linguist • writer • editor • lecturer • broadcaster
[Thursday 03 January, 2013]
This book is all about language - the English language. But we mustn’t be so busy finding out about English that we forget to ask what a language is in the first place.
First and foremost, it’s a way of communicating with each other. But what a way! It can express far more meanings than any other way of communicating - such as by using gestures or facial expressions. There seems to be no limit to what we can say, using language. Hundreds of new words come into English every year. People keep making up new sentences that no one has ever used before. It’s often been said that children never master anything more complex than their first language.
You’ll quickly get a sense of just how vast the whole business is if you reflect on the following points:
- Language has a very complex structure - all the sounds of speech, all the spellings, all the ways of building up words, all the sentence patterns, all the vocabulary. (That’s why you need books like this one - to help sort out what goes on within this structure.)
- There isn’t just one side to learning your language, but four - you have to learn to understand it, to speak it, and eventually to read it and write it. If you’re deaf, you can also learn to sign it, using sign language.
- Language has a very wide range of uses - to communicate ideas, persuade, command, question, hurt, argue, tell jokes, pray . . . Can you carry on this list?
- Language varies enormously from one time and place to another - all the dialects and accents, all the styles of speech and writing.
When you think of all this, it’s truly remarkable how quickly children come to learn their language. Next time you listen to a five-year-old chattering away, remember to be impressed!

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