14th January 2020

Answering the questions TESOL teachers fear most

By Sean Martin

‘We never follow maps to buried treasure and X never, ever marks the spot’, according to Indiana Jones. If you’ve ever wanted to be an Indiana jones type but thought it’s only some Hollywood fantasy and I’m only an English teacher, think again. We can all be language archaeologists and perhaps we should be; it might answer some of those seemingly impossible to answers to questions many TEFL/TESOL teachers fear being asked. History can offer some interesting explanations to the quirks of English. You never know, it might also contribute to your teacher development.

Let’s give it a go and find some possible explanations from history to some of the perhaps easier questions for example, ‘Why does English have so many exceptions to the rules?’ ‘Why don’t English nouns have gender?’ ‘Why are third person singular verbs (or many of them) so different in the present simple tense?’ These are only a few but carry on digging and you’ll find many more. None of these questions can be answered definitively, there are only possibilities and I have made my own choices from these available. You might agree or you might disagree.

Why are there so many exceptions?

Because English is essentially what some might say is a ‘melting pot’ of lots of languages; Norse, Latin, French to name but a few and not to forget regional variations in Old English (Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria). From the 5th Century onwards, English has been influenced by many language cultures, but has never truly had the influence of another language ‘trying to fix it’. although it has regularly ‘morphed’ through adoption or adaption. The irony of it is that the exceptions are a lot of the time those parts that are used the most for example ‘to be’ (many languages have an irregular form of this), steal rather than thieve came about form the alliance of West Saxons and Kentish, so we use steal rather than thieve; steal is a ‘strong’ verb. As English has spread across the world so it has encountered many influences that its desire for creativity has embraced.

Why don’t English nouns have gender?

It hasn’t always been that way; Old English had gendered nouns similar to modern German, but the ‘genderisation’ in Old English was not always clear. Nouns for ‘woman’ crossed masculine (wifmann), feminine (frowe) and neuter (wif). Quite complicated and even more so when in the 11th Century three different language groups (Saxon, Norse and French) were trying to communicate. Each of these had a different system of identifying inanimate objects by gender. Are you starting to get the picture about why gender in English began to fall into disuse? The North of England led the way and the more conservative South East and South West Midlands hung on to traces of gender until the mid-14th Century. Think about this; if gender had been kept when the written form of English began to take off, the dictionary would have been twice as big as it is today (Samuel Johnson would have had even more fun). Nevertheless, there are still some ‘hangovers’ from earlier times (ships and whales are still referred to as ‘she’).

Why do we add -s to third person singular verbs in the present simple tense?

Examples of why language changes are through necessity or prestige. The third person singular is an example of change through prestige. The North of England might have led the way with this one too. The Northumbrian variety of Old English used the third person singular as we use it today, but why do we use this one? One explanation is that travelers from Northumbria arrived in the southern parts of England and were noted for their difference in speech (in particular the third person singular form). To some, adoption of the -s was a means to get them noticed and increase their social status and so it continued until it became the norm and it stuck.

Perhaps you’ve never thought about these questions, but your learners may well have and one day you’ll be asked-you will be, I’ve seen it several times. You might not want to start with complicated questions but begin with some digging up of word origins or how other languages have influenced English. It can be an interesting journey into the past for you as a teacher, developing your subject knowledge and you can apply this in class. The information here are examples of possible explanations that I have come across in my own study of the history of English and as with any other aspect of history can be speculative. There are of course always alternative explanations. Some good places to begin your linguistic archaeology are:

Singh, 2013, The History of English. London: Routledge.
Baugh, A, Cable, T, 2013, A History of the English Language. Harlow; Pearson.

References I’ve used for this blog are:

Curzan, A, 2003, Gender Shifts in the History of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lass, R, 2006, Phonology and Morphology, in Hogg, R, Denison, D, eds. A History of the English Language. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

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Sean Martin over the last 10 years in Hong Kong has worked in a variety of TESOL settings, including teaching academic English to secondary and tertiary learners. He has also taught professional adults of various nationalities to develop their English skills across a range of commercial sectors, including law, aviation, hospitality and leisure. In addition to his work at EfA as a Trinity Colege London cert.TESOL tutor and delivering CPD workshops, Sean works with the University of Sunderland on their English for Academic Purposes programme. He has academic interests in sociolinguistics and its application in the classroom.