Non-native English speakers and “the new like”

by Susan de Smit

In the Dutch TV programme Floortje naar het einde van de wereld (“Floortje to the end of the world”), Floortje Dessing travels to remote places where she meets people who have often lived away from home for a long time. One of those people was a Dutch woman called Lianne, who has lived in the Namibian dessert together with her South-African husband Will for over two years. During her interview with Floortje, Lianne switched back and forth between Dutch and English, as Dutch is her native language, while she speaks English with her husband. For example, when telling Floortje about what her family thinks of her being away from home for so long, she said: Ik denk dat ze daardoor ook heel gauw beseften van ja, dit is ook wel het ultieme voor Lianne, like, dit is helemaal haar ding (“I think that that soon made them realize that yes, this is the ultimate lifestyle for Lianne, like, this is totally her thing”). What struck me was her use of like in an otherwise completely Dutch sentence.

y34492According to the OED, like can function as a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, con-junction, preposition and suffix (OED s.v. like). Like may therefore be called an extremely versatile word. However, Mesthrie et al. distinguish three uses of like, namely as a quotative, as a hedge, and as a discourse particle (Introducing Sociolinguistics 2009:118). These functions of like are relatively more recent than the ones described in the OED, and are the cause of critical discussion amongst English speakers.

For my BA thesis in English at Leiden, I conducted an online survey with Qualtrics (which I distributed on my personal Facebook page) to examine the attitudes of native and non-native English speakers towards the new uses of like. I asked participants to give their opinion on the use of like by other speakers, on their own usage and on their association of the use with level of education, by indicating how much they agreed with certain statements on these subjects. Afterwards followed some multiple choice questions, where participants could indicate with which particular age group, gender, of geographical location they associate the new uses of like. Finally, participants had the chance to provide some additional comments on other social or linguistic factors that they associate with the new uses of like, and on the issue of like in general.

The survey was filled out by 48 respondents – 17 native speakers of English and 31 non-native speakers, with American, British, Dutch, Belgian, German, French and Portuguese nationalities. As I collected the responses mostly through contact with friends and acquaintances, the majority of the participants – 90% – were around the same age as I am, namely between 18 and 24. It is important to note that the results from my survey are far from conclusive and that a larger number of participants, or participants from a different age group, education level or geographical origin, might have resulted in different results. But even though the figures from the survey are small, there are some interesting differences in attitude between the native and the non-native speaker groups.

Both the native and non-native speakers were predominantly more negative than positive towards the new uses of like, but the non-native speakers were slightly more so. Many of the respondents indicated that they are sometimes or always bothered by another speaker’s use of like, and a large majority believes that like is only appropriate for use in informal and spoken contexts. The responses to the statements on the participants’ own use of like are less clear-cut, however. Although the native speakers more often believe they use like than the non-native speakers do and my results showed that they are more bothered by their own use than the non-native speakers are, it is the non-native speakers in my survey who actively try to avoid using like more often. An explanation for this seeming contradiction might be that non-native speakers are aware of the stigmatized status of like and therefore try to avoid using it (Fuller 2003:206).

The native and non-native speakers mostly agreed on which kinds of speakers they mostly associate with the new uses of like. The majority of both groups indicated that they associate like with female speakers, speakers below the age of 25, U.S. speakers, and a lower, rather than a higher education level. The native speakers proved more unified than the non-native speakers on the association with age and geographical origin, whereas the non-native speakers were more in agreement on the association of like with gender and level of education.

The additional comments given in the open questions demonstrated the wide range of opinions on the subject of like. At the one end there are opinions like that of one of the participants (F, 21, non-native speaker, Dutch) who argued that the use of like as a hedge should be “banned”, as “it sounds as if people don’t know what they’re trying to say”. Another comment showed that not everyone agrees with this statement: “I like, really like nonstandard like” (F, 22, non-native speaker, Dutch).

The results from my survey correspond with the more general phenomenon that in general we human beings tend not to like change. Whatever is new is often met with derision, which goes for language change as well (D’Arcy 2007:444). However, what is new eventually will become old and I am curious as to how like will be viewed in say 20 years’ time. Will the new uses of like spread, or will its stigmatized status eventually cause the use of like to decrease? Who knows, by then there might be like a dozen new linguistic features to like really dislike.


D’Arcy, Alexandra Faith. “Like and Language Ideology: Disentangling fact from fiction”. (2007) Making Sense of Language: Readings in Culture and Communication. Edited by Susan Debra Blum. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. 443-58.

Fuller, Janet M. “Discourse Marker Use across Speech Contexts: A Comparison of Native and Non-native Speaker Performance”. Multilingua Journal of Cross-Cultural and Interlanguage Communication 22.2 (2003): 185-208.

OED online. Oxford University Press, accessed December 2015.

Mesthrie, Rajend, Joan Swann, Ana Deumert, and William Leap. Introducing Sociolinguistics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009.