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Interview with David Crystal

david_crystal.jpg David Crystal is one of the world's leading linguists. He read English at University College London from 1959, where he studied under Randolph Quirk. He published the first of his 100 or so books in 1964. He became known mainly for his research work in English language studies and in the application of linguistics to religious, educational and clinical contexts. Among his recent works are books on the world's endangered languages (Language Death, 2000), the Internet (Languages and the Internet, 2001), and Shakespeare (Shakespeare's Words, 2002).

He works from his home in Holyhead, North Wales, as a writer, editor, lecturer and broadcaster, and divides his time between work on language and work on general reference publishing. He is currently patron of the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL). For a full list of David Crystal's publications, see the Crystal Reference site.

Professor Crystal spoke with ELT News editor Mark McBennett on a visit to Tokyo in September, 2003 with his wife and business partner Hilary.

What brings you to Japan this time?
This is a Longman visit. When I travel, it's often on behalf of somebody, the British Council or, very often, a publisher. And it's usually to promote something that I myself have written. But this time it's different. My relationship with Longman is this: Longman was the first publishing house to realize, about 30 years ago now, that it might be a good idea to get academics who are interested in semantics, dictionaries and so on into an advisory board. Put them in a think tank kind of environment and let them them talk about their ideal dictionary, what's wrong with dictionaries now, and specifically what kind of dictionaries would be of most use for foreign learners and other categories of users. And I was on that board from the very beginning, so I've seen this dictionary from its conception through four different editions over the last 30 years.

So when you use a book regularly, it becomes part of your life. And I use this book, as a native speaker, as one of my desk dictionaries. So I know it in the academic sense but also as an actual user. So I've been invited as someone who can speak about the dictionary from those two different points of view.
So why do you personally choose to use this dictionary yourself?
When a new dictionary comes out, the way it's publicized, the press and media coverage that it gets is always very focused on coverage. What are the new words, the latest words that we have to use? Words like "bling bling" this time around, for example.

But that is not the big issue with a dictionary for me. I'm interested in the treatment of entries. So when I'm working on a language topic, I'm often looking for the most succinct way of defining a term, or a good example of something to illustrate a point. And framing a definition accurately and succinctly - and in language that's no more difficult than the term you're defining in the first place - is not easy.

The thing about LDOCE, is that it has this excellent feature of a 2000-word defining vocabulary (DV), originally a tremendous innovation by Longman. So anyone with a 2000-word vocabulary - I suppose we're talking about junior high level in learner terms - is guaranteed to be able to understand any of the definitions used in the dictionary. And what I can do as a linguist is compare definitions, side by side. And because of the DV, I can see the salient points of difference much more easily than in a native speaker dictionary.

Secondly, it addresses the fundamental thing in language learning - and with over a million words in English, we're all vocabulary learners throughout our lives - and that's seeing words in clusters, in pairs. The thing about dictionaries is that they're alphabetical and no one learns words that way, letter A today, letter B tomorrow. So you have "aunt" at one end and "uncle" at the other, but they go together in real life. So if you can get away from that and present words in more natural groups or clusters, that's a major step forward in dictionary writing. LDOCE does this to a limited extent in the book itself, but much more so on the CD-ROM, in the Language Activator, which does this much more systematically than any other dictionary I know.

From a learner point of view, I imagine this must be a very important feature. Now, I'm a linguist, I'm not a language teacher and I don't quite know what it's like teaching adults or children. But it seems to me that if anything is going to help learners, it's going to be that sort of clustering feature.
But you would refer to the OED for Scrabble disputes?!
No, Chambers is the one for that. Chambers is the official dictionary for international Scrabble competition. No, I use the big OED for historical linguistic work, for references to Shakespeare or Chaucer and what have you, because it's the only one based on an analysis of their work. I and my son did a Shakespeare book last year and that was largely based on the OED.

