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Why don’t we all speak a click language?

Christopher J. Hall and Rachel Wicaksono

The Kalahari Desert (shown in maroon) and Kalahari Basin (orange)The very first modern humans probably came from somewhere in southern Africa around 200,000 years ago and probably spoke a click language, similar to the Khosian languages spoken today in the Kalahari Desert. 

Clicks are speech sounds that occur as consonants and, to people who speak English, they sound like the ‘tut-tut’ or (tsk-tsk) sound some English speakers use to indicate disapproval, or the ‘clip-clop’ sound that children make to suggest the noise made by a horse’s hooves.  

Khosian languages are indigenous to southern Africa and click sounds from these languages spread into the other languages that arrived later, including Xhosa and Zulu.  

Miriam Makeba in 1969Famous South African singer and civil rights activist, Miriam Makeba (b. 1932 d. 2008), can be heard here singing a Xhosa wedding song, known in English as ‘The Click Song’. The audio quality is not very good, but it’s worth listening carefully to Miriam’s introduction to the song, in which she says,  

…everywhere I go people say, ‘How do you make that noise?’ It used to offend me, because it isn’t a noise, it’s my language… the colonisers of my country call this song the ‘The Click Song’ simply because they find it rather difficult saying ‘Ongqothwane’.

About 100,000 years ago, when the first groups of humans started to move out of southern Africa, they, of course, took their language with them. We are all related to those people, so why, many centuries later, don’t we all speak a click language?

The answer to this question is that language is both biological and social. All human babies (unless something goes very wrong) are born with the ability to pick up language from their surroundings. But human babies are not like birds, bees or dolphins. Human babies are both with the ability to pick up a language (or languages) they don’t inherit this language from their parents, their brains are biologically hard-wired to pick it up. The actual language(s) (English, British Sign Language, Xhosa and so on) these babies end up using will (mostly) depend on what they hear or see when they are growing up. And because human babies don’t end up using an identical copy of their parents’ language(s), languages change.

The Kalahari DesertSo, as early humans began to move out of southern Africa, they took with them their biological ability to pick up language. As groups of humans moved further away from each other there was less contact between these different groups. Inevitably, their languages changed and became different from each other. As a result of all this change, more than 7,000 different languages are used around the world today.

7,000 different languages; that’s quite some variety! But the language map of the world is actually even more complicated than this number suggests. Firstly, there are only about 196 countries in the world, so ‘language’ DOES NOT = ‘country’. Secondly, it’s very difficult to accurately count numbers of language users, because we all have a different idea of what it means to ‘use’ a language. Thirdly, most people in the world are bi- or multilingual; they can use two or more languages. Fourthly, there are no walls between languages, so in many parts of the world people will mix bits from several languages, especially if they live in big, multicultural cities like London, or on a national border like the one between France and Germany, or if their family has moved from one country to another.

Finally, we get to the biggest complication of all; even within what we think of as a ‘language’ (English, for example) there is a HUGE amount of variety.

Why IS there so much variety? Well, we have already mentioned the connection between age and geographical location and variety, but there are many other reasons for variety within languages: gender (male/female/other), sexuality (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/other), job, hobbies, social class, ethnicity and so on. Remember that language is social (as well as biological); meaning that languages and all their possible varieties are one way of showing which groups you belong to. Do you want to sound posh? Do your friends think that some ways of talking are more ‘girly’ than others? Do you have a hobby, such as football, that involves knowledge of lots of specialist words and phrases? You express your identity through your use of English. Exactly how you do this will depend on where you are, who you are talking to and what you want them to think of you. 

Miriam Makeba during a performance in 2011Unfortunately, you are not always in control of how people judge you, based on your use of English (or other languages). Sometimes you might feel annoyed by how others treat you, based partly on how you speak, write or sign, and you are right to be annoyed. Some varieties of English are considered more ‘proper’, ‘educated’ or ‘better’ than others. People who study language know that these judgments are social, not linguistic. The fact is, we all pick up and use language creatively to meet our needs as humans. No variety of English, no language, is ‘better’, than any other. Difference and change are necessary and useful, and that’s why, despite originating from the same part of the world, we don’t all speak the same language. 


