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Getting on the Same Page: Book Gifts for Friends and Family

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Is it just me, or do friends, family members, and random strangers sometimes make strange assumptions about us once we become English teachers? They may think we support English-only policies, are ashamed of our first languages if we are multilingual, are constantly judging them on their use of English, etc. They may resent us for the positions they assume we take, or they may take those positions ourselves and expect us to join them. This can get pretty awkward at the dinner table. Even if it doesn’t get that far, people often have really strange ideas about English and English teaching (I know I had a few myself before actually starting to study for my certification and MA).

Here are a few last-minute holiday gift suggestions that can introduce the way linguists and language pedagogy specialists think about language to non-specialists in a readable–maybe even enjoyable–way.

Language Myths is a bit of a Linguistics FAQ or “Mythbusters: Linguistics Edition!” in book form, with articles on different topics by different linguists. This is really great for addressing those long-held, “commonsense” beliefs that most people have about language, and can really clear the way for meaningful conversations with your friends and family. Essays in it include “Double Negatives Are Illogical,” “TV Makes People Sound the Same,” “Black Children are Verbally Deprived,” “America is Ruining the English Language,” “Some Languages are Spoken More Quickly Than Others,” and lots more. It’s meant for intelligent laypeople. Most of the topics will be familiar to you; my TESOL coursework covered most of the topics (but not every point). I don’t totally agree with everything that every author writes, and the readability/interestingness varies, but that’s the nature of an anthology like this. I wish they’d publish a sequel, but at any rate, highly recommended.

The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left, by the outstanding linguist David Crystal. This book uses both history and analysis to show why people who are truly educated about linguistics are rarely the same people frothing in the opinion pages about the decline of English. He has a distinctly British viewpoint (Strunk and White barely make an appearance) and makes a couple of errors regarding American usage, but nearly all of his points apply to American English-language punditry as well as British. Without resorting to Language Log (which I love, but is a little too in-depth for casual readers), this book can explain to your friends and family why you may not be a fan of the English “experts,” like the late William Safire, whose cranky and usually wrong-headed pronouncements they probably expect you to endorse. If you read it, you’ll probably learn a lot too–I didn’t realize how many centuries these specific patterns of nitpicking and name-calling had been going on, or how broadminded Shakespeare was about regional dialects of English compared to other writers!

For people with more specific interests:

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English is an extremely interesting history of how English wound up in its rather odd condition. It’s sometimes a bit rambling and repetitive (it seems to be based on lectures), but still fascinating. Of course, speculation about the origins of English are open for debate, but McWhorter’s theories make a lot of sense. He has an interesting perspective because of his academic background, specializing in the study of creole formation, which I think may help him approach the apparent conflicts and paradoxes in the early history of English in a more fruitful way. And, of course, he has the necessary academic/linguistic chops that popular writers like Bill Bryson are lacking, so he doesn’t repeat unfounded nonsense about other languages in order to prove English’s uniqueness. (I don’t recommend giving anyone The Mother Tongue, because it’s full of things that are not just academic speculation, but outright falsehoods and inaccuracies.) Highly recommended, but not for readers without an interest in the history of English.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage is one of the only usage guides recommended by the folks over at Language Log. It’s descriptive, not prescriptive; it tells you what the rule is and what people actually usually do and why. It has plenty of real examples, not made-up sentences, and discusses controversial usages and discrepancies between US and British tendencies. (Note the 5-star review by Geoff Pullum if you click through to the Amazon page–that’s the linguist Geoff Pullum.) Handy for teachers and non-teachers alike. Note: this is mostly for looking up words that tend to cause grammar, spelling, or other usage problems; it’s not a general grammar or writing guide.

All of the above good books for ESL and EFL teachers too, of course–you’ll just be more familiar with the background info, and maybe a little impatient when some of the authors use simplified vocabulary to avoid using technical jargon.

I’ll add all of these to the Bookstore link on the right so that you can find them later.

(Sorry for the lateness of this post–I had my own holiday gift-giving time crunch!)