Of course there is a correlation between the OED and LDOCE, in that they're both corpus-based dictionaries. And that's the way dictionaries have to go from now on, especially in view of how the language is developing and changing.
In an academic career that already spans five decades, you have been extremely prolific. You have written something like 100 books, mostly language related. You've been involved in groundbreaking research work, TV productions, and several international organizations to name just a few of your other fields. And you show no signs of slowing down. Are you as excited by language now as you were when you started back in the 60s?
Even more so! If you'd asked me that question ten years ago, I'd have said "Mm, yeah, probably." But the last ten years has to be the most exciting time to be a linguist, because I believe very firmly that we're living through a language revolution. I have a book by that very title coming out next year which is an attempt to analyze the extraordinary developments of the 1990s, the likes of which has not been seen since the Renaissance.

Three things have happened: First, people have finally twigged that there is a global language. Nobody really saw this in the 80s, though they guessed at it, but it became quite apparent in the 1990s and all those books came out with "global language" and so on in the titles. There's never been a global language in the history of mankind, so to be in at the beginning of that is exciting.

Secondly, we also twigged in the 90s that we had a language crisis on our hands. Namely that roughly half the languages in the world are dying out, quite an extraordinary thing to realize.

Then thirdly, as if that wasn't enough, someone invents the Internet. And this is not just a new style of English, it's a brand new medium. It's only the third time in human history that this has happened. Thirty to fifty thousand years ago, somebody invented speech. Then ten or fifteen thousand years ago, somebody invented writing. And now, someone invents an electronic form of communication, a major step in human evolutionary, communicative history. And to be in on this too, you know it's just amazing! I've spent a lot of time over the last five or six years trying to get my thoughts in order about all this.

And of course, this all makes it the most difficult time to be a teacher. Who'd be a teacher right at the moment? With the language changing faster than it's ever done before, a new medium messing things up as well. Once upon a time, we all knew where we were, there was British English and American English and that's fine. But now, it's all in the melting pot, with new styles, new varieties happening all over the place.

And there's all these languages dying off in the background. So you have the question, "If I teach English, am I therefore killing off another language?" So moral issues are being raised that weren't there before. I take my hat off to teachers, they've got the difficult job. People like me have the easy job!
You have written about endangered languages around the world. Minor languages will always be threatened by the incursion of dominant ones, a phenomenon only enhanced by globalization. So would you agree that the best we can do is preserve a "snapshot" of a language at a given time, give it financial or legislative support where that is practical, but ultimately let it take its natural course?
To be practical, you have to do that a lot of the time. For a language to survive, there needs to be three things. First of all, there has to be a bottom-up interest - the people themselves must want it to survive, which is not always the case. Some people in some parts of the world think that their language's time is up and it's time to move on.

Secondly there has to be a top-down interest - local and national governments and international organizations have to be concerned about language diversity. Now that doesn't happen in many parts of the world, where the minority language is seen as a threat to the governing power, especially in parts of Africa, for example. And thirdly, as you rightly say, there has to be cash because it's an expensive business keeping a language going.

Now when those three factors are present, the outlook is really rather good. But there are two aspects to that outlook, and you've only touched on one. Yes, the first thing you have to do is document the language. The snapshot metaphor is a good way of putting it. You have to capture that language, document it, get it written down. Because you must remember that 40% of the world's languages - that's more than 2,000 languages - have never been written down. That's a lot of work to be done by linguists. There are some big foundations now providing funds so it's slowly getting done.

But you don't stop with documentation. The goal has to be revitalization. If the factors are right, this can be successful and there have been several examples around the world in the last ten years, or even going back a little earlier. My home country of Wales is a case in point. Welsh has now been successfully revitalized after a 30-year program of investment and political care. And as you know as an Irishman, all the Celtic languages have been on the brink for the last century and people are now desperately trying to bring them back. Welsh is so far the most successful example.

Overall, I suppose we have to say the outlook is grim. We're not going to be able to save a lot of the threatened languages and that is a disaster, ecologically speaking. As the extinction of a species is a physical loss to mankind, so the death of a language is a kind of a visionary loss. Each language encapsulates a vision of the world, so once that's gone, we've lost one way of looking at the world. And that is an irretrievable loss. So we have to hope that we can achieve as much success as possible in this current wave of language awareness.

