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'A Little Book' Helps Kids Learn To Love Language

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'A Little Book' Helps Kids Learn To Love Language

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'A Little Book' Helps Kids Learn To Love Language

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

As babies, we babble. We also listen to our parents and pick up the rhythm and intonation of our mother tongue. And before you know it, we've mastered mama or dada - or maybe, all gone.

But even as our vocabulary and grammar expand, we learn different manners of speech, how to talk at the dinner table, on the playground. We hear one accent from our friends, another on the radio. We learn to write in abbreviations for texting and more formally for a job application. And most of us become fluent in the specialized languages of our professions and avocations.

In a new book written for young people, renowned linguist David Crystal explains the purposes and uses of them all and much, much more - from the origins of speech in primitive man to why capitalized letters are called uppercase. And believe me, there's plenty in there for formerly young people to learn as well.

How many variants of English do you use, and for what purposes? Give us a call; 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, some advice for the president as he prepares for his first Oval Office address. But first, David Crystal joins us from the studio in his home in Holyhead in North Wales. His new book is "A Little Book Of Language," and it's nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. DAVID CRYSTAL (Author, "A Little Book Of Language"): Hi, Neal, it's a real pleasure to be here on the program.

CONAN: And how many variants of English do you think you use?

Mr. CRYSTAL: Oh, gosh, I wish I could count them. I mean, it all depends on the circumstances that you find yourself in, I suppose. And these days, with English being such a global language, and you end up in all parts of the world talking to all kinds of people, some of whom you've never talked to before - and in a way, you're starting to pick up some of the characteristics of the way they talk, and you suddenly realize you've got a new variety of English on your hands.

CONAN: And of course, as a linguist, I assume there's specialized language that you use with other linguists to signal that you understand what they're doing.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Oh, we've got our stuff, yes. We've got our slang, too, and everything. I mean, that's a point, you know. Every walk of life has its own slang. I mean, people sometimes talk about young people as being the only people in the world that have got slang, but you know, radio journalists have got slang, lawyers have got slang, doctors have got slang. Everybody has their own colloquial way of using their jargon. It's one of the most fascinating aspects of the whole business, I think.

CONAN: And indeed, we do. We all have specialized language. In fact, every different program at National Public Radio has specialized language, basically to exclude all the others and to show important we are.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Quite right, quite right.

CONAN: As you grew up, though, obviously these languages change and adapt, as even the language itself changes and adapts.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Well, that's one of the most noticeable things, I think, about language in the present generation, the last 20 or 30 years. You know, language always changes, of course. The only languages that don't change are dead ones.

But a living language doesn't change at the same rate all the time. It has periods of gradual change, and periods of rapid change. And of course, at the moment, we're going through a period of very rapid change, thanks largely to the arrival of the Internet, which has speeded up communication all over the world in an unprecedented kind of way.

I mean, of course, we're talking here just a little bit about English, but exactly what we're saying about English applies to all the other languages of the world as well, at least those that are online.

CONAN: There was one thing that had never struck me before. You do - one of your many little asides is on the arrival of something we call hypertext, and we're all accustomed to it. It's that little thing we click on that takes us to another Web page somewhere. But this is something that you suggest is entirely new.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Well, you know, that's the thing about the Internet. People say, is it a revolution? And when you look at the actual language that's up there, then you'd have to say, well, no, not really because most of the language you see on the Web or in a blog or in a tweet or whatever it might be, it's pretty familiar.

But on the other hand, when you look at the Internet and ask, what can you do with it linguistically, then you have to say there are things there that I've never done before, like hypertext.

I mean, when was it every possible previously to take a piece of language and click on it, you know, and end up somewhere else? The nearest you ever got was a footnote, say, in a book, where a footnote has a little number on a line, and you look at it, and it sends you to another part of the book.

But on the other hand, you know, you don't have to have footnotes in books. You can omit them. And yet on the Internet, you've got to have hypertext links. The Internet could not exist without those links.

