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Ten things you might not have known about the English language

Mystery boxAlex Hammond writes for ESL – Language Travel. In this guest post, he reveals a few little-known facts about the origins of the English language.

Hey, English speaker! Congratulations. You speak a language that straddles the globe like nothing before. Statistically, English is unlikely to be your first language and you are likely to be from an educated background. Again, congratulations.

Here are ten things that you may not have known about this wonderful language of ours:

1. It is the only major language without an academy to guide it

L’Académie française, based in Paris, is in charge of overseeing the French language. Part of its job is suggesting alternatives for the English words that are pouring into French. That’s how email became courriel, for example (although you will still hear it called e-mail in French).

For Spanish there is the Real Academia Española. German has the Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung. There is no equivalent to L’Académie for English. Of the 10 most-widely spoken languages in the world, only English has no academy guiding it.

There are political reasons for this. The closest Britain ever came to having a language academy was at the start of the eighteenth century, when Gulliver’s Travels author Jonathan Swift was lobbying hard for an academy because “our Language is extremely imperfect… its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions (and) in many Instances it offends against every Part of Grammar.” Queen Anne supported the idea but died before a decision could be made, and the issue was largely forgotten.

In the USA, a bill for the incorporation of a national academy was unsuccessfully introduced into congress in 1806. Fourteen years later, an American Academy of Language and Belles Lettres was launched with John Quincy Adams as president, but broke up after two years after receiving little political or public support.

Nowadays, the only English-speaking country to have a language academy is South Africa. Because the English language has become so ubiquitous without any guidance, there is little prospect of anyone starting an academy any time soon. Where would it be? In Britain, the home of the language? Or the USA, where the largest English-speaking population lives?

2. More than 1 billion people are learning English as you read this

According to the British Council, around 1 billion people around the world were learning English in 2000. This figure is now likely to be significantly higher.

3. 96 of the 100 most common English words are Germanic

Of the hundred most frequently used words in English, 96 have Germanic roots. Together, those 100 words make up more than 50% of the Oxford English Corpus, which currently contains over 2 billion words found in writing around the world.

Surprised? The most frequently used words are the meat and bones of the language, the essentials that make communication work, including I, you, go, eat, and so on. Old English developed from various Germanic languages that came to the British Isles in the second half of the first millennium AD.

Whereas the language has changed almost unrecognisably since then, including the grammar, the basic words have remained.

4. …but most words that have entered the language since 1066 have Latin origins

If English is your first language but you find French or Spanish easier to understand than German, you are not alone. This may seem strange when English and German are on the same branch of the Indo-European language tree.

The Renaissance, which started in Italy and reached England via France, was a massive source of new vocabulary. New ideas, or old ideas rediscovered, started flooding out of the southern cities but there were no words to describe them in English. So the language adopted or adapted the Latin words. During the Renaissance, the English lexicon roughly doubled in size.

The shift away from the Germanic languages, however, had started much earlier, because…
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The universal benefits of songs as teaching tools

Children singing in classSongs are a great way for children to learn English. In this post, Devon Thagard, co-owner of Super Simple Learning and songwriter for the new Primary level course, Everybody Up, explores the benefits of using songs in class.

This past year, I had the great pleasure to be involved in the Everybody Up Global Sing-along as one of the songwriters, a contest judge, and a workshop leader. The entire experience reinforced and reminded me of the strong feelings I have about 1) the power of songs in the classroom, and 2) the importance of learning from other teachers.

The Global Sing-along received over 70 entries from countries all over the world. When you see classrooms around the world all enjoying singing the same songs, it really brings home the universal benefits of songs as teaching tools. Songs allow all ages to participate and learn at their levels. In the Global Sing-along videos, we see pre-schoolers and kindergartners (like these great students from Ukraine) doing some very simple dancing, picking up a few words, and getting a feel for the rhythm. For very young students who are just beginning to learn English, songs provide a fun, welcoming way to get that oh-so-valuable input, and gestures and dancing help them understand and internalize the meaning.

Older and more advanced students are able go beyond the basics and to express their creativity with songs. As students move into higher grades, they may be a little more reluctant to sing and dance as they did in kindergarten, but that doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy learning with songs, and the benefits of the repeated exposure to comprehensible input continue. At all ages, students are learning vocabulary, pronunciation, intonation, the rhythm of the language, listening skills, and more. Here are some great examples from Thailand, Korea, Turkey and France.

It’s also fantastic to be able to visit our fellow teachers’ classrooms around the world through video. Just having the chance to see how the classrooms are arranged and decorated sparks a lot of great ideas, but being able to see how teachers are using dance, crafts, instruments, and drama together with songs is really inspiring. If you haven’t already, browse the playlist of Global Sing-along videos. I’m sure you’ll come away from it with several great ideas for your classroom.

