I discuss A Little Book of Language, written by linguistics expert David Crystal, known for The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language and The Stories of English. However, this "Little Book" is written for adolescents, not adults, even though many adults have read it, including teachers, armchair linguists, and some professors. I found much to interest me.
Crystal writes with clarity and authority, but the tone is conversational. Some call it chatty, even breezy. He explains any new vocabulary terms and avoids an abundance of jargon. To make a point, he cites J.K. Rowling, Roald Dahl, and Terry Pratchett, as well as Shakespeare and Dickens. In my view, this book is accessible to the average adolescent reader.
Adolescents aside, this book might make a nice addition to teacher development coursework, despite the conversational tone. It lacks the depth typically expected in tertiary education, but compensates for that lack with breadth. I certainly did not begin teaching first grade with a good understanding of some topics discussed in this book.
Adolescents will explore how language develops from babbling baby talk to speech. They will explore various aspects of language, including sounds, grammar, spelling, dialects, slang, sign language, accents, dictionaries, etymology, etc. There is a chapter on learning to read and write, and the challenges and benefits afforded the bilingual learner. Crystal discusses the origins of speech and writing and the various types of world languages, as well as language decay, the fact that many languages are dying out rapidly.
Crystal also discusses social media, text messaging, email, etc. Unlike some naysayers, he takes a positive view of the rise of the internet and the digital revolution. From a language perspective, he views this as more beneficial than not. However, he encourages more insightful use of digital methods of communication. For example, on page 188, readers consider the effects of "shouting" via email:
What would you do if you got an email message like this?
WILL YOU BRING MY DVD ROUND PLEASE. TED
It might give you a bit of a fright, because it's all in capital letters.
It's as if Ted is shouting at you. Is he upset? Is he cross?
ConclusionCrystal concludes by restating six causes that are important to him, hoping to persuade adolescents to share his perspective. (He discussed each cause at various points in prior chapters.) Each summary paragraph begins with an "I hope you'll care" statement:
Cause I "I hope you'll care about the fact that so many languages in the world are dying." Crystal shares his concern for "endangered languages" and makes adolescents aware of the importance of language diversity. In an earlier chapter, he explained that about half of the world's languages are expected to die within 100 years -- that's about 3,000 disappearing languages (p. 126). Crystal also described promising examples of "language revitalization," citing Hebrew, Maori, and Welsh.
Cause II "I hope you'll care about minority languages, even if they're not seriously endangered." Minority languages are those spoken only by small groups of people. Crystal encourages adolescents to take an interest in every tongue, and to make sure schools, libraries, community centers, etc. provide services and spotlights for the varied languages of the people they serve.
Cause III "I hope you'll care enough about languages to want to learn as many of them as possible." Crystal explains that it's important to develop a multilingual personality -- to be willing to try a language, even just a few words, and to always carry a pocket dictionary when visiting a foreign country.
Cause IV "I hope you'll care about the variety that exists within your own language." Crystal refers to language variation within one's native tongue, including differences in dialect and accent. The message is to embrace the various ways we express ourselves, not to judge one another based on differences.
Cause V "I hope you'll care about the range of styles that exist within your own language." Crystal encourages readers to consider which style of communication is best for any given situation. According to Crystal, sometimes tweeting is fine, other times an email is better, or perhaps a formal letter on crisp paper. He discusses register, from formal to informal and all stops between. Each style of communication serves a different purpose.
Cause VI "I hope you'll care about people who are having difficulties learning or using their mother tongue." Here, the author encourages compassion and assistance for those who struggle with any kind of speech impediment or language impairment. Crystal states:
"People seem very ready to poke fun at those who have a lisp, or a stammer, or some other speech difficulty. If you're a real linguist, you won't stand for that sort of thing. And don't be afraid to help people who are having difficulty expressing themselves" (p. 252)
I recommend this book for anyone who loves language. The topics in this book align with some of the key goals of education. I receive no reward for promoting this book and was not requested to do so.
My thanks to the variety of authors and interested readers who support this blog. Vocabulogic has recently been listed as one of the Top Speech Pathology sites for 2012.