History of English for ELLs

Summer means lots of things around my workplace–loads of pre-sessional students, scheduling in instructors’ vacation time, and getting programming ready for the fall semester, amongst other things. We’re in a period of innovation and growth right now, one aspect of which is an in-sessional workshop series that runs twice a week throughout the semester. It’s been growing for about a year now, and so we’ve been constantly adding to the roster of workshops topics, which means lots of fun for those of us that like to experiment with course design.

One of the most popular workshops last semester was one on Canadian Culture and Language, which I happened to give. In a two-hour workshop I tried to give students not a comprehensive description of everything that makes Canadian English unique, but rather to focus on those aspects which they’d be most likely to encounter in their day-to-day life and studies, and which they’d be most likely to be confounded or intrigued by. I focused on place names, Canadian spelling, common Canadian vocab, and the “eh” tag question, and a short discussion of the mythical “I am Canadian” beer ad. (Here are Canadian Culture and Lang Handouts and Canadian_Culture&Lang slides.)

So, now I have a few more workshops to create that I’m very excited about. One is a History of English workshop. Like with the topic of Canadian culture, the goal is not to give a comprehensive survey of the history of the language. I want to focus on a few factors in the history of English whose effects are still apparent in modern English, and which cause annoyance or confusion for those who are learning English. I’d like to include lots of short exercises and activities in the workshop–it’s not a lecture.

I’d like to talk about:

  • spelling and some of the reasons it is as all over the place as it is: the great vowel shift, influence of borrowed words and real/false etymologies, different movements to standardize (Webster, etc.) and their lack of success, etc. Some spelling-based activities could be fun, along with “guess the origin” and a “how do you think this used to be pronounced” game. we could also look at a list of Webster’s proposed changes and use it to “correct” a text.
  • the Norman conquest and its influence on English in terms of register (Germanic-origin phrasal verbs vs their Latinate equivalents). “Translating” a text from higher to lower register could be a fun exercise.
  • I’d also like to cover the evolution of the pronoun system (thou/you, who/whom, etc.) and also look at some earlier examples of  English to look at some syntactic differences (amongst all the other differences).
  • If there’s time I’d want to cover how English is currently evolving (singular they, etc.), to show how language change doesn’t stop. An activity using corpora could be interesting here, but I might have to do something simpler.

So, teacher and linguist friends: what would you include if you were teaching a two-hour workshop on the History of English for English-language learners? I’d love your ideas.


2 thoughts on “History of English for ELLs

  1. Hi Jennifer,
    I imagine you’ve long since prepared this workshop, but I thought I’d send you a couple of links for your own personal interest – they’re probably not the kind of thing you could use in the workshop.
    The History of English in 10 minutes is very entertaining, although quite complicated for students: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLA03075BAD88B909E
    The History of English podcast is very detailed, and fascinating for those who want to go deeper: http://historyofenglishpodcast.com/
    I’d be very interested to see what you came up with in the end.

    • Hi Sandy!

      Actually, the workshop is in two weeks, so I’m still putting it together! Those links look great; I’d heard of the Youtube video before but not the podcast. Can’t wait to check them out! A colleague also brought me Crystal’s Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, which, once again is fascinating to get lost in, but is not necessarily the best choice for a 2-hour workshop for learners of English. It’s more and more apparent I’m going to have to work very hard to keep this workshop at 2 hours. Thanks again for the links!

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