English Learning & Literature – Text and Context

Speech to Belarus State Linguistic University that Ambassador Bruce Bucknell delivered at the Biennial National Conference of English teachers

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Bruce  Bucknell

People have entire relationships via text message now, but I am not partial to texting. I need context, nuance and the warmth and tone that can only come from a human voice.

There is no evidence that texting teaches people to spell badly: rather, research shows that those kids who text frequently are more likely to be the most literate and the best spellers, because you have to know how to manipulate language.

Шаноўнае спадарства: Добры дзень - прывітанне з амбасады Вялiкабрiтанii.

Text and context

Until relatively recently the text of English – as other languages - came to us from books and letters. Then, just under a century ago, as the world turned to mass media of broadcasting (ie radio and television), text also came from the transcripts of speech.

Now most text is in digital form, often typed up text, but not necessarily. Speech and language is starting to be generated by somebody (or something) called “Siri” and her friends: other “natural language processing” software.

Context is changing too. Until relatively recently, English was the language of Britain, the United States, and a few other countries; and business, diplomacy, and other forms of international exchange.

Now English is the second language of choice throughout the world: more English is spoken in conversations between second language speakers than between native speakers.

Together, these changes - in how text is assembled and the context in which English is being used - are changing the nature of my language.

While I leave you to ponder these thoughts, let me first thank Natalia Petrovna and the Linguistic University for inviting me to speak today. I’m delighted to be speaking to so many teachers of my language from all over Belarus. I hope you enjoy listening to me.

I think that I’m very lucky to be the ambassador of the country which gave the world its pre-eminent language. Everybody, it seems, wants to learn my language, or at least feels they have to say a few words. It’s my excuse for not passing my Russian language exams. But English does allow me to speak to the Head of the Confucius Centre here in Minsk, who speaks excellent English.

My role today is to stir you up, and make you think about my language. To be a провокатор. I hope to provoke some ideas on how you can improve the teaching of English in your schools, and other educational institutions.

I live in the centre of Minsk. I spend much of my time in the city centre. I have also judged on the national competition organised by the English Speaking Union.

The quality of spoken English amongst some of the people I meet in the centre of Minsk is very high. I’m constantly surprised by how many of the waiters and waitresses speak and understand English. The use of English is widening.

The future of Text – recap of where English is now

To return to the issue of text – the essence of a language. Almost exactly a year ago I spoke to an audience here about the future of my language. I apologise to anyone who may have heard me before, and I have tried to limit the repetition of what I said.

The biggest obstacle to learning English is that it is a non-phonetic language. It must frustrate many people who are introvert and prefer to learn a language from texts. The only way to learn English is to speak it, and speak it again, and speak it yet more.

Like with all languages, there are many differences between English as it is spoken, and as it is written. The divergence between American English and British English in the 19th century, as shown by separate vocabularies for the new technologies of that period, has turned to convergence in the era of sound recordings and mass broadcasting.

Indeed the standardisation of pronunciation in the last 100 years has put regional dialects and accents under attack in both the UK and the US. But such regional variations still exist.

Yes, Americanisms, even in British English, are strong. We talk about the guys, rather than the chaps or the blokes, and curve balls coming out of the left field rather than sticky wickets.

But there are strong reverse influences, starting with Harry Potter. As long as we have the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch to play the role of Sherlock Holmes, then a more British style of pronunciation stands a chance. Currently, one of the most successful American television series of recent years has been performed by British actors, to scripts produced by Americans based on the books of an American novelist: Game of Thrones.

At the same time, we have had the development of many other types of English with their own grammar and vocabulary as has happened in Australia, and in such large and populous countries where English is a national and unifying language, for example India, Nigeria and South Africa.

International language of exchange

The leading British academic who studies the development of English is David Crystal. He noted we live in a world of three main types of English: those who speak it as a mother tongue, or first language (L1); those who speak it as a second language (L2); and those who use it as a necessary language of exchange (ELT).

He has suggested that a WSPE (World standard printed English) and WSSE (World Standard Spoken English) are emerging.

English has great advantage because it is a living language. There is very little prescription in how we use our language. Our tradition is of descriptivism in our dictionaries. Perhaps due to the principle of least effort, English has long evolved. It has become simpler grammatically but with a wider vocabulary through subsuming words from other languages, starting with French. It still does.