For more information about languages around the world, see Ethnologue.

This blog is adapted from Chapter 1 of Mapping Applied Linguistics: A Guide for Students and Practitioners by Chris Hall, Patrick Smith and Rachel Wicaksono. You can download the full chapter for free from the companion website on the Learning Resources page.


Students and practitioners of applied linguistics at Christmas!

Thitiporn Koomphati, Yufei Yang, Yu Tao, and Xing Hua

We are four intending English language teachers from Thailand and China. We’ve come from a variety of educational contexts and cultures to study applied linguistics (1) in York. Here we are standing next to a Christmas tree and here are some of the issues that we have been thinking about since we arrived in September.

Left to right: Thitiporn Koomphati, Yufei Yang, Yu Tao, and Xing Hua

Thitiporn Koomphati (Thailand):

Applied linguistics is the study and practice of real-world issues (in education, families and society in general) related to language, and it is relevant to practitioners in many fields, not only language teachers like myself. The study of applied linguistics is broadening my world and offering me the tools, not only for teaching English, but also for understanding this complicated world! One of the issues that I’m interested in is how ‘English’ is being, as it always has been, changed by the people around the world who use it. This is a key issue for my future students, for they are likely to see and hear many varieties of English, some familiar and some unfamiliar to them and to me. How can I help them understand and be understood?

Yufei Yang (China):

Thinking about the variety of English around the world makes me feel more confident to use English as a lingua franca (2). I’m hoping that if my future students in China also realize how English is now used by people who have different first languages, for a variety of purposes, they will feel more comfortable communicating in what is also one of ‘their’ languages. I agree with Hall, Smith, and Wicaksono (2011, p.94) that, 'successful communication […] is not so much dependent on similarities or differences in language and cultures, but on the willingness to listen, to empathize and to negotiate'.  

Yu Tao (China)

As a trainee teacher of English as an additional language, I mainly thought about how to teach, and ignored how my students learn and what (they should) learn. I’m now more interested in thinking about the students themselves, their communicative needs and wants, why they want to learn English and how they might be using English in the future.

Xing Hua (China)

Studying applied linguistics has given me access to theories of language and language learning, and made me think how I might understand and solve my own future teaching, and my students’ learning, ‘problems’. I like Brumfit’s well-known definition of our discipline as, ‘the theoretical and empirical investigation of real-world problems in which language is a central issue’ (Brumfit 1997b, p.93). There are some answers to my teaching ‘problems’ that other teachers have suggested. But I like the feeling that my training in applied linguistics will give me the tools to think of my own.

We hope you like our Christmas tree. It’s our solution to the problem of how to communicate: that it’s December (and we’ve survived in York since September); the holidays are near; we’ll be celebrating in ways that are both familiar and new; texts and images mean what their users want them to mean; but we don’t have much control over what you will understand!


(from Changing Englishes, an online, interactive course for English language teachers)

(1) Applied linguistics explores the role played by language and languages in perceived problems of communication, social identity, education, health, economics, politics and justice, and aims to develop ways to resolve these problems.

(2) English as a Lingua Franca: English as it is used between people who have different first languages.


Brumfit, C. J. (1997b). How applied linguistics is the same as any other science, International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 7 (1), pp. 86-94.

Hall, C. J., Smith, P. H., and Wicaksono, R. (2011). Mapping applied linguistics: A guide for students and practitioners. London: Routledge.


Sounds familiar: A teacher tells her pupils how (not) to speak, again

Rachel Wicaksono

Before we get to what the teacher told her pupils, here is some humorous ‘advice’ from a Yorkshire father to his child. The advice covers when (and when not) to speak, as well as some general tips about how to live life.

