Saturday, September 1, 2012

Summary: A Little Book of Language, by David Crystal

Crystal, D. (2010). A little book of language. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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.

This book follows the same format as A Little History of the World -- another favorite of mine, also published by Yale. A Little Book of Language contains 40 chapters, each about 6 pages long, supported by black and white woodcut prints, and by maps. Some chapters offer a brief extension or application activity. Where applicable, the author provides references for further reading, including a variety of interesting websites. For example, on page 162 he shows a "Wordle" (discussed in a prior post) and provides the website so students might create their own word clouds.

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?


         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?

Crystal 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.  


  1. I am looking for a book to read with a K-5 school staff that focuses on promoting conversation among students as it relates especially to academic language. If it incorporates the Common Core Standards, that would be ideal. Any suggestions?

    1. That's a tall order, Julia, when you add the bit about "incorporating the Common Core Standards." One book for promoting conversations is The Word-Conscious Classroom by Scott, Skobel, and Wells, but it does not link to the Common Core. (I do not know of a book that does, off-hand). Another book to consider is Bringing Words to Life (Beck, McKeown, Kucan). They have a few editions and renditions of that book. There is also the vocabulary chapter I coauthored with Dr. Marty Hougen. We do discuss the CCSS, but only vaguely. The chapter book was written for methodology coursework. It is called Fundamentals of Literacy
      Instruction and Assessment,Pre-K–6
      . Many known authors contributed chapters to this book, edited by Martha Hougen, Ph.D., & Susan Smartt, Ph.D. published by Brookes. 1-800-638-3775. But it is expensive.

      Another (free) suggestion: You might have the teachers read selected posts from this blog and other edublogs. Select the posts that best "fit" your goals. There are at least a dozen suitable posts here on Vocabulogic.

      Also, consider Literacy Beat ( This blog is written by several educational researchers, including Jill Castek, who was a guest author for Vocabulogic. They offer several posts that apply to your goals. For example, the most recent post, titled Text Complexity in the Digital Age

      Tim Shanahan's blog DOES discuss the CCSS, probably more than any other blog I know of, but he might not offer many "tips" for striking conversations with kids.

      Also, try Text Project, by Dr. Freddy Hiebert. She helps teachers see how text complexity (including academic language) and comprehension relate. She helps teachers assess the suitability of any given text, looking beyond the misleading "readability" ranking.

      There are MANY other excellent edublogs, like

      Creating your own "book" from the Web has several benefits:
      1) a variety of authors, so the focus is not too narrow
      2) no cost, free
      3) the posts are short enough to not be burdensome
      4) teachers can read it anywhere they have internet access
      5) for PD meetings, you could show the post on the big screen, and focus your discussion on key bits
      6) So many other great edublogs. Surely you will find what you need.

    2. Julia, another book, by Fisher, Frey, and Lapp: Reading State of Mind: Brain Research, Teacher Modeling, and Comprehension Instruction.

      Here is the book and a free PDF that goes with it, written for teachers. Look into it. It might apply nicely to grades 3-5).

      Also, see the post by Frey and Fisher here:

  2. Thank you for your personal response and the extensive list of resources. I am especially draw to the idea of creating curriculum with teachers using the blogs and sites you have suggested. What fun!

  3. You're welcome, Julia! Best wishes with your work. And as you said, "What fun!"


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