CONAN: And it's astonishing that in you're just a little bit older than me, but in your lifetime, we've seen the arrival of these new screens that have since become ubiquitous everywhere in our lives, and yet if you take a kid today, and they come up against a screen, they expect if they touch it, it will respond to them.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Yeah, that's right. I mean, it is all so recent. Where are we now - 2010. Go back 20 years, 1990. No World Wide Web, that didn't start until the following year. No Google, that didn't start until 1999. Nobody was chatting very much. There were a few chat rooms, but nobody was out there.

When did most of your listeners actually first send an email? I doubt if it was before about 1995, '96, '97, something like that.

CONAN: That's right. When I started on this program, we still asked for faxes.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Yeah, yeah. No blogging, blogging didn't start until the early 2000s. No instant messaging. The social networking sites like Facebook and YouTube and so on, that's 2004, 2005. And then Twitter, 2006. So this is all happening at such a rush.

CONAN: And yet here you are, writing a book for young people. You're supposed to be a curmudgeon, sir.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRYSTAL: Do I sound like a curmudgeon?

CONAN: No, you don't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRYSTAL: Well, the idea behind "A Little Book of Language" - of course, that title is quite interesting, isn't it, because it's a title that is an echo of an earlier book that many of your listeners may have read - or even may have read to them at bedtime once.

A man called Ernst Gombrich, the great art historian, wrote a book called "A Little History of the World," back in the 1930s, this was. He wrote it in German. And he wrote it because a little girl wrote to him and said, you know, please tell me about the history of everything. And he thought, I can do that. And so he wrote this book, which is an absolute delight.

Now, I read it years ago, and I knew it was written for children - for young children, teenagers and so on - but I found it fascinating. I mean, it was wonderfully written. Even though it was written for the kids, adults loved it.

And so Yale University Press decided, let's do the same sort of thing for other themes, and language is one. So the idea is to write a book which will be of interest to young teenagers, who desperately need this kind of awareness of language, and yet will not be off-putting to slightly less young people, like you and me.

CONAN: We're talking with David Crystal. The book is "A Little Book of Language." And we want to hear from you today about how many variants of English you speak and their various uses; 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. James(ph) is on the line, calling from San Antonio.

JAMES (Caller): Yes. I think I speak about three variants of English: of course, standard American English; and then I'm going to law school in a few months, so I'm starting to get into the legalese; and then I've been forced to take a retail job, work in retail for the past few years between undergrad and law school, and there's a whole kind of odd subculture of retail-speak, I call it, where they come up with all these official words to do very mundane things.

CONAN: Can you give us an example?

JAMES: Yes, sure. Like, you don't take products and place them on the floor. You fill a calf(ph), and there's primary and secondary signage and setting sales planners, which really just means putting products on an end cap. And all I could go on for an hour, but it's pretty silly.

CONAN: That's very interesting and David Crystal, it reminds me of H.L. Mencken's famous book, "The American Language," where he decodes the language of, for example, coffee shops, where Adam and Eve on a raft was two eggs on toast.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Yeah, that's right, Adam and Eve wrecked and all of these alternatives there were. Yeah, this is really interesting. I mean, the examples that James was giving just there, I wouldn't mind betting that several of those examples aren't in any dictionary, you know?

This is one of the interesting things. Lots of areas of specialized life, especially the kind of everyday life that we lead in stores and transport stations and things like this, they have developed their own terminology and their own slang and their own idioms and their own figures of speech, and so on. Very little of this actually gets into the dictionary because the dictionaries tend to concentrate on the written language, literature and so on, and many of these areas are just waiting for further study.

CONAN: And fall a little short of literature. But James, thanks, and good luck to you in law school.

JAMES: Thank you, appreciate it.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to this is Barry(ph), Barry calling from Jacksonville.

BARRY (Caller): Yeah, I was just going to say, I talk my conversation actually changes depending on who I'm talking to. I work for a major phone company and I do customer service, and if I talk to a Southern customer, I get a little bit of a twang. If I talk to a Yankee customer, I'm talking as I am now, and I'm more direct to the person. So it depends on the situation. I just kind of modify it to make that person more comfortable.

CONAN: And is that a matter of company policy, or is it just something you do?

