of the flexibility and chaos that entails. Yes, you can break things down into a set of rules, but they’re all pretty much arbitrary and full of exceptions and if someone “violates” a rule without losing any expressiveness, what’s the harm?

    Honestly, I think it’s that people are uncomfortable with anarchy, and language is the perfect anarchic system: self-organizing, decentralized, unofficial, cooperative, consensus-based, arising simply from a need for humans to coexist.

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