Digital age

Until about 20 years ago, texts were exclusively produced by humans. Now we humans face competition from computers. Perhaps the biggest threat to language teachers is MT – or machine translation. It is still in its early days, and to be honest, isn’t proving to be much of a threat at the moment. That might change - it is still too soon to say what will happen.

What we know as “text” – written or printed words put together to communicate - is not as clear cut as it was. We have wikis that anyone can edit so that text is produced and constantly altered by different writers.

And we live in a world where data, and those who know how to use it, are taking over. It’s mathematicians who write the algorithms that drive spell checkers, predictive text and Google translate, and other MT systems. And these algorithms are also driving voice recognition computer programmes that people are beginning to use.

So if like me you had no idea who Siri is, she is a software application of Apple with a voice user interface to answer questions, make recommendations, and perform actions by delegating requests to a set of Web services.

We don’t yet know whether the algorithmic tools, and the software that transcribes what we say will start to prescribe the English generated digitally, or whether they will simply describe the English we use. But this is the future we all face.


Let me turn to the issue of context – which I suppose I could say how and why English is used.

The English that I use, and that used by my fellow Britons, and by many Americans, has changed a lot in the age of mass broadcasting, and the standardisation of pronunciation. But even before that period, the written language was already undergoing great change in the later 19th century, as the effects of urbanisation and compulsory education and mass literacy was introduced in our societies.

In fact, England was one of the last European countries to bring in compulsory education. Scotland had far better education because of laws passed in the 17th century which obliged every parish – in other words, every village with a church – to provide a school. This may explain why the Enlightenment first came about in Scotland in the early 18th century with such thinkers as Adam Smith and David Hume.

Frederick the Great introduced a compulsory education system in Prussia in 1763, and parts of the Habsburg empire introduced mandatory primary education under the Empress Maria Theresa in 1774. It was nearly another century before an act of 1870 forced all areas in England and Wales to set up a school.

The effects of urbanisation and compulsory education on publishing were startling in Anglophone countries. The later 19th century was a golden era of publishing of all sorts of new materials: books, magazines and newspapers, that catered for the new generation of readers who had been to school.

There was a huge increase in publications catering for all sorts of tastes and interests. So appeared the “penny dreadful”, mostly fiction in serial form featuring lurid stores costing all of one penny. They were printed on cheap paper and aimed at young males. The equivalent for women followed much later, perhaps because girls were often discouraged from staying at school.

This was an extension of the Dickens effect. Charles Dickens wrote for the middle classes in the 1830s onwards. His serial novels sold for much more (and he became much richer). In the United States, the later 19th century was filled with cheap publications glorifying the settlement in the new territories of the west, in other words the westerns that portrayed cowboys as heroes, perhaps the first and only time in history when agricultural workers were heroes.

The texts of “penny dreadfuls” and other types of “pulp fiction”, and the newspapers and other publications that started publication towards the end of 19th century, were far simpler than the texts in such as the Times, or as produced even by Dickens himself. Sentences were shorter, there were few subordinate clauses, and syntax was simplified.

The convoluted sentences combining several thoughts and ideas, that the likes of Samuel Johnson, arguably the greatest English stylist of his day or indeed in any era and one whose sentences if read aloud could go on for several breathes and could even cause one to lose one’s place amongst those thoughts tumbling out of his erudite mind – those long sentences being producing in the 18th century for the delight of a limited if high educated elite, were no longer being written. Or perhaps I should say, they faced new competition.

The best English prose style tended towards simplification, direct statement and brevity. Its epitome was the style George Orwell proposed as set out in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”.

A similar extension of language

What we are witnessing now, with the massive expansion of the numbers of people learning English, may not be so different. Let me remind you of the power of English.

English currently dominates most international exchange: in international organisations – not only the UN family, but also European organisations; in international commerce; in transport; in education and scientific research (95% of scientific papers are published in English); and in technology.

But it is also a language of national exchange: English is an official language in 88 sovereign states and territories. Within the European Union, the English language is used so much that the European Commission even produces a style guide for non-native speakers because, in their words:
“European union institutions have developed a vocabulary that differs from that of any recognised form of English”.

Possibly as many as 1.5 billion people are using English on a regular basis. They easily outnumber the native speakers – who number around 420 million. Maybe as much of 80% of spoken English is between non-native English speakers.

Nicholas Ostler, a historian of the development of languages, noted that English is actually shrinking in percentage terms as a mother tongue. Until a few years ago, it was still very much the language of Britain and America, and so sometimes was seen as a language of colonialism. But as more L2 and ELT users speak English, it becomes much less a political issue and more of a practical issue. Countries like Norway and Denmark now teach English from the first year of compulsory schooling.