BARRY: It's something I do, and a lot of times, certain Southern people think if you speak correctly and properly to them, that you're talking above them, and they don't like that. And just to make them feel more comfortable, I get a little bit of a twang.

CONAN: All right. Well, David Crystal, that's a perfect example of, well, making people feel comfortable. You're...

Mr. CRYSTAL: Absolutely, and, you know, you were asking me, Neal, about the terminology that linguists use. Well, this is the term that linguists use to talk about this sort of thing. They call it accommodation, accommodation. What's happening is that Barry is accommodating to the person that he's talking to.

Now, we all do it. You know, it's one of those natural things in life, that when you meet somebody, and if you get on with them, or you're trying to get on with them, then you act a bit like them.

I mean, sometimes the way you stand is similar, or the way you hold your arms and things like this. And it's the same with your accent. Your accent inevitably slips a little bit towards the accent of the person you're talking to and vice versa, of course. The person who's doing the talking will come back to you a little bit. That's if you're getting on well.

If you're not getting on well, then of course, what happens is the opposite, and the two people's accents diverge, and you start talking as differently as possible from the person you're talking to.

CONAN: And you suggest, in fact, that it might have had an evolutionary start, where if somebody was knocking on the door of your cave and they spoke in the same accent as you, you might be more welcoming. Otherwise, you might come out with your club.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Well, absolutely, yes, well-remembered from the book because the people often ask, you know, why are accents so important? Why do we get so uptight about accents? Why do people get upset when people mock their accent and so on?

And I think it all comes down to this basic point, that accent is the most normal feature of your identity. The reason why it's normal is because it's there with you all the time.

I mean, imagine if you wanted to show your identity, where you come from, you wanted to - come from San Antonio or Texas or wherever it might be, and you wanted to show this to the rest of the world, how would you do it?

You could do it by dressing in a certain way. You could do it by waving a flag or by having a badge saying, I am from Texas - or whatever. But the problem with these things is that you can't see them in the dark. And you take your clothes off at night, and you can't hear them around corners. But with accents, you hear them all the time.

CONAN: Barry, thanks very much. How would you say goodbye to me, Barry, if you wanted to cue that you were from Jacksonville?

BARRY: Have a good time now, you hear?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I will. Thanks very much, Barry. We're talking with David Crystal about his new book, "A Little Book Of Language." Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

David Crystal explains in his new book one of the ways we use different versions of the English language to match our circumstances. If you want to be a lawyer, he writes, or a doctor or a radio presenter or a sports commentator, you have to learn a new kind of language.

Every job has its special words or jargon and grammar, and its own way of talking or writing. The jobs people have bring us into contact with a new kind of language variation: occupational dialect.

Well, how many variants of English do you use, and for what purposes? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation at our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

David Crystal's new book is titled "A Little Book of Language." In it, he makes the case to kids to preserve dying languages. You can read more about that in an excerpt from the book. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line, and let's go to David(ph), David with us from Reston in Virginia.

DAVID (Caller): Hey, good afternoon. Well, first of all, kudos to Mr. Crystal for being able to put linguistics in a digestible format for non-linguists. I've studied a little bit of it, and I know how difficult that is.

The question I have is, I'm a native French speaker, also a Japanese speaker. And in French, there are two formal levels of formality. And in Japanese, there are many more. And I'm wondering if anybody, Mr. Crystal or anybody, if there's a body of research in English about how we adjust our language - not really jargon, but intonation and word choice - to match it to the level of formality we are seeking, and especially whether that's been done in the modern context as relates to young people.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Yeah, that's a really interesting question. I like to think of language a bit like a wardrobe of clothes. You go to your wardrobe and open it up. Well, do you say wardrobe in the United States, or do you say closet?

CONAN: Closet or dresser, yeah.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Yeah, OK. So you open it up, and there are all your clothes there. Now, if you've got a real wide range of clothing, so that you can choose this type or that type or the other type to suit the circumstances outside, you're in a very powerful position. If you've got a sort of formal tuxedo over here and some informal suits over there, and then some very casual clothes over there, then you're in the best possible position.

Imagine going to that wardrobe and finding you've only got one suit of clothes, and you have to use that all the time. What a disaster that's going to be.

