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ESL - It's Only Words

December 13, 2005

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I have been thinking about how adaptable the English language is.

Hello again.

Unlike French, whose integrity is fiercely protected by the French Academy to stop neologisms, especially those of English origin, from becoming officially accepted, English seems to welcome new terms at a rate that sometimes makes even native speakers scratch their heads. Can you offer quick definitions of the following, I wonder: chav, shroomer, emoticon, sudoku, larper.

Inevitably some words are fairly ephemeral slang, others are rediscoveries of words that have gone out of fashion. Certain areas of activity seem to generate new words at a great rate: the Internet and new technology spawn numerous neologisms. Then of course greater international communication means that words from other languages enter and become current. Long past is the era in Britain when you could order a cup of coffee. Now you have a bewildering choice of latte, espresso, cappuccino, mocha, crème. Similarly bread has become international with the old loaf types (who remembers the “split tin” now?) being replaced by baguettes, nan, ciabatta, pitta, baton.

Should we be teaching our students these new entries to the language or is it all too complicated? I would say it depends entirely on the use to which they will put their English. If they are likely, for example, to have to use the Internet and email a great deal, and these days most people do, then it would obviously be useful to ensure they understand the current terms. On the other hand, adolescent UK slang is not likely to be of much use to people operating in an international business environment. Just for fun, though, you might suggest classes have a look at Macmillan’s chart of new words for 2004:

Back soon.


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  1. Smyth Says:

    Patricia, again, well done! The issue of new English words and should we be teaching our ESL students these new terms is longstanding, but with your point that the Internet and new technology spawn numerous neologisms this age-old question comes back to life with a contemporary twist. So should we be exposing our students to the plethora of modern English words concerning the Internet and the latest technologies?

    I've personally discovered that if I don't take the new words to my students, they bring the new words to me. This is especially true for students whose jobs or hobbies involve spending extensive time emailing or on the Internet and thus, have a higher exposure to the many new terms (both slang and Macmillan-approved) floating around in cyber space. So whether or not we've intentionally inserted these up-to-the-minute additions to the English language into our lesson plans, students (at least the more curious ones) will find them and then ask you, their oh-so-wise English teacher, about them. So yes, check out Macmillan's 2004 Chart for new words.

    And while you're at it, it might not be a bad idea to brush up on 2003's List.

    That's all for now, as I'm off to try my hand at a sudoku (I'm addicted) over my morning cappuccino (again, I'm addicted). You might say they're two of my favorite additions to the English language.


  1. Jon Yeomans Says:

    An interesting article and follow-up. I think as you both say, a lot of students use the internet widely and discover new words and terminology there, so in many cases they want and even need to know the meaning of new words.

    Personally I think I a class on new words such as those on the Macmillan website is an interesting diversion and a break from the routine, especially for advanced or long-time learners. Otherwise I would rather concentrate, as ever, on getting my students' fluency up to scratch and making sure they are saying the right words in the right order, before worrying about these new words.

    New additions to the language can be fun and interesting to the linguist or English teacher, but are of limited use to learners as a whole - at least until they enter more mainstream usage.

  1. xpatgary Says:

    I would like to give a quick reponse to this article. I often use this type of lesson to show how the English language is formed, a mixture of borrowed words and words derived from other words. I also use it to show why they should read, listen and watch any mordern English they can as very few native English speakers use the textbook answers they have in their 10, 20 or even 30 year old textbooks I have been asked to use.

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