Throughout history, the English language has constantly changed and adapted to become the global language that it is today. Watch the video to find out about the evolution of English. Learn about the different kinds of English and some students’ reasons for coming to the UK to learn.


Task 1 - gap fill comprehension

Watch the video from 00:00 until 05:15 minutes.

Task 2 - reordering

Watch the video from 05:15 minutes to the end.

Task 3 - comprehension

Watch the whole video.


The English language. It’s the official language of 54 different countries and is spoken by over a billion and a half people worldwide. Adding together native speakers, people who speak English as a second language or an additional language and people who are learning English, and it’s the most commonly spoken language across the globe. So what makes English so great? And why do people want to learn English?

This is the British Library in London. It’s the national library of Great Britain and there are over a hundred and fifty million items here from every age of the written word. Let’s go inside.

The Library’s collection has developed over two hundred and fifty years and it keeps on growing. There are books, magazines and manuscripts, maps, music and so much more. Every year, 3 million new items are added, so an extra 12 kilometres of shelves have to be put up.

Roger Walshe is the Head of Learning.

Richard: Roger, why is the British Library a good place to come to find out about the English language?

Roger: Well, there’s lots of reasons. We’ve a hundred and fifty million items from all over the world, so we capture a snap shot of what the language is like. But I think perhaps more importantly, we have documents here that go right back a thousand years to the beginning of the language. And so what you can see is how this changed and evolved over time. And when you see it changing like that you get a feel for where it might be going in the future.

Richard: So how has English changed over time?

Roger: Oh, it’s changed hugely. If you look back to old English - like a thousand years, it’s almost like German. Very, very difficult to read, only a few people can do so. Then you look up to, say, Shakespeare's period: early modern English. Printing has come in and that begins to standardise the language.

Richard: So what impact has technology had on the English language?

Roger: Well, it has two big impacts: one is that lots of new technical words come into the language. We see this in the industrial revolution over a hundred years ago. But the other, bigger, influence is that it enables people all over the world speaking English to communicate with each other, underneath YouTube clips or in chat rooms, and they’re influencing each other's English.

Richard: That’s great, Roger. Is there something you can show me?

Roger: Absolutely. We’ve got some great stuff. If you’d just like to follow me...

Richard: So Roger, what’s this?

Roger: Well this is one of the treasures in the British Library’s collections. English goes back about a thousand years to Old English. This is Middle English, about five hundred years ago, and it’s the first book ever printed in the English language.

Richard: So who actually printed this?

Roger: This was printed by William Caxton. Very famous. He went on to print Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the first bestseller in the English language. And one of the difficulties you have as an early printer is that there’s no standard language. There’s no dictionary, there’s no grammars, there’s no guides to usage really, so he often had to make up how to spell words himself.

Richard: And is the spelling consistent throughout the book?

Roger: Well, no, it’s not, even on this page here. This is a kind of a foreword - an introduction to the work. He says he translates it from the French. He has here ‘to French’:f - r - e - n - s - s - h - e.

Richard: Right.

Roger: That’s how he spells French. But if you go back to the centre of the page here, you’ve got ‘French’ again, and it’s got one ‘s’ in it: f - r - e - n - s - h – e.

Richard: Incredible... And this looks a lot more modern here, what’s this over here?

Roger: This is a very different work. It’s something we chose. It’s from 1867, so a hundred and thirty years ago and we’re all familiar with how people use mobile phones now to text each other - SMS. And they shorten words and they use letters to get their message across. This is a poem written in the nineteenth century in which somebody has done exactly that; he says 'I wrote to you before' - he uses a number 2, letter ‘B’, the number 4.

Richard: That’s amazing. So what does this tell us about the English language?

Roger: Well, it tells us it’s very versatile. It tells us that people play with it and sometimes the changes they make stay. Some of those changes were made 500 years ago, some of them were made 100 years ago. But some of the changes we make now in internet chatrooms and the way we talk to each other and the way people around the world use English will become the future of English as well.

I’d never really thought about English changing, but of course new words are being added all the time and not all types of English are the same.

I’ve come here to the British Council who work hard to build cultural relations between Britain and the rest of the world, and the English language is a big part of that. Let’s find out more.

The British Council provides resources for people learning English, and also teachers of English. Martin Peacock is the Director of Global English Product Development.

Richard: Martin, tell me about English as a global language.

Martin: OK, well many people talk about English as being a global language. And the reasons for that are the widespread use of English. It’s used in education, it’s used in science and technology and, importantly, English is also used in business.

Richard: Are there many global languages?

Martin: Well, no, not really. I mean there’s ‘the’ global language which is English in the sense that English is used in these many different contexts; there’s only one. There are other languages which are used very widely and spoken by many people in many different places: Cantonese, for example, a variant of Chinese, is spoken in many different places so it’s global in a geographic sense and it can be global in the numbers, but in terms of the use in different areas of education, science, research, English is the only global language.

Richard: Are there different types of English?

Martin: Well, yes, there are lots of different types. There's different accents of English. I come from the north of England, where I have a particular accent. So within England itself, within the UK, there are many variations in English pronunciation and that extends globally, so you see English in America and used in Australia, which is different in accent and also in usage as well.

Richard: And what about the impact of technology on a language?

Martin: In the past, new words were coined by people - it might have been in a speech or a newspaper article or in a book - they were written down and then other people adapted them and used them, and that could be quite a slow process and new words might come into a language over a long period: 10, 20 years. So technology allows languages to evolve much more quickly.

Richard: So technology can change the language, but in what way does it help people to learn the language?

Martin: Well, it helps in many ways. In the past, students in locations in other countries didn’t have access to much genuine English; they may have a book or an odd newspaper, but what the Internet allows them is to read and often to read and translate languages like English on a massive scale.

People learn English for different reasons and knowledge of the language is often important in fields like medicine, business and computing. English is becoming more and more important in order to communicate in the international world.

English opens doors to employment, education and mobility. And it helps teachers and learners engage across the globe. One of the best ways to learn English is to study in Britain. But what is it actually like to learn English here?

Clare: My name is Clare, I am 26 and I come from Italy. My course at the North West Academy was very good. I studied grammar, conversation and also words linked with my work placement. The teacher was very good. She has always been available for problems during the lessons and outside the lessons.

Over 600,000 learners a year come to Britain to help achieve their ambition, to experience modern UK life.

Maximiliano: My name is Maximiliano. I’m 23 years old and I’m from Venezuela. Everyone here is very friendly. When you tell them that you’re a foreigner, everyone is very welcoming, like everyone tries to speak with you, everyone, like, tries to just stay close to you and ask you about your experience, how your life is in your own country. And that actually helps you a lot, like, when you’re not a native speaker.

Alexander: My name is Alexander. My surname Igurov. I’m 24 years old. I’m come to the UK from Russia, from Moscow. I’m studying here business English. Sometimes we have general lessons about social English. I’m engineer in the building company. I will use English in my job. I think it will help me to improve my career.

Anthony: My name’s Anthony, and I just turned 24 last February and I’m from Malaysia. The people here are very nice. The place is amazing and learning here is a really different experience, so just come over and check it out.

Well, they seem to be enjoying learning English. And what I’ve learned is, is that the English language is more exciting than I’d first realised. And maybe, just maybe, in the future, I won’t have to worry quite as much about my grammar and spelling.



Think about other languages you know.

  • Are they changing like English?

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