Is the fact that English is a changing entity something that deserves resistance or embrace? Is keeping rules you learnt–as I write this, a red squiggly line has appeared–growing up important to you? I wonder if you are bothered by foreign invaders that have crept into the language you see around you. After chats, tweets and blog reading, one would find the resistance may have the larger following; I’m not convinced that we need be so offended by improper use, especially as language teachers.
One could easily and convincingly argue that grammar is essential for meaning. You couldn’t interchange active and passive voice without seriously injuring the meaning: The dog was bitten by the baby. What a violent little baby! In other instances, it’s a little murkier. You can’t replace simple past with simple present and retain meaning, can you? In Real Grammar (Pearson Longman), Unit 1 points out that according to their corpora, “simple past of want or need [is often used] in order to make an offer or ask someone’s preference” in questions, as opposed to simple present. For example, a waiter asks a customer Did you want more coffee? where they could have asked Do you want more coffee?. It seems in some situations, you can.
Another bone of contention is vocabulary. Every generation alters vocabulary to reflect new technology, popularity and mixture of peoples. When I was little, my grandmother used chesterfield to describe what we now refer to as the all-encompassing couch and warned me not to get saucy when I started to be sarcastic. These disappearances don’t upset me. Links form this blog have shown me that replacement vocabulary does irritate some, which reminds me of early teaching years in Seoul, when anti-American Koreans strongly felt that my presence was bringing with it a corruption to their language and culture. Sorry. Having said this, let’s all thank the powers that be that “freedom fries” never caught on.
The one aspect of changing language that does get to me a little is spelling. As a Canadian child, the differentiation between American and Canadian English often came down to the U on colour or favourite and the pronunciation of zee vs zed as we noticed E-Z-Go golf carts didn’t sound right. The hair on my neck still goes up when I see someone spelling cheque with a CK instead. These differences don’t seem quite as patriotic with the younger generation though, thanks to the non-Canadian spell checks and iPhone automatic word recall when texting. Maybe that small sense of patriotism should be found elsewhere, not in spelling.
When enough speakers no longer adhere to a given rule, is it really still proper? When there a large quantity of contextual exceptions, can we still claim it to be a rule? These changes may reflect a bastardization of the language we’ve come to think as our property or they are the eventual future of our language that we need to accept. As language teachers, we need to have an open mind.
Interesting read! It can be a very difficult decision for me as to whether or not to teach the grammar that I’m assigned in my coursebook even though I don’t think people speak that way (at least anymore). It’s there and it’s given to me to teach. If I don’t, students often wonder why I’ve skipped a certain grammar point that’s in their texts. If I do, I feel like I have to preface it by saying “people don’t really use this in speaking” or “this is really used for more formal situations”. I’m not sure it’s important for them to really be aware or not.
It’s likely a good idea not to skip what is only used in formal contexts entirely. However, focus on what is used in the context your students find themselves in instead.