Monday, 9 March 2009

What is English?

We are surrounded by the English language. Everywhere we go we can see or hear English words, and if you know some English you can make yourself understood in any part of the world. As English teachers we know, however, that English has not always been a world language, and that there are several factors that can help explaining how English gained the position it has nowadays.

One of the competence aims for my students is to be able to "explain the main characteristics of the development of English from an Anglo-Saxon language to an international world language". Earlier this year we put focus on colonisation and how English became a world language. This week, however, our focus has been on how English developed from Old English into the language we know today. When preparing for this class, I came across this timeline on a BBC-page. This is quite informative, even if it takes some time clicking into all the different objects on each page, and I really like that it has some examples of how the various variants of English sounded like. I also used a page from Gyldendal's book, Experience while working on this topic in class (click "Global English" and then you will get to texts and activities). What I like with both of these pages is that they engage the students, and that they present the information in more than one way. I know that many of the students find it a bit uninteresting learning about how the English language has developed, and that some of them therefore do not read the information as carefully as I wish for. In order to make sure they heard it all once more, I gave them a lecture dealing with the same material that they had already read. In this lecture I have tried to make it quite simple and not give too many details, and I have also tried to give examples of central texts from various literary periods. I have published my power point presentation at SlideShare, and I have also posted in below for those who would like to have a look.

View more presentations from lkhogvold. (tags: language english)

At the end of the day I asked my students to do a "Find someone who...", in order to make them rehearse the material. "Find someone who..." is quite simple actually, and it engages the students and gives them some energy. What you do is that you prepare a sheet with questions like"Find someone who can tell you about the Celts", "Find someone who can name the cases in Old English", etc. The students then walk around in the classroom trying to find someone who can actually help out. The person who gives away the information has to sign the sheet, and the owner of the sheet then has to move on to find someone new who can answer the next question. When they have had all the questions signed, I usually spend some time going through the questions in class, and the idea here is that it is the one who has signed the paper who has to answer, not the one who owns the paper.

I will probably not spend a whole lot more time on the development of the English language this year, but I just want to include a couple of web pages which might be useful the next time I work on the topic. The first one is from and it gives the short-short version of the development. The second article is written by Philip Durkin, Principal etymologist at the Oxford English Dictionary, and here he has chosen five events that all participated in shaping the English Language.

I do not expect all of my students to give a detailed account of how English has developed from being an Anglo-Saxon language into being the language number one in the world today. My hope is, however, that the texts that they have worked with this week can give them a better understanding of what English really is.

Photo: Wikipedia


  1. I see that President Obama wants everyone to learn another language, however which one should it be?

    The British learn French, the Australians study Japanese, and the Americans prefer Spanish. Yet this leaves Russian, Mandarin Chinese and Arabic, out of the equation.

    It is time to move forward and discuss the subject of a common international language, taught worldwide, in all schools and in all nations.

    An interesting video can be seen at A glimpse of the language can be seen at

  2. I really like the "find someone..."- task! You have found lots of interesting material and ways to present this. I have tried to find interesting ways to present the history of the English language, and one way is to compare this to Norwegian old norse. There are so many words that are similar.