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by Andreas Grundtvig

As I read the description of Vicki Hollett’s webinar to be held on 7th February, I’m intrigued. It ties in very much with something that’s been on my mind since I spent a few days in my hometown in Suffolk – in the southeast of England – at the end of December. Humour me for a moment and I’ll tell you about it, you’ll see that it will lead to a very relevant question.

My wife, Alma, and I went over to the UK on Boxing Day to spend a few days catching up with family and friends, take the opportunity to drink lots of real ale, and be introduced to new additions to the family circle. This time around, it was the turn of my daughter Vanessa’s boyfriend. He’d lived with her for about a year and the fact that I hadn’t yet met him was just one of several embarrassing reminders that I hadn’t been home in ages. A quick father-to-daughter chat and a plan was hatched – we’d meet them both in the Buttermarket, the biggest shopping centre in Ipswich – County-town of Suffolk.

As we walked past the discount clothing stores and bargain bins, I was the first one to spot her – my daughter was all grown up and brimming with confidence – funny how, despite the fact she’s now 19, I still picture her in nappies. Behind her was the man we’d come to meet. Shane. Big lad! Twice my size but when he introduced himself, he spoke with a voice that came from somewhere so far inside that would never make it to the surface to say boo to a mouse. We asked them both where they wanted to go and, without the slightest hesitation and with an ‘oh so cheeky’ grin on her face, Vanessa announced that they needed to pick up something from the sex shop!

Now, I live in Hamburg in Germany. I have to admit that one of my favourite games to play on unsuspecting friends, who visit me there, is to take them to see where the Beatles began their career in the dive-bars and nightclubs of the notorious Reeperbahn. As soon as the tour extends beyond the barber who claims to have cut the first mop tops, the window displays change and the victims of my joke are full of surprise – “Did you see that girl over there?” “What did she say to you?” “Shocking!”

I had not expected Vanessa to play the same game on me and Alma today – especially as Vanessa was with a boyfriend that she wanted to make the best of first impressions. As we traipsed along behind them, I wondered what exactly Vanessa had up her little sleeve and I sheepishly asked Shane what they were looking for. His answer didn’t help erase my state of mind – “we need some new games!” What was a super-easy-going dad to do?

Vanessa had obviously been planning the moment.

‘There!’ she beamed, pointing to a big store next to the Cock and Pye, ‘That’s it!’

What we’d been led to was not quite what I’d had in mind – there was no scantily clad Fraulein beckoning us with a languid figure, and the only red light was the one that came from the flickering fairy bulbs of the festive decoration. We were standing in front of a window display full of DVDs, mobile phones, and electronic equipment. We had indeed arrived at the “sex-shop”, only now I could see it was Cex – The Complete Entertainment Exchange. Vanessa and Shane had been given a Wii for Christmas and this was where they came to get their games.

We followed them inside for a quick look around but, getting all hot and bothered in my German winter gear, I decided to go back outside and wait for them in the doorway. As it turned out, it was the perfect place to people-watch and listen to the conversations of the locals.

‘There’, someone said, ‘them ones!’

Now, I find myself asking, is it an ordinary reaction or is it due to the years of correcting ESL speakers in a bid to help them speak ‘correct English’ that I now have a burning urge to correct the speaker’s grammar? Looking across however, I recognised the speaker as someone twice the size of Shane and now my ‘those’ came from voice somewhere so far inside that when it did make it to the surface, it was nothing more than a silent meow.

‘Didn’t we not see that last night?’, Someone else said. This time the burning urge was extinguished by mathematical reasoning – if you use a double negative you cancel out the negative because two negatives make a positive. I turned and asked my wife. We translated the sentence into her native Lithuanian and quickly decided that no, even in a language where grammar and mathematics seem not to be such good buddies, this sentence still does not work.

‘I shew you the game in HMV!’ Shew? I remembered reading that shew is an archaic spelling of show, but no-one ever pronounced it that way, did they? The language I heard in the doorway of the Cex shop played on my mind for the rest of the afternoon. Even when we got to Vanessa and Shane’s place, and they tried to show us their wii I was too busy thinking about what I should be teaching.

Many of my Business English students back in Hamburg had told me that their biggest difficulty in understanding English, was not when doing business with speakers from France or Spain but with native speakers of the language. I pictured what would have happened if Rudiger had said ‘them books’, his other classmates would have been quick to shout him down until he’d sheepishly correct himself with a ‘quatsch’!

Even as I type this now, my Microsoft spell check is not happy!

I remembered how I’d once complained to my Centre Manager at Cambridge ESOL about Vanessa’s use of ‘int’ (instead of ‘isn’t, am not, have not, etc.) and saying that I thought it was an example of ignorance and laziness. To my surprise, he not only told me off for not recognising an appreciating the importance regional variation but also made me feel guilty for contributing to the demise of regional dialects in Britain!

It’s true that shew instead of showed, is as Suffolk as a punch. But not everyone I heard that afternoon spoke in a thick Suffolk dialect. What about those other things I’d heard? Were they to be encountered nationwide? This was England, the place where English was and continues to be invented.

When we got back to my mum’s, who we were staying with, I told my stepfather about the “sex shop”. He too raised his eyebrows but after I’d explained my experience there, he asked, “how does a word move from being unacceptable to slang to acceptable usage?” Good question, David. I’m still searching for the answer to that one.

Of the two main Englishes that we now have, I know that American English is regarded as being much closer to the English of Shakespeare than British English. Could this be because, while those in America kept up the language of their forefathers, English-speakers in Britain were much more concerned about what Stephen Pinker describes as “human minds interacting with one another”? That’s what lean language is about, isn’t it?

But Pinker also says that “new language is visible in unstoppable change in language – slang & jargon, historical change, dialect divergence, language formation.”
As we discuss and develop the language we teach, are we inadvertently creating a new language that is removed from the one used by native speakers and in effect, spawning difficulties in understanding comparable to the Hamburg and Ipswich “sex shops”? If our students really want to have meetings, negotiate, and socialise with native English speakers is it not important for us to expose them to regional variation?