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It’s English Language Day, but where exactly did the English language come from?

23 April 2020

By Ellen Bristow, School of English, Communication and Philosophy
Find Ellen on Twitter @E_Bristow1

Language, viewed from any perspective, is the human ‘miracle tool’. It liberated us from our earliest ape ancestors, gave rise to our history, and enables us to learn, innovate, develop and interpret the world we see around us. In particular, the English language is a major language of our globalised world. It is thought that approximately 379 million people speak English as their native language. Add to that the approximately 753 million who speak English as a second or additional language, and it’s easy to see the communicative significance of the English language in our world today. However, we rarely stop to think about where the modern English language we use everyday comes from. For example, if you were to ask your friend, ‘did you notice that surveillance photographer standing by that bungalow we walked past on our way back from Biology class?’, how many languages do you think you are speaking?

The obvious answer is, of course, one – English. However in this sentence alone, you would actually be speaking elements of nine different languages! The English language is, in fact, not really just ‘English’ at all, but an historic ‘mish- mash’ of numerous Indo-European and British colonial languages. Old English, Old Norse, Old Saxon, Old Frisian, Old French, Latin, Greek, French and Indian are those that influence the sentence above, but there are many more languages we have borrowed from, developed and adapted (see Figure 1). So, ‘why is this important?’, you may ask. Well, as a Linguist and English language educator, I argue that by understanding the history and composition of the English language, we are more able to understand, break down and interpret the complexities of our modern day vocabulary.

For example, consider the complex, multimorphemic (multiple part) word, abnegation, which appears on multiple lists as a ‘suggested you should know’ word for GCSE English language. Do you think knowing how to break abnegation down into its relevant word-parts (morphemes) and apply knowledge of the history (etymology) of the word, would help ours and school exam-sitters’ ability to understand the meaning of the overall word more easily?

I hypothesise yes; possessing these vocabulary deconstruction and decoding skills would help us to decipher the meaning of complex and unfamiliar vocabulary (see Figure 2). However, we still do not really teach English in this way in our schools. Occasionally, a ‘word-tree’ with roots and branches will be made or the meaning of a prefix or suffix explained but, currently, equipping children with the skills to deconstruct, decode and analyse the language used both in everyday life and in the academic school setting does not form part of the National Curriculum. It is important to question, therefore, whether it is a lack of these vocabulary decoding skills which further contributes to the ‘school vocabulary gap’. In this instance, the ‘vocabulary gap’ is a knowledge-difference between what the government and examiners expect children to know and understand compared to what GCSE pass-rate results suggest they actually know and understand. Moreover, evidence suggests this ‘vocabulary gap’ appears to be continually growing.

It is this concept that forms the primary objective of my PhD research and my overarching research question. My research asks: How does integrating word etymology and morphology into English Language teaching impact children’s academic vocabulary development? Working with numerous schools across Wales, I will test and trial different creative teaching strategies, such as ‘word-detective’ code cracking games, to explore whether explicitly learning these skills at a young age aids children’s vocabulary development. My hope is to understand which teaching methods will support child vocabulary development, so that by the time students sit that elusive English language GCSE exam, they have the strategies, tools and knowledge required to understand whatever vocabulary is thrown their way.

So, on English Language Day, I encourage you to think about what the term ‘English language’ really means. Use the fabulous Etymonline website to understand where just one word you’ve used today comes from. You’ll soon discover that whilst we think of English as just one language, it is a language comprising thousands of years of history and tens, if not hundreds, of international languages. Although we may all sound different when we speak, language connects us even more than we may think.