My ord father he used ti say ti me,‘Here’s a bit o’ summat that Ah’ll ’a ti tell ti thee, Thoo knows nowt, tha’s nobbut very dense, Thi ’eead is full o’ summat but it isn’t full o’ sense. Ah’s gan ti give thee a bit o’ good advice, No need ti tak offence becos it’s nowt but common sense. Thoo mun ’ear all and thoo mun know nowt, And thoo mun see all and thoo mun say nowt, And thoo mun tak all an’ thoo mun gi’ nowt, And thoo mun sup all and thoo mun pay nowt, An’ if ivver thoo does anythin’ fer nothin’ allus do it for thissen'.

You can hear these words sung by Norman Creaser (born in 1919 at Stamford Bridge, East Yorkshire) on The Yorkshire Garland Group website, along with other traditional Yorkshire folk songs.

The ‘father’s advice’ plays on a stereotype of Yorkshire people, and perhaps ‘northerners’ in general, as ungenerous, shrewd and silent (‘say nowt’).

‘Nowt’, meaning ‘nothing’ and spelled as ‘nought’, is used as a marker of northern Englishness in the novel Saville by David Storey, winner of the 1976 Booker prize for fiction.

The girls'll do nought but work in a mill, get married and have children.

The Vespasian PsalterBut ‘nowt’ hasn’t always been associated with a specific regional identity; here it is, spelled as 'nowiht', in the Vespasian Psalter, an illuminated manuscript produced in southern England in the 8th Century,

Nowiht forðon gedegled þæt ne se unwrigen.

Translation: Nothing will be concealed that will not be unconcealed.

And here it is again, spelled as 'nought', in 1484, used by the printer William Caxton,

I promysed to the nought at al.

Translation: I didn't promise you anything.

So, back to the teacher, and her advice to her pupils on how to speak. This time, the advice comes from slightly further north in the county of North Yorkshire, from the Head of a Primary School in Middlesborough, reported in the online version of the local paper, the Evening Gazette, on the 5th February 2013. The advice was contained in a letter to parents asking them to discourage their children from using eleven examples of ‘incorrect’ pronunciation and grammar at home, including ’nowt’.

(If you’d like to hear an example of a person from Middlesborough talking, try the British Library’s Sounds Familiar archive).

The British Library: Sounds FamiliarThe Middlesborough teacher, as reported by the Evening Gazette, says,

We would like to equip our children to go into the world of work and not be disadvantaged. We need the children to know there is a difference between dialect, accent and standard English.

These two ideas, the connection between ‘standard English’ and employability, and the difference between ‘standard English’ and dialect, are typical of teachers’ advice to pupils on how they should talk. Snell (2012) describes cases of dialect prejudice in education going back to the 1960s. She also talks about how linguists have responded to this prejudice, including William Labov’s famous defence of African-American English, ‘The Logic of Nonstandard English’, published in 1969. Snell’s data is from a Middlesborough school playground, and her analysis demonstrates the following three points:

  • As argued by linguists for many decades, dialects evolve to meet the communicative needs of their speakers and are as complex and systematically organized as any other variety, including those that are considered ‘standard’. ‘Standard English’ is a dialect, albeit a socially prestigious one;
  • Also, speakers have a linguistic repertoire that includes elements of different varieties of a language, and indeed different languages. Bits of TV scripts, advertising jingles, songs, traditional sayings (like the Yorkshire father’s advice, for example) are woven into talk in ways that meet their communicative (including their identity-signalling) needs. The British Library Sounds Familiar archive mentioned above, while an excellent resource, shouldn’t be understood as mapping uses of English to individuals or even to regions. Each of the individuals recorded in the archive have a range of ways of talking, depending on their situation, as have people in Middlesborough;
  • And most challengingly, the borders between what we think of as ‘standard’ and ‘non-standard’ language or between ‘language’ and ‘dialect’ are porous, disputed and shifting.

We briefly discuss the myths that some people don’t use their language properly (dead end number 4 - Snell’s first and second point) and that languages exist independently of their users (dead end number 10 – Snell’s third point) in chapter 1 of Mapping Applied Linguistics.