Now, it's the same sort of thing with language. In our heads, we've got a wardrobe, a closet, of all the styles of language that's available, and the most important division, right down the middle, is the division between formal and informal language.

Now, this has been around in English ever since the language began, but what's happened in recent times is that the wardrobe has been extended, mainly by the Internet, to increase the number of informal styles of the language that exist.

I mean, if you think of all the ways in which you can talk now on the Internet, in email and in Internet chat and in instant messaging and so on, and you can do all sorts of things there that you never used to do before, like leave out punctuation and leave out capital letters and things like that.

So suddenly, the language has extended its informal range. As a result, the formal side of the language, which David's talking about, has become, as it were, more reserved almost, more formal in some ways. And people now - what's very important, and this is one of the reasons why I wrote the book - is that young people in schools have to realize that the informal range of the language isn't enough for them. They've got to really concentrate on that sort of formal end of the wardrobe if they're going to make the best of themselves in life.

CONAN: A good lesson, but it doesn't answer David's point, I think, which was that switch from vous, the formal in French, to tu, you point out in the book, it's a very special moment to those who speak the French language, when you become intimate enough with somebody to use the familiar form, tu.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Yeah, we've got nothing quite like that, but we do have things like a switch from who to whom. You know, this is the chap I was talking to. This is the man to whom I was talking. Now, that kind of difference, where you put the preposition at the end, is a very informal way of talking in English. Putting the preposition in the middle and using the word whom is very formal.

Or to take another example, if you shorten the verb and say I can't, I won't, I shouldn't; and then you say I cannot, I should not, I would not; then it's using grammar in that kind of way that is the main way in which we express the difference between informal and formal in English.

CONAN: Or if you say shan't, people think you've been reading a lot of Jane Austin novels.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRYSTAL: That's right.

CONAN: Anyway. David...

DAVID: One quick comment?

CONAN: Yes.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Sure.

DAVID: Yes, your example about vous and tu in French, it's interesting that the transition from vous when I was younger - 30, 40 years ago - took a lot longer. I now speak to French people who from the get-go say, don't say vous to me; let's just go straight to tu.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Oh, right.

DAVID: So times have changed in France, also.

CONAN: All right, well, David, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

DAVID: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an interesting comment from Glen(ph) in Minden, Nevada. A bit of a correction: Ham radio operators, in addition to having several jargons of our own QRZ, QSL had wireless email starting in the mid- to early 1980s. My very first email via ham radio was sent in 1987 or 1988. But again, not in widespread use, in any case.

Let's see if we can go next to let's go to Rachel(ph), Rachel with us from Muscatine in Iowa.

RACHEL (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

RACHEL: I'm a school counselor in low-income districts, and one of my students said to me: You must be rich. I'm an educator; I'm not rich. But I asked him why he said that. And he said, well, you talk rich.

CONAN: You talk rich.

RACHEL: His association is, he associates a person who is well-spoken with wealth. I was wondering if you could comment on the connection between language and socioeconomic status, and also possibly the barriers that places for people who are trying to better their situation and move up in life.

CONAN: Something David Crystal writes a lot about in the book. But David, go ahead.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Yeah, well, I mean, this is a universal thing. What we have to remember is that language has no existence apart from the people who use it. You know, it hasn't got an independent life of its own. So language is always reflecting aspects of personality, aspects of the social situation in which you find it, and so on and so forth.

Now, what are the factors that make an accent or a dialect sound different to somebody else? Well, one of the factors is certainly economic. Back in Britain, of course, for many, many years - hundreds of years - the main factor was social class: upper class, middle class, lower class, and so on. And people had, in Britain, an individual accent: the accent of the queen and the royal family and so on; the upper classes, which was felt to be the accent of power, of course, firstly, and wealth indeed. And you could make that kind of identity very, very clearly.

These days, things have changed an awful lot. It isn't so easy to make that correlation as it was once upon a time. And I'm fascinated to hear that the same sort of reaction is coming out from your side of the pond because, you know, classically, American accents haven't had the same kind of range of class distinctions that British accents had.

