I was like, why..?  Why do international students say ‘like’ in almost every sentence?

I was like, why..? Why do international students say ‘like’ in almost every sentence?

In our university cities you now often hear the English that European students use among themselves. And often the word ‘like’ comes up all the time. Sometimes even in every sentence. Why do they do that?

Bertus van Rooy, professor of English linguistics at the UvA, says that this started in the US, “probably in Los Angeles”. It subsequently spread to other English-speaking areas. And now it has also found its way into the English of young people for whom English is not their native language. Van Rooy knows this from his own observations, he has many international students. You can consider it a plague, a kind of epidemic. But as a linguist, Van Rooy notes that ‘like’ always has a function in the sentence. In fact, that one word serves no fewer than three different linguistic functions that are crucial in everyday conversations. The oldest function is that of approximator: ‘like’ expresses that what follows is ‘approximately’ like that. ‘I have a teacher, she is like 50 years old.’ The teacher is ‘about 50 years old’. ‘I must have been there for like 4 hours.’ ‘Maybe’ four o’clock.

A word of perspective

People say things all the time that are not very precise, but something like this. The conversation partner knows that too, but it doesn’t hurt to add a word of perspective. In Dutch there are many of those words that put things into perspective: ‘say’, ‘or something’, ‘maybe’… A second function subsequently developed from this approximator: that of quotative. In conversation, people constantly express their thoughts and feelings and those of others in direct speech. ‘like’ then indicates that direct speech is only an approximation. So actually again: ‘approximately’. ‘I was like wow.’ I was like wow. ‘She was like oh what have you done.’ She was like, oh dear, what are you doing?

According to Van Rooy, the third function has also developed from the approximator: that of filler. “A consequence of semantic bleaching“, he says. “The original meaning fades, weakens, disappears.” As a result, ‘like’ suddenly takes on the same function as words such as ‘eh’, ‘yes’ and ‘well’, which you can use in the middle of a sentence if you need a moment to further formulate the sentence. You fill in that short pause with a word like this. Because fillers are usually used before that part of the sentence that is least likely to be formulated, it is often a signal to the conversation partner that the most important (most informative) part of the sentence is now coming. ‘I was like really impressed.’ ‘I was very impressed.’ ‘He just asked a whole lot of questions.’ “He really had a lot of questions.”

All three functions can appear in one sentence. On the Internet, an artist who is both a singer and an actor says about these two qualities: “For me they’re like the same energy, which is like when people are like you have to choose, I’m like they feel the same.” In Dutch it could sound like this: “For me they have the same energy, I mean, well, when people say you have to choose, I think they are the same for me.” Successively: ‘just say’, ‘well’, ‘of’, ‘something like’. The Dutch sentence therefore sounds more varied than the English sentence with four ‘like’.