Our dead end number 10, how we conceptualise ‘language(s)’, is the subject of a recent UK Linguistic Ethnography Forum e-seminar on Superdiversity, endangered languages and education. It’s also the topic of an article in Applied Linguistics by my colleague, Chris Hall.

The Transporter Bridge: Middlesborough So, back to the Middlesborough teacher. Unfortunately, one cause of the linguistic discrimination she fears her pupils will face in the workplace, is her own letter to their parents. By perpetuating ‘dead end’ thinking about language, speakers and situations, she is contributing to what she is right to identify as a problem: linguistic insecurity and conflicts of identity that may damage children’s future career aspirations and lives more generally. The problem is not the way children in Middlesborough talk, it is the discrimination that they face, and better advice to the parents would not be to ’correct’ their children’s language, but to campaign for a new head teacher.

What about the teachers themselves? The Middlesborough teacher correctly points out that the UK National Curriculum requires children to be taught to use ‘standard English’. This is challenge, for the three reasons that Snell mentions in her article, and also because of the potential threat to pupil identity and aspiration that she identifies.

In a book aimed at teachers involved in language education, Eric Hawkins (who in 1965 became the first director of the language teaching centre at the University of York), identifies a kind of teaching that is ideally suited to this challenging situation, 

We are seeking to light fires of curiosity about the central human characteristic of language which will blaze throughout our pupils' lives. While combating linguistic complacency, we are seeking to arm our pupils against fear of the unknown, which breeds prejudice and antagonism. Above all we want to make our pupils’ contacts with language, both their own and that of their neighbours, richer, more interesting, simply more fun. (Hawkins, 1984)

I think that Hawkins' advice is a bit like the Yorkshire father’s ‘hear all’ and ‘see all’. ‘Say nowt’, on the other hand, is more like the Middlesborough teacher, and although her advice may sound familiar, it certainly is not educational.


Hall, C. J. (2013). Cognitive contributions to plurilithic views of English and other languages. Applied Linguistics, 34: 211-231. 

Hall, C. J., Smith, P. H. and Wicaksono, R. (2011). Mapping applied linguistics: a guide for students and practitioners. London, Routledge.

Hawkins, E. (1984). Awareness of language: An introduction. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Labov, W. (1969). The logic of non-standard English. Georgetown Monograph on Languages and Linguistics, 22: 1-44.

Snell, J. (2012). Dialect, interaction and class positioning at school: From deficit to difference to repertoire. Online at: [Accessed May 29, 2013].


Language support in UK universities: Raising awareness of 'dead end' thinking?

Charlie Martineau

The dead end of a railway line. Photo: VaikooveryHall et al (2011, pp.4-14) list ten 'dead ends'; mistaken ways of thinking about languages, their uses and their users. Some of these dead ends are integral to public discourse about language in the UK (and elsewhere). Specifically, that:

  • some groups of people don't use their language properly
  • languages exist independently of users and uses
  • a nation has, or should have, one language
  • languages get contaminated by influence from other languages
  • some people speak their language without an accent
  • written language is superior to spoken language

'Dead end' thinking about language makes no sense linguistically, but is alive and well in my workplace; a UK university where I support international students with English as an additional language. In confronting these dead ends, I face some difficult questions.

One question relates to students who speak a variety of English which is not well understood here (and have difficulty understanding local varieties of English too). I have tried to help some of these students develop an awareness of local pronunciation so that (a) they can understand it better and (b) – if they choose – can adopt it to a certain extent (depending on a range of variables such as age, motivation and cross-linguistic influence from their own variety of English and the other languages they speak) in order to become better understood locally.

I’ve found this approach is productive in terms of their listening skills, but not always in terms of their pronunciation. I am also aware of the possible dangers of suggesting that students change their own pronunciation. Firstly, such changes may not be possible (because of cognitive, social and linguistic variables such as the ones mentioned above). Secondly, my students may begin to feel worse about their English and be therefore less likely to want to use English in class or socially (linguistic insecurity). Thirdly, the responsibility of local students to work towards mutual understanding by broadening their own awareness of different varieties of English, and by monitoring their own talk for intelligibility, is downplayed.