But it's certainly the case; it's always the case that people will look behind the accent and make a stereotypical judgment about the nature of the person that's doing the talking. As often as not, the stereotype is wrong. I mean, as Rachel says, you know, I'm not rich.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRYSTAL: But it's the impression that you give by using the accent. It's simply a matter of contrast, I think.

CONAN: By using received pronunciation, as you describe it in the book. That's the terminology. It's interesting, I used to be a reporter and was often in Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland, and Americans would ask me: These people look exactly the same, the Catholics and the Protestants. How can you tell them apart? I would say: As soon as they open their mouths, you can tell them apart because their accents are different.

Mr. CRYSTAL: That's right. I mean, if you're from the south of Ireland and with a Catholic background, in particular, you have a much more lilting kind of voice compared with the Protestant voice, which tends to be on the whole, somewhat sharper or more resonant in that sort of way.

And there are quite specific features, as well, like the way you say the letter H. Do you say it aitch, or do you say it haitch(ph)? If you say it with a huh(ph) at the front, then you're probably going to be a Catholic. If you say it with an aitch, then you're probably going to be a Protestant.

CONAN: I remember talking to a man who was a professor and spoke beautiful received English, BBC English, and was teaching at university in Northern Ireland, and his students kept trying to get him to pronounce certain words so they could figure out, was he a Catholic or a Protestant.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRYSTAL: Yes. That's right. Accent is the way. You know, I mean, as I said a little while ago, you can try and deduce somebody's identity from the way they dress and so on and so forth, but the easiest way is always to try and judge it from the way they speak.

CONAN: Here's an email from Gary(ph) in San Antonio. I've heard that men have more of a tendency to hold on to their dialect and accent of wherever they originally came from, whereas women tend to change their dialect to suit the place they currently reside. Is there any truth to that?

Mr. CRYSTAL: Yeah, absolutely is. There has been a lot of sociolinguistic research done on this over the last 20, 30 years, many -much of it being done in the States, as a matter of fact. And one of the things that's being shown, over and over and over again, is that when the language is changing, and when people are sort of ready to switch from one accent to another because they moved from a different part to a different part of the country or whatever it might be, the women are always in the front. The women are the leaders. The women are much more ready to take onboard new characteristics of speech than are men.

CONAN: Hmm. Let's go next to Madelyn(ph), Madelyn with us from Jacksonville.

MADELYN (Caller): Yes, hello. I wanted to comment on the fact that as a former teacher, my students had a great deal of difficulty distinguishing between conversational English and written, formal English. I taught eighth- rade through 10th grade. And as the years have gone by, I have noticed a great difficulty in their writing, trying to get them to separate out the IM language from the written, formal language - and how aghast they are that they cannot write as they speak in conversation. They are adamant that this is the way they should write in all of their correspondence.

And I've noticed over the past - probably five years or so, how much of that conversational English has slipped into their formal language, and they have lost the ability to separate the two languages from their formal versus conversational. And I was discussing earlier that I vividly remember in 2001, one of my students said, well, why don't you just Google that? And I had no idea what he was talking about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And now I'm embarrassed to even admit that. But they were speaking conversationally in their own language, and it has seeped into their writing, and it's very hard for them to differentiate between the two types of language.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Yeah. It's hard. Listen, I'll tell you something, Madelyn, and that is this, that my - I have the fundamental belief that the most difficult job on this Earth is teaching, actually.

MADELYN: I agree.

Mr. CRYSTAL: And teaching about language, in particular. And if I was in charge of the world, I would multiply the salaries of all teachers by - I don't know how much. It really is a very difficult job. Linguists like me have an easy job. I mean, my job is simply to analyze what's going on and make recommendations. Actually implementing them in the classroom is the most difficult thing of all.

But having said that, I've seen some success cases as well. I go into schools quite a lot in the UK - once every couple of weeks, usually. And I meet with groups of teachers and students of varying ages. Now, I do see the phenomenon that you mentioned, but I also see the opposite. I see a sharply developed sense of appropriateness. And kids who have really -they've really got it. They've seen that there is this difference between the one and the other. And when I try and follow this through, what I find is that this is usually the case because they started learning about this early enough. You know, it's not something you can suddenly introduce to kids at age 12 or 13 or 14, or something like that.

