One of the hardest parts of learning a language is mastering the fun, slangy bits. If you learn English from a book, you'll end up calling pants "trousers." You'll never call people "bud," "pal," or "mate." And you won't know that the word "like" is to be used constantly and incorrectly wherever possible. But then, after a few years speaking English, you will know these things. In fact, a new study has found it takes approximately three years for a non-native English speaker to use the word "like" as frequently as the locals.
Dr Chloé Diskin, a sociolinguist at the University of Melbourne, studied the speech of 36 non-native English speakers in Ireland, and discovered that their proficiency at English was actually irrelevant: after three years, even if they were still quite bad at English, participants began using "like" with the same free-form enthusiasm as native speakers.
The participants, from China and Poland, had their conversations recorded for a total of 14 hours. Their conversations were then analysed to find how often they used the word "like", as well as its sentence positioning.
"Some people feel pretty self conscious using it, but they use it anyway, because it's so multifunctional," Dr Chloé Diskin told Pursuit, admitting that the word still carries some stigma. And maybe it was only stigma that held migrants back from using it immediately. "People who'd just been in Ireland for one or two years were not using 'like' at all. But once it hit the five to six-year mark then we had speakers using 'like' at similar rates to native speakers."
Yes, stigma. Even in 2017 people still complain about the word "like." And when we say "people" we basically just mean dads. Dads complain about the word "like" along with some other millennial buzzword like "selfie," but what they don't realise is that language is an organic and ever-shifting beast and "like" has been been flexible for a long time. As this 2005 linguistic thesis makes clear, "like has functioned as a conjunction since the fourteenth century."
Dr Chloé Diskin says that "like" also attracts intellectual snobbery because the term was most recently popularised by young women. "Young women are nearly always the first people to do something new with language," she told Pursuit. "We know through lots of different studies women were the first to use 'like'. It started with young women; then it was taken up by young men, then by older women and then finally by older men."
She suggests that another aspect to the stigma is that here, in Australia, we assume that "like" is an American export. The idea is that Australians got "like" from movies such as Clueless, whereas Dr Diskin argues that's just not the case. "What most likely happened is what we call an 'independent parallel development', something that happened in the language, more or less simultaneously, in communities of English speakers around the world," she says.
Basically, she argues that the use of "like" is about identity. Whether that's about recent migrants trying to integrate, or young people trying to do something new. "Because young people will always want to do things that are different to what their parents did."
So use "like" all you want. It's the language of multicultural cohesion, and it'll piss off your dad. Perfect!