Dead end, dead shot. Photo: Dave CrokerThese difficult questions require sensitive discussion with each individual student I see – raising their awareness of their own and others' varieties of English, and of how understanding is achieved in multilingual environment(s). I also need to find ways of letting my students know about the prevalence of 'dead end' thinking about language, and how this thinking relates to how they may be either judged and/or have certain identities assigned to them by their teachers and peers.

The institution-specific effects of Hall et al's (2011) dead end thinking on international students in UK universities, and possible solutions to the problems that arise as a result of this thinking, are in need of more research. Without such small-scale 'real world' research, 'language support' services risk reinforcing dead end thinking, thus damaging the prospects of the very students they have been set up to help, as well as failing to take the opportunity to help local students benefit from their 'internationalised' Higher Education experience.


Hall, C. J., Smith, P. H. & Wicaksono, R. (2011). Mapping applied linguistics: A guide for students and practitioners. London and New York: Routledge


Teaching minority languages in schools: Bokmål versus Nynorsk

Anne-Marte Denk Ravnestad

Areas where Norwegian is spoken, including North Dakota (0.4% of the population speaks Norwegian there) and Minnesota (0.1% of the population) (Data: U.S. Census 2000).Norwegian (Norsk) is a North Germanic language spoken primarily in Norway (but also in the USA, as the map on the left shows). Together with Swedish and Danish, Norwegian forms a continuum of more or less mutually intelligible local and regional variants.

Norway is unusual because the majority (and official) language, Norwegian, has two written forms that are equally recognised by law: Bokmål and Nynorsk (Lovdata, 1981). The two forms have different geographical origins, and which form you use still depends a lot on where you live.

I write Nynorsk which is only a majority language in four out of nineteen counties (Språkrådet, 2011). Nynorsk closely resembles my spoken dialect, and I feel comfortable using it for that reason. There are often strong links between identity and language, and this is crucial to the understanding of minority language users' feelings about their language situation. Although have no issue with being identified as “Nynorsk”, I’m still aware that,

language varieties (…) can trigger beliefs about a speaker and their social group membership. (Garrett, 2010:33)

In my case, the social group I am likely to be identified with is “uneducated country folk”, and while I might not feel that this is problem, I understand that other Nynorsk users may not feel the same way.

A map of the official language forms (målform) of Norwegian municipalities as of 2007

Norwegian law requires that pupils learn both written forms of the language at school – and it has been hotly debated whether we should change this practice. Bokmål users have claimed that it is difficult to include both forms in school.  I believe – both as a teacher and a Nynorsk user – that we should maintain this practice, not only because we would lose some of our cultural heritage if we didn’t, but also because of the effect it would have on Nynorsk users’ self-esteem, potentially further weakening Nynorsk’s position in society.

Teaching additional languages in school is both a challenge for teachers and an opportunity for them to think about their teaching methods. In the case of Nynorsk, it’s important for teachers to create awareness of this living language through showing examples of it in literature, newspapers and other media.

In my opinion the most important thing, when it comes to government-regulated additional language teaching and learning, is the teacher’s attitude towards the language. This attitude will be reflected in the pupils' motivation to learn and will ultimately determine the success of their learning experience. I believe languages reflect the huge variety of people and cultures in the world, and I want to pass my enthusiasm for that variety on to my pupils.


Garrett, P. (2010). Attitudes to language. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Lovdata Mållova (1981). Lov om målbruk I offentleg teneste [målbrukslova] (Law about language use in governmental services). [Internet] Oslo, Lovdata. [Accessed 21 October 2011].

Språkrådet (2011). Språkstatistikk – nokre nøkkeltal for norsk (Language statistics – some key numbers for Norwegian). [Internet] Oslo, Språkrådet. [Accessed 21 October 2011].