Where in the British economy - system at the moment, there's the national curriculum. And this starts at age 6 and introduces kids to basic concepts of language appropriateness: when it's appropriate to do it this way versus that way. And they make contrasts, like using cartoon language and things of that kind, in order to get into the kids at the earliest possible age this basic notion of difference that you're mentioning. If you have to start later, it's harder.

MADELYN: I agree wholeheartedly.

CONAN: Hmm. Madelyn, thanks very much for the call. And we'll put teaching at the top of the list of degree of difficulty.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MADELYN: Wonderful, thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking with David Crystal about his book, "A Little Book of Language." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Here's an email we have from Keith(ph) in Utah. If a Navy person wants to secure a building, he turns off the coffeepot, lights, and locks the doors. If an Army person wants to secure a building, his unit storms in through the door and occupies it. If a Marine person wants to secure a building, his unit has surrounded it and are holding the occupants down in a firefight. If an Air Force person wants to secure a building, he's taken out a year's lease with five years of options. No wonder the forces can't talk to each other.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRYSTAL: Not solely a linguistic point, I think, there.

CONAN: Let's go to James(ph), James with us from East Wenatchee in Washington.

JAMES (Caller): Hey. How's it going?

CONAN: Good.

JAMES: I like that bit just now about the differences in services. I just got out of active-duty Army about two years ago now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And believe me, they have a very specialized language all their own.

JAMES: Oh, my God, yes. But more on a daily basis for me, I have what, you know, conversational English that I use around town. But I'm also -I play role-playing games, Dungeons and Dragons, tabletop games, things like that. They have a language all their own. You hear things like gaint(ph), that means that your bases and/or your resources have all been destroyed.

CONAN: Hah.

JAMES: Zoot(ph) means you've just taken an unrealistic amount of damage from fire. And it's funny. I mean, I've seen other people who weren't gamers trying to figure out what we're saying, and they're lost.

But on top of that, I'm also a mathematician, and then there's what I call math-speak. And definition transfer between English and math-speak is not good.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Hmm, no.

JAMES: There's a - the word normal is the funnest one to play with because there's actually three different definitions for the word normal in math-speak, and none of them have anything to do with what we consider normal in English.

CONAN: Well, then again, there are words that are completely untranslatable from one language to another. I would cite the expression hooah(ph).

JAMES: Hooah. Yeah. That's one of the great ones. It means yes, no, I don't know what else to say.

CONAN: It's like - indeed. I've heard there was a few years ago, and maybe this is old now, that two kids could have a conversation about five or six minutes long just using the word dude.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAMES: Yep, yep. I've actually seen that one. That was a pretty funny one. We - it's almost a joke in itself, that one - you know, mostly just to annoy parents.

CONAN: Most of the jokes are on the parents. James, thanks very much. This is specifically a book for young people. As I said, there are many things in it that we grown-ups can find incredibly interesting and new to us as well. If you were to make one recommendation, David Crystal, for a young person to pick this up, what would it be?

Mr. CRYSTAL: Well, I think they ought to reflect for a second on what is it that they like. What is it that turns them on? What is it that they see out there that infuses them, excites them? Is it a particular film -you know, movie, "Harry Potter"? Well, what is it? And then all we have to do is say, well, there's a language side to that, and that's really interesting. And in my book - this is one of the big things I had to do actually, Neal. I thought I - in writing this book, I had to try and get the level right.

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. CRYSTAL: And so I had it read by a 12-year-old in order to make sure I got the level right. And I found that there's an awful lot out there that is beyond your and my philosophy when it comes to talking to 12-year-olds.

CONAN: David Crystal, thank you very much. And we wish you the best of luck with the wonderful book.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Thank you. It's been a real pleasure.

CONAN: David Crystal joined us from his home in Wales. The book is "A Little Book of Language."

Coming up, President Obama's first Oval Office address. The topic is -well, what else, the oil spill. Any advice for the president? What do you want to hear? Stay with us. This is NPR News.

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