What’s Coronavirus doing to our languages?

by Hui (Annette) Zhao

As I write this blog on 23rd April, most of the UK, apart from our keyworkers (thank you!), will have been stuck at home for a whole month since 23rd March. As we adjust to the physical challenges brought about by coronavirus, it will come as no surprise to most readers when I say that our language is also being affected by the current situation.

On a superficial level, we have all learned some new vocabulary: coronavirus being one of them. For many, it was probably the first time they realised that ‘corona’ means ‘crown(-like)’, referring to the shape of the virus itself (which also explains Corona Extra beer’s brand logo – a yellow crown). There is plenty of other terminology related to the virus: COVID-19, epidemic, pandemic, self-isolation, super-spreader, flatten the curve. All of a sudden, the pandemic has people like you and me with no medical backgrounds talking like true epidemiologists (specialists who study diseases).

More importantly, the effects of the pandemic and the nationwide lockdown on our language use extend way beyond the vocabulary we might slip in during our video chats with family, friends, and colleagues (‘Zooming’, as some might say; I’m yet to hear anyone use ‘Microsoft Teamsing’ and admittedly it’s quite a mouthful). With the closure of schools and universities, most students now live at home where they are immersed in a linguistic environment potentially very different from their ‘normal’ learning environment, especially if they are multilingual. For example, several of my third-year students were supposed to be on their semester abroad trip to China, which is no longer happening. For them, an excellent opportunity to learn about Chinese culture and use the language has been taken away and instead, they are relying on online language lessons for this part of their education, like many other students with cancelled overseas trips. For multilingual children in primary and secondary education whose home language isn’t English, the transition to online teaching and home-schooling is even trickier: on the one hand, they are potentially losing hundreds of contact hours in English language teaching and with English-speaking peers (which are important in learning the language!), while on the other hand this might be an opportunity for them to develop their abilities in their home languages (which are important social and linguistic skills). Since we don’t know when the lockdown will end, we can’t be sure whether the situation will have long-term negative (or positive!) consequences.

Similar linguistic changes can be observed among those who predominantly communicate only in English too, for instance, in terms of their accents. After being (or being stuck – as it might feel less like a choice for some) in the same space with your family for a whole month with minimal contact with outsiders, some of us might start to sound more and more like our family– partly because we all unconsciously accommodate to people we frequently talk to (to convey a ‘I-like-you’ type of message), partly because there is little need to ‘put on’ any other accent (for example, that extra posh accent you use when you greet the school principal or company CEO is simply irrelevant since you don’t see them any more). In this sense, what this national lockdown does to our accents is like when we have been on an extended holiday abroad with the family. Maybe when we can finally socialise again , we will be able to guess where each other’s cohabitants are from. I know my own English accent is becoming more Northern as my only cohabitant is from Yorkshire!

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