But there's still not enough awareness. Go out on the street and ask people if they know that pandas are dying out and they answer "Yes." But ask them if they realize that languages are dying out and they don't know what you're talking about. Teachers are in a unique position to pass this awareness on and to remind people that everyone has a responsibility, everyone can help. Learning English, or any foreign language, raises awareness of one's own language and a respect for language in general. And this should apply to all languages, including minority languages, such as Ainu in Japan, for example. So raising this level of awareness can lead to a major mental shift, and if we all do our little bit, it can help form a new climate of opinion.
How have popular forms of communication like electronic "chatting" or "instant messaging" blurred the lines between writing and speech?
david_crystal2.jpg Oh, they've significantly blurred the lines. I see electronic communication as a new medium. Not as a new form of speech or of writing - it's a brand new medium. It can do things that neither speech nor writing was ever able to do.

Some examples. Let's compare it to speech first. Electronic communication is a form of communication without immediate feedback. I'm talking to you now, and every time I make a point you say, "Uh, huh" or nod or whatever and when you speak, I do the same. So we're constantly monitoring each other, which is what normal conversation is like.

But in electronic communication, you can't give me feedback until you get the message. You reply of course, but immediate feedback is not available. So what this means is that as I'm typing, I can't see your face, your reaction, so I can't change tack according to your response.

And there are other aspects of speech that you don't have - intonation, tone of voice. Smilies that we put in e-mails for example, don't solve this problem of missing out on the evocative tones that come with daily speech.

And the one big thing that chat rooms do, which was never possible with human speech before, is enable us to have a conversation with many people at the same time. If I go into a cocktail party, I can have a conversation with this person or that person, but not everybody in the room. But in a chat room you might have 50 people in a "room." I can monitor what every one of those people is saying and, if my typing speed is fast enough and I have something to say, I can reply to every one of those people. What exactly the implications are for intelligibility in those kind of circumstances have not yet been worked through.

Electronic communication is not like writing either, because it enables things that traditional writing could never do. An example is e-mail, where you can "cut and paste" or reply to your e-mail and insert my answers in your message and mess about with it like that. On the web, it's a very dynamic world. You can see type change colour, move about, dance across the screen. All of this was never part of traditional writing.

It's a new medium, which means that the kinds of language that you encounter are going to be fundamentally different. When did you ever see smileys before? When did you ever see that erratic cut and paste look to a page?

So what are the implications for the learner, for their sense of correctness, their sense of formality? They're having to learn a new set of linguistic clothes, as it were, when they start working on the Internet. Just as you look at your wardrobe and think "Where am I going tonight?" when you go on the Internet, you think "What linguistic clothes am I going to wear?" The conventions are very different and this is what the learner has difficulty with.

If they get an e-mail from me, and it's not grammatically correct or lacks capital letters at the start of sentences or has spelling mistakes because I'm typing so quickly, do they think "Crystal can't spell." or "Crystal can't punctuate."? No, they know "Crystal wrote this in a hurry." We have new tolerances for communications by e-mail, and as native speakers, we sense these tolerances. But a learner or a nonnative speaker would often be very confused by the new conventions that are permitted. And with text messaging on mobile telephones the conventions are even more bizarre. We have all kinds of abbreviations, like CU L8R. And learners have to develop a whole new set of sensibilities which didn't exist before.
Will this make life more difficult for language teachers, with it being more difficult to draw a line between what's correct and what's incorrect?
Well, this is not at all limited to foreign language learning. The new national curriculum in Britain, which is training kids to be language aware in a way that they haven't been for many generations, has this problem too. Teachers have to get kids to develop a sense of what the different functions of language are, the difference between formality and informality, what this new Internet style is and how it is to be coped with.

You have kids using these text messaging abbreviations in their essays and science reports and you just can't do that, that's not what it's for. So it's the job of the teacher to instill in the child a sense of the range of formalities and styles so that the child can be in control of them and use them appropriately. This is a big teaching task and quite tricky. But it's starting, as I say, in British schools, and I think that, by degrees, the foreign language teachers will incorporate this into what they teach.
Do you think this makes it more difficult for a teacher - and this is something many Japanese teachers of English feel is important - to stamp their authority by being able to say "This is right. This is wrong."? Because after all, many teachers feel that their job is to prepare their students to answer test questions, to use 'whom' correctly even if it is rarely used by native speakers.
Well, it never was. 'Whom' is only taught because in the 1760s and 70s , two grammarians wrote some books that said that 'whom' was a very important thing to teach, along with 20 or 30 other rules they invented that we associate with traditional grammar. It was all part of the way the 18th century looked at the notion of correctness and politeness, what it meant to be part of 'us' rather than 'them.' And because of the power and reach of the British Empire, for 250 years people all over the world learned about them.

