Language is all around us, not just in books

students in conversation

It might seem obvious, but language is all around us. In fact, I’ve bored my classes to tears for years by reminding them of this fact. It’s in the conversations we have, the things we watch and listen to on our phones and in the messages we send each other. “Yes, we know it’s there,” the students say, “but it’s not in the exams.”

And they’re kind of right (unless you teach A level English Language, in which case it definitely is in their exams) because the kind of language we use every day has pretty much been side-lined in the new GCSE curriculum. The pendulum has definitely swung away from media texts and the language of advertising and TV shows to 19th Century novels and pre-20th Century non-fiction. The whys and wherefores of that are for another time, but what I’d like to argue here is that language study should be part of what we all do, whatever ends up being assessed in the exams. Why? Because language is all around us…

It’s in the speech we use in most of our daily interactions

Spoken language is very different to written language. Very different. It’s… like… how do you put it… a different thing entirely? Why not take a few lessons to explore how we manipulate elements of speech to signal different aspects of our personalities and to help us cope with the fact that speech is instant and often unplanned? Why do we fill gaps with certain sounds? Why ‘err’ and ‘umm’ and why is it so often ‘like’? And what about the kinds of speech that are more planned: the semi-scripted things we run through in our heads before we open our mouths, the strategies we use to get what we want from an exchange, the properly scripted speeches we prepare for hours? Speech is rich and varied but hardly gets a look-in on most English courses. And that’s a pity, because the more we study speech, the more we learn to interpret what others are doing with it and how we can use it to better effect. What we also start to see is that language is more than just about the words we use to convey information: it’s the little ways that words and phrases, and even silences and noises, can signal attitudes and relationships. 

It’s in the social media that young people consume and contribute to on a daily basis.

According to Ofcom, 65% of 12-15-year-olds in the UK use Instagram and 43% use WhatsApp. While they are proficient users of social media, where’s the opportunity for students to look at online language and how it’s shaped and crafted for different purposes? How are they learning to express themselves in different ways and what can parents and teachers learn from that?

If we start to look at the kinds of conversations that take place on social media (and the word ‘conversations’ gives us a clue where this is going) we can see that online language, while following the conventions of written language in one way (we read it), is actually following the conventions of spoken language in many other ways. Look at the kinds of turn-taking in a WhatsApp groupchat – the ways that people reply to each other and interact with the group as a whole – or the threads on Twitter where many of the characteristics of unplanned spoken language are mimicked. Why do we do this? It’s perhaps because we are aiming to plug the gaps in this peculiar kind of written communication, to fill in those aspects of face-to-face spoken communication that go AWOL when we use a keyboard or screen.

It’s in the emoji we use.

Some language peevers, and even some influential teachers, have complained that young people’s use of emoji is a sign of a return to the dark ages: a regression to doodles and cave paintings, where stupid images take the place of sophisticated words. But as the linguist Lauren Gawne explains, emoji are actually being used alongside online words in the same way that gesture accompanies speech.

As she puts it, “Instead of worrying that emoji might be replacing competent language use, we can celebrate the fact that emoji are creating a richer form of online communication that returns the features of gesture to language.” So, let’s look at these functions of emoji with our students and think about what they are adding to our communication and how we might interpret the different nuances of these uses.

Language is all around us (yes, we know that…) but if the language we are studying at Key Stage 3 and GCSE is just the language of books, we’re short-changing our pupils and not equipping them with the critical language skills they need in the wider world.

Dan Clayton works at the English And Media Centre, writes for OUP (AQA English Language and Revise AQA English Language Workbook) and runs @EngLangBlog.