English is a medium of exchange that allows individuals to meet, and barter their knowledge, their goods or their ideas. But it is a chaotic market place, and made all the more complicated by the explosion of communication from digital social media, that allows us to today to chat globally.

Simpler, and more foreign

Let me steal a few thoughts published recently in The Economist. It has looked at the dominance of English. It noted the research of John McWhorter, of Columbia University, that showed modern English, Arabic, Mandarin and Persian are all simpler and less grammatically complex than their ancient varieties. His conclusion: the more people who speak one language, the greater then need for simplicity, so more people can understand.

The simplification of English has already to have gone further than many other languages. We have lost many inflections ie modifications of a word to reflect different grammatical usages. We’ve lost gender, case and many prefixes and suffixes, and have simple singulars and plurals. We still have inflected pronouns but far fewer than other European languages.

The Economist suggests that the English could become yet simpler. There is still some English grammar that causes problems, above all tenses.

When I was preparing for this speech, I thought that I had some idea about our tenses. But I’ve learnt that we might have only two or twelve or thirteen. We use those short words: is, will, was, has and had. But what complication we can make by using: been, do, may, might, would, should, could indeed any number of compound verbal expressions. But we are living - only in the present continuous.

Then there remains the trauma of prepositions – although they should perhaps be called adpositions, because not all come before a word. English is particularly rich in short words, but add a preposition, and meanings change.

One example: to put (положить), usually used to state placing something somewhere. As in to put in something or put out something, or put under somewhere or put on somewhere. I can also put to you my ideas, put up with you, put you down, put on something (not just clothes, but also airs and graces), put off (usually something nasty I don’t want to do), put through (or perhaps push through) the wringer, put over my idea. Almost anywhere except “put from” or (better “put aside”).

The Economist concluded this summer that it is the expressiveness of modern English that makes it so flexible, supple and ready for use by so many people.

What does this all mean for you?

Who am I to tell you about how best to teach English? To quote to you the Economist’s headline, English may yet be “simpler, but more foreign”. In the internet age, it isn’t my language any more but yours too.

  1. As part of your continuing professional development – and yes, even diplomats like me have to undertake our CPD – please spend time looking at the vast array of material on the internet to learn English. Of course, I very much hope you look for better quality sources, such as those provided by the British Council and the BBC.
    There are multiple opportunities for students of the language to listen to all types of speakers. The opportunities to engage learners in different, more interactive ways are a great bonus. And please follow our Facebook page – we run competitions from time to time and plan more on the English language early next year.

  2. I think you may need to work out what you are teaching English for. Given the vast numbers of people speaking English, most of your students are likely to be learning English for future use in exchange. This is important – because they need to make themselves understood to other non-native English speakers. In Belarus you are particularly lucky because you have a strong IT sector and such companies as EPAM, Wargaming / World of Tanks, and the like. I’m surprised by how important English is for these companies, but you have a great asset and demand for your graduates. I hope you know what they want.

  3. Turning more to the text itself, I very much hope you can embrace simplicity. Clear, understandable prose ensures you communicate a message effectively, as well as being a courtesy to readers. I don’t necessarily live by Orwell’s six rules, but they are a good start:
    • Use short words not long;
    • If you can cut a word, cut it out (usually unnecessary adjectives or adverbs).
    • Use direct expressions (active not the passive)
    • Avoid figures of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
    • Avoid foreign or jargon words - if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
    • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. A good tip for all that Orwell might have endorsed: try to keep sentences to less than 20 words.
  4. I think it is all the more important that learners speak it more - and write it less. I realise that this may be difficult in a culture that, like Britain, is less extrovert than in other countries. But there is no substitute for speaking.

I realise I have concentrated nearly all of my comments on learning the language. I have said very little about learning the literature. Literature is a form of expression. While many people in the world will be learning and using English for transactions and exchanges, when it comes to expressing themselves, they will revert to their own language.

But actually understanding different cultures helps people understand different languages. I hope that you can make time to read more widely. Please read my blog – that will I hope educate you even more. But read for pleasure.

I started my speech with two quotes – one was from Danielle Steele, the American best-selling author who is clearly against modern technology and texting – and the other by David Crystal who seems to embrace it as it helps spelling.

Published 20 November 2014