But people had happily been using the language without concern for these things since way back when and they continued to do so. Of course in school they were taught about what was correct - I was taught these things in school and if I didn't know them I would have failed my English tests in school. But the fact that people have never used 'whom' to the extent that the grammar books say they should is neither here nor there. The fact that people have been splitting infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions since the 12th century is neither here nor there. We are now leaving that era behind.

This is a world movement. As you say about Japan, there are some countries that are more conservative in their thinking about language than others. But it won't last long. It can't last long. Things have moved on all over the English speaking world. It's only been maybe a generation since the reaction began in British schools in the 1970s against the prescriptive movement of the 18th century. It didn't really have a presence until the new national curriculum came in. Now all British students are being taught a philosophy of the English language which is egalitarian, democratic, with no such absolute thing as correct or incorrect, which includes styles appropriate for different situations, regional dialects and so on. So they learn that "He is the man to whom I spoke." for formal situations and "That's the chap I was speaking to." for less formal cases are equally valid. And that's the big difference. They're both valid for their own circumstances.

So after a generation of children being taught this way, the old rules will disappear completely. Even now, hardly anyone even remembers what a split infinitive is. This doesn't mean that standards have slipped, just that the language has changed. People tend to think that when language changes it always deteriorates. But it doesn't, except in the minds of the older generations.

So this new sensibility will evolve and eventually even countries that are concerned with norms based on the written language, like Japan, will realize that writing is just one tenth of language and the other nine tenths are speech. That the rules that you have to be aware of to cover all modalities of language are more flexible than you expect when only considering written language. Some governments may be slower to adapt to this change but it will happen.
Can you foresee a future where, due to developments in speech recognition and other technologies, writing and in particular handwriting becomes a marginalized skill in developed countries?
Marginalized, maybe moving toward the margins yes, but not disappearing. I don't believe that technology replaces, it supplements and complements. Every new technology has brought with it the prophets of doom: when printing came in, it was an invention of the devil; when the telephone came along, it was the end of society because people would never leave their homes anymore; when broadcasting came in, it was the beginning of a brainwashed era. And what has happened is an accretion of extra domains of language ability. Now I can write, I can speak on the telephone, I can watch broadcasts, I can use the Internet and it hasn't affected my ability to do the things I could do before.

As for speech recognition, it's further down the road than people think. It's at an elementary level now and will make dramatic progress, but it won't be at a satisfactory level for the next 25 years. To make the whole-speech equivalent work in an analytical, synthetic way presupposes the kind of analysis that hasn't been done yet - really good semantic, pragmatic analysis of language. That's why machine translation is also a good way off in the future.

So I don't see our language practices being much changed by that area of developments in the immediate future. What we'll see is that the skills which are becoming available now will be incorporated into books like this (LDOCE). Being able to hear speech at he click of a mouse, and so on.
Your next book, 'The Stories of English,' is a history of English from a sociolinguistic perspective. Presumably you've read Bill Bryson's 'The Mother Tongue,' which mystery writer Ruth Rendell described as "the sort of linguistics I like, anecdotal, full of revelations, and with not one dull paragraph." Will she enjoy your new book?
She surely will. In fact, Bill has said the same thing about my book, having seen an early copy. As has Philip Pullman, to take another novelist. So I do seem to be getting that kind of reaction, I'm pleased to say. Because it is a book that needs that kind of reaction to be successful.

The title 'The Stories of English' is a little sideswipe at a television series and book that came out 20 years ago called 'The Story of English.' That's how English is usually described, as if the language has just one story, standard English. Which is all that was talked about.

But these days, standard English is maybe 5% of the language. And it's the written language, largely. In other words, 95% of the English-speaking world doesn't speak standard English. They speak various forms of nonstandard English, by which we mean regional dialects, regional accents, pidgins and so on.