How do you use songs in your classes?

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20 years of learning and playing with Let’s Go

Let's Go authorsIt’s hard to believe, but the Let’s Go series is nearly 20 years old. We recently had a chance to talk with the series authors, Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto, Ritsuko Nakata and Karen Frazier, about the changes they’ve seen in publishing, and in teaching English to children, over the past two decades.

As a special thank you, Barb thought it would be nice to share a short video with you, as a little flavour of the last 20 years of working on Let’s Go. Thanks also to Barb for conducting the following interview.

Barb: Let’s Go was one of the first course books for teaching English as a foreign language to children. Quite a few features that are commonplace in young learner courses now started with Let’s Go. What were some of the “firsts”? Please complete this sentence: Let’s Go was the first English course to _____.

Ritsuko: It was the first English course to expose children to the Roman alphabet at such a young age. Let’s Go was also the first English course to include so many verbs. If you know plenty of verbs, you can talk a lot!  Also, it’s written so that children can actually use the dialogues they are learning.

Karen: It was the first English course to include full answers and question forms to get kids talking. With Let’s Go, kids don’t just learn one word answers to teachers’ questions, they learn the words to ask the questions, too. It’s so common now that it’s hard to believe that it was a pioneering approach back in the 1990s.

Ritsuko: I’m pretty sure it was the first book to include chants, and to include movement to help children remember sentences as well as the verbs.

Barb: What’s something teachers may not know about Let’s Go?

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What’s your Word Bug?

Whats your Word Bug?“It’s fewer!! Fewer voters turned out, not less” (My 3 year old seemed relieved it was the radio getting a ticking off for a change!)  It bugs me – I don’t know why. Is it the result of being in TEFL for over 20 years and feeling rather superior that [some] broadcasters should have a better grasp of grammar? Possibly.

But there are words that irritate me too. ‘Lush’, for example. The only thing I feel should be described as ‘lush’ is grass or some kind of vegetation and I object to it being used as a generic adjective for everything from George Clooney to chocolate cake.

Perhaps this is less about the word itself and more to do with its use (or misuse), but it did start me thinking about personal bug-bears and annoyances when it comes to language and words.

In the nature of controlled scientific research, I Googled ‘most hated words’ and was surprised at the number of polls that have been taken on this and the range of people who have responded.

Literally’ was  deemed to be the most irritating word by Daily Telegraph readers and this was in response to a poll run by researchers at Oxford University where ‘At the end of the day’ came in as hot favourite, closely followed by ‘fairly unique’.

YouGov ran a poll among the internet community and surprisingly ‘blog’ came in third? Perhaps that was before we all started doing it. Babycenter.com contributors objected to ‘preggers‘.  Even ‘bun in the oven was preferable to this.

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‘Young’ words

Two teenage boys in hoodies

Kieran McGovern strikes out against youth culture and the decline of the English language with his Top 10 most annoying words in common use amongst today’s youths – with a word of warning to those… not-so-young.

Words are like clothes in that there are some that are only really suited to the young.

Here’s my top ten verbal equivalents of short skirts, low cut trousers and hoodies. These should be avoided by anyone over the age of… well, you decide.

  1. Dude – meaning: male person. Has become pretty universal amongst young Americans and increasingly in the UK, too. A great word with a long pedigree, like a baseball cap it does not suit greying hair.
  2. Awesome! – should only be used for that which truly inspires awe. This does not include the a new cover for your mobile phone.
  3. Banging (great) safe (excellent) ‘hood (neighbourhood) homie (friend) – this job lot of street slang is the private property of teenagers. Sounding like a wannabe gangster is inexcusable if you have a mortgage.
  4. Cool! – the exclamation mark is the line in the sand here. Describing something as ‘pretty cool’ is acceptable but not squealing c-o-ol!
  5. Wicked – (meaning great) Life is complex enough without calling bad things good and vice versa.
  6. Chillin – perhaps a controversial one but I think the world would be a better place without the phrase ‘chill out’.
  7. Skank – horrible word meaning someone of low class, sometimes also used to suggest sexual promiscuousness. Don’t use, ever!
  8. Gay – meaning rubbish, as in ‘that’s so gay!’ As used in the school playground it doesn’t generally have a sexual connotation, but best avoided.
  9. OMG, LOL etc – I know they’ve just entered the OED but there is something a little embarrassing about ageing fingers typing this kind of text short-hand.
  10. Whatever! – this is irritating enough coming from truculent teenagers, unacceptable from anyone old enough to vote.

What do you think? Am I being unfair? A language despot? Or are there more words you’d like to add?

Kieran McGovern blogs at English Language FAQ.

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