Image from Andrea Piacquadio,


I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with social media. Given what I do and the nature of my audience, it’s pretty much a necessary evil, albeit one I dip in and out of depending on the demands of my other projects. For the past month or so, I’ve had a bit more free time than I’ve had in a while, and it occurred to me that perhaps I should make an attempt to revive my long-neglected Instagram account (a decision of which the algorithm unfortunately does not seem to approve). Having recently taken some steps into the world of English-language proficiency exams, I got curious and decided to explore the social-media ESL world. If nothing else, it was certainly an eye-opening experience.

I don’t have a clear sense of what proportion of my readership is made up of students living outside the United States, although my sense is that most of them attend either international schools or English-immersion programs and speak the language at a very high level. Based on some of the messages I’ve received, however, I’m aware that this is not the case for everyone.

For that reason, and because the internet has basically swallowed real life whole, I feel obligated to offer this warning: to anyone attempting to use social media to supplement their study for English proficiency exams (TOEFL or IELTS), please be extraordinary careful about whom you follow and take advice from. And if you are a tutor who works internationally, please make sure your students understand the difference between “Instagram English” and “school English.” To describe the linguistic misinformation out there as “mind-boggling” is an understatement.

In a general sense, I’ve always understood that social media was the Wild West when it came to test prep as well as language-learning in general, but I did not viscerally grasp what this meant for English learners wanting to study in or immigrate to an Anglophone country.

English, of course, is a global language, and while that certainly facilitates communication in many situations, the converse is that it—how shall I say this diplomatically…?—makes it possible for people who don’t have a freaking clue about how English is actually used to brand themselves as experts and start pumping out nonsense to thousands of people.

If this were just a matter of basic communication, then one could perhaps accuse me of being a tad pedantic about this matter. But throw very expensive high-stakes tests into the mix, and combine them with students who have limited resources and savvy, and I think this is a problem worth calling attention to.

Essentially, it’s a situation in which people who don’t know what they don’t know, are attempting to teach people who have no way of assessing the accuracy of what they’re being taught.

There are few things I can’t stand more than bad teaching, and bad teaching on this scale makes me positively want to tear my hair out.

In the prehistoric, pre-internet past, the errors of instructors who taught their students that a phrase such as, say, My friend taught me some slangs constituted standard English would be confined within the four walls of their own classroom. Now, however, they boom from Lahore to Sao Paulo, reaching countless people in less time than it takes to open an app. Erroneous usages are posted and reposted, creating a sort of parallel universe of bad English in which mistakes that would normally be found primarily in speakers of a one particular language instead become globalized.

In theory, the beauty of the internet is that it allows students who would not normally have access to native speakers exposure to the target language in a wide range of contexts, accents, and formats. For motivated, ambitious learners with the skills to identify reliable information, it’s a goldmine. The flip side, however, is that it also makes it easier for more reticent students to form virtual echo chambers with speakers of their native language, in which they reinforce each other’s misconceptions and render them increasingly resistant to correction. (As a recent New York Times headline put it, “belonging is stronger than facts.”)

On one hand, it is entirely understandable if English-learners feel most comfortable working with instructors who share their linguistic and cultural backgrounds; and usually in the beginning stages, having particular concepts explained via one’s native language is in fact the most efficient way to learn. However, beyond a certain level, the desire to remain within one’s comfort zone can become a serious impediment to progress.

In one forum, for example, I witnessed a self-appointed expert who himself made frequent and basic mistakes repeatedly tell candidates for a particular, very high-stakes exam—some of whom had already sat for it 10+ times, spent over $2,000 in registration fees, and were understandably quite desperate—that their grammar was fine when it fact it contained serious mistakes that would almost certainly prevent them from achieving their goal yet again. It was horrifying, the linguistic equivalent of watching a slow-motion car crash.

But beyond just the propagation of straightforward errors, another—and I think more serious—problem with language-learning via the internet is the “anything goes” impression it creates. Now, English is more flexible on certain points than some other languages; there is no equivalent of the Académie Française, from which official guardians of the French language hand down ironclad verdicts from on high. However, there is still such thing as standard English usage—a point that tends to get muddied online.

Want to eliminate spaces or add extra random spaces after periods and commas and eliminate question marks? Sure, why not. Space,no space, lots of extra spaces , it’s all the same ,right.

Want to write in all lower case and abbreviate half your words? ok cuz ppl dont really pay atention 2 that stuff lol

If this type of writing were restricted to social media… fine, whatever, everyone knows that good grammar isn’t the point. But a real problem arises when English learners do not grasp—as I think many of them genuinely do not—that there is a difference between social-media English and academic or professional communication, and that in the some circumstances there may be undesirable consequences for using the former inappropriately.

This is obviously an issue among native speakers as well, but from what I’ve observed, it’s magnified tenfold among English-language learners, and particularly ones whose native languages do not use a Latin-based alphabet. They might recognize in theory that standard conventions exist, but the notion that people actually follow them… It’s just not there.

Coincidentally, just as I was writing this post, I received the following message, which I think illustrates my point better than anything I could say. It reads as follows:

Maam How are you? I am from the “English Speaking Partners” group It’s an International chat group. We want to promote your website on our Facebook group. you can upload your post from the page directly. Monthly cost 50$. If you want to promote your group, Plz Confirm with me. Thanks

I think it’s safe to say that any educated English speaker would look at this message and immediately think two things: “spam” and “scam.”

Simply put, this is not a type of language that a trustworthy professional would ever use to cold-contact a potential client in a business email. There’s informal, and then there’s sketchy. The non-standard greeting, random capitalization, missing punctuation, use of abbreviation, and even the placement of the $ sign before rather than after the number all instantaneously mark this person as unreliable.

This isn’t the first email I’ve received that reads like this, and it almost certainly won’t be the last. But given some of what I’ve seen recently, it did compel me to want to plead with tutors and teachers to try to convey to their students how they may be perceived if they write this way. So much of the Anglophone education world is focused on making students feel comfortable and on encouraging the use of “authentic” language, but these principles can be taken too far: an instructor who praises a student for writing Do you think u can manipulate me with Ur  excuses? (real example!) is not doing them any favors in the long run.

Unfortunately, practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect, it just makes permanent; and students who practice writing in wildly erratic English will have that become their default. Even if they know they shouldn’t write that way, they’ll revert to it under stress—for example, when sitting for a $200 exam. Again, and again, and again.