So my book is an attempt to retell the story of the language from the point of view of nonstandard English. In my book, all dialects are interesting - standard English is one of them. A very important one, the one we use for education, for standard intelligibility, the one most people think of as "correct." But what about the rest? Those poor students around the world who learn the standard form and then go out into the streets and they just don't hear it. They haven't been taught that the rules change from one part of the world to another, even from part of a country to another.

And it is the first of its kind, I think. I looked for similar books but couldn't find any. It's an attempt to reconstruct the history of the language from the point of view of the majority of users throughout the world. It wasn't an easy book to do, because when you go into the archives and try to find examples written down, to a large extent only standard English survives.

So it's a book that tries to rethink the system, to put standard English in its place, yet without losing sight of its importance.
There are a growing number of examples of this nonstandard English in literature, aren't there? Best-selling books by people like Scottish writer Irvin Welsh or Irish novelist Roddy Doyle.
Yes, it's almost de rigeur these days, if you're writing a novel, to put 'voices' in like this, regional voices. To see a novel in which everyone speaks in absolutely correct standard English is very rare. And it's all part of this new climate that recognizes that regional accents and dialects are 'okay.' It's the new political climate that developed in the latter part of the 20th century that men and women are equal, black and white are equal, that we're all equal, and it's about time this came about. And it has its linguistic consequences. Because if people are equal, then what they say is equal. They may have to use some standard to communicate, but that doesn't mean to say that their own native dialect is in some way inferior, which is of course how it was traditionally described. It's such a simple concept, and yet many people hate it even still. Deep down it's a kind of linguistic racism or...
Yes, purism. Well put! Purism is, well, the biggest evil really. Purists masquerade as people trying to do what's best for the language. But they are highly intolerant and they can make you feel inferior very easily because they're usually better educated, they know about Latin roots and things like that. The number of people around the world who've been made to feel linguistically inferior because some purist puts them down and criticizes them for not being 'correct,' even if they speak fluent, though nonstandard English... it's a scandal. It's an attempt to perpetuate a class system that most reasonable people these days find simply unpalatable.
What do you think about the recent decline in the communicative approach to language teaching?
Well, it had to decline. The reason being that it was never worked through. In the beginning, as it were, there was formal grammar. And then people said - not just in ELT but in mother-tongue education, too - that's too artificial, it's unreal. Let's concentrate on real language, on communicative language. So the pendulum swung to the opposite extreme. But that approach only works as long as you can keep in touch with the traditional approach. Because it's no good saying "That's a fascinating use of language over there, you ought to use it." if the response is "How?"

If you haven't got the terminology and the grammatical skills to do a little bit of analysis, you have to just try to absorb it, learn it like a child. And as adults, we don't have that kind of time. The communicative approach will only work if it has an interface of some sort with a traditional paradigm of formal learning, or is an amalgam of the two. And it never did that. Slowly people began to realize that they had to integrate aspects of formal learning into the communicative approach, but it's never been done.

I've got another book coming out next year for Longman (sorry about this!). I wrote a book about 20 years ago called Rediscover Grammar, which was purely a grammatical approach, based on the Quirk grammar and simplified for schools. But schools in Britain have changed, the curriculum has changed. Teachers have to teach grammar but they want to be able to explain the reasons behind grammar, why grammar is used that way in that situation.

So this new book is a kind of supplementary approach, based on a pragmatic, semantic approach to English grammar. When I was researching the book, I thought, "I know. I'll go to the ELT world, the communicative world, and it'll all be there, done for me." But I couldn't find it. You look at the communicative literature, for say the meanings of the passive construction, for how the passive is used in the various domains of style. You find sporadic examples, but nothing systematic.

And since that has been the case in the communicative world, I'm not surprised that it's palling a little bit these days. It needs that systematic link with formal work, because people want to feel confident that they can see where the communicative approach is leading them. Kids learning their mother tongue are surrounded by it over a long period of time, but learners of a foreign language don't have that luxury. The communicative approach can motivate you better than anything else I know, but it can't teach you, unless you've got some way of linking it with formal learning.
Professor Crystal, thank you for giving up time in your busy schedule to talk to us.
Thank you.

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