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'A Little Book' Helps Kids Learn To Love Language

Jun 15, 2010 (Talk of the Nation)

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Some linguists lament that in the digital age, once-sacred grammar skills will be lost in the shorthand shuffle of texting and tweeting. But language expert David Crystal isn't worried. In A Little Book Of Language, he writes about how kids actually do love words. The book, geared toward young people, traces the history and the future of language.

A Little Book Of Language is an echo of an earlier title, E.H. Gombrich's A Little History of the World. Gombrich was inspired to write the book because "a little girl wrote to him and said, 'Please tell me about the history of everything,' " Crystal explains in a conversation with NPR's Neal Conan. Crystal says he read the book years ago and found it fascinating; it inspired him to write a book that would "be of interest to young teenagers, who desperately need this kind of awareness of language," yet would not be off-putting to older readers.

One of the most noticeable aspects of language in the present generation is the pace at which it is changing — "thanks largely to the Internet," says Crystal. At first glance, language online might not seem like a revolution, "because most of the language you see on the Web, or in a blog, or in a tweet ... is pretty familiar," he explains.

But there are aspects of online communication that are distinct from the way we use words everywhere else. Take hypertext, for example: "When was it ever possible previously to take a piece of language and click on it, and end up somewhere else?" Crystal asks. The closest comparison is probably to a footnote, but Crystal argues that hyperlinks are more essential to online communication than footnotes in books. "The Internet could not exist without those links," he says.

Crystal implores young people to take a moment to recognize the importance of language. "I think they ought to reflect for a second on what is it that they like," he says "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, movie? Harry Potter?"

Within each passion is an element of language — the written or spoken word, Crystal says. We just have to remember to look for it.

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