Languages change faster than we might think!


In the third chapter of the textbook, we read about physical isolation and language change. Van Herk shed some light on some types of linguistic isolation and he touched upon the idea that usually when immigrants revisit their home counties, they find that the spoken language has changed slightly – or even significantly – from how it was when they lived there. Reading that chapter made me think about my own experience. In fact, even though I have been away from my homeland for a relatively short period of time (2 years and a half), I cannot recognise some aspects of language now commonly used in my home country.

This is true mainly when it comes to everyday and casual language. It happens that I cannot easily understand what some of the expressions used on social media mean. I keep asking my family “What do you mean by that? Why are we talking about that in this situation”. In fact, the significant political and economical instability of the country in recent years has influenced the way language is used by people, especially on social media. For example, the technical names of different weapons, that people have become familiar with because of the armed conflicts, are now being used as adjectives. These new words are especially common when people are telling jokes or making fun of someone or something. In most of the cases the new meaning is based on a salient current events.

Last weekend I met with a friend, who is also from my home country, who had just come back from a visit there. She was amazed at how much life has changed. What caught my attention most was what she said about the unbelievable rapid changes of the everyday spoken and slang language. She said her family even teased her about her speech, saying it sounded very old fashioned and out of date. She said that like me she found it challenging to understand the new slang and jokes made by people around her.

I was considering the role of language teachers in these kinds of situations of dramatic change. What is the language teacher’s role in helping students master a shifting language? In a few years the new sayings today might again be out of date. Perhaps the answer is to encourage students to remain life-long learners, and to expect to have to keep up with changes.

I’m curious to know what you think. Have you noticed rapid language change in your lifetime? How do current events impact language, and are these changes transient or lasting? What is the effect of social media on language change? What effect does language change have on language teaching in general, and what are the best practices to cope with these changes?

4 thoughts on “Languages change faster than we might think!”

  1. Hi Raheel,
    This is a really interesting post about rapidly changing language. I wanted to respond to your question regarding the role of language teachers in dealing with this. Since every language teaching context is located in a particular context, with particular curricular and outcome expectations, there is really not one answer to this question. You mentioned encouraging students to be life-long learners, and I think that’s exactly it – as teachers, how can we foster an ongoing curiosity in our students of our social worlds.
    I think it is important to draw learners’ attention to changes that are taking place outside the classroom (e.g., by noticing and paying attention to the linguistic landscape – with photographs or simply writing down expressions, words, uses that they hear or see outside of class). I have done this with learners before. They would put slips of paper with what they had noticed written on them into a box. Each class, I would pick out a couple and we’d talk about them – what they mean, how they are used, why. This helps increase their awareness of language as a constantly changing practice. I think it also helps them develop some tolerance for ambiguity, which we can all benefit from as learners.


  2. Hello Raheel,

    It is interesting that you shed the light on the issue that I experience each time I visit my hometown. Whenever, I travel there I notice variety of new vocabulary and phrases that I never heard before. It is funny that each time I stair at them when they sometimes make jokes or use codes that do not exist in the my language dictionary. For instance, one of the new funny phrases “string stretch” which is an adjective to describe a tall person! I did not have a clue of its meaning until my mother explained it to me.

    I believe the reasons behind the change of language use refer to today’s rapid changes in politics, economics, and even social life. In addition, social media also has played a vital role on such changes. That is, various events, different interests are one major reason that makes the born of these new language codes constant.

    In terms of teaching, I totally agree with you that a teacher should encourage students to remain life-long learners but I guess the question would be “HOW”? I found Alison’s idea is very unique and useful especially with adult learners. As a teacher I used to hook students at the beginning of each class by discussing recent events and have them share opinions. I believe Having them talk about live events will enforce their awareness of social updates on the language.

    I wonder how these teaching techniques would apply in young language learners who might not have awareness yet of the construction of social events they surrounded with!?


  3. Hi Raheel,
    I hope that the situation in your homeland gets better soon, damn wars and instigators! As far as I am concerned the rapid use of technology (and weaponries, in this case) inevitably introduces new jargon and innovative language use which, if not localized into the official language in real time, would sound strange to both local citizens and returnees from overseas and take a while till it becomes a commonplace. Along the process of adopting these new words, morphological and phonological rules of the local language are used to derive new forms, such as verbs, adjective, or nouns, that sound interestingly strange to first timer hearer. Many of these novel uses are just fads which would disappear once their causes cease. Therefore, once the war is over, all linguistic crazes associated with it will cease to exist and be completely abandoned. These changes are for the most part transient.
    As for changes induced by social media, it is likely, in my opinion, that they last. This kind of change is referred to, in sociolinguistic terms, as changes from above. That is, it is brought into the language from outside the speech community and is normally used by a specific group within the speech communities, i.e. the avid users of social media platforms. Full adaption of this change into the speech community is conditioned by its excessive use and frequency by those who led this linguistic innovation. Needless to say, it is likely that this change is resisted by other members of speech community who constitute the majority.


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