The Greening of Linguistics:

Jo Carr talks to David Crystal


Jo Carr


David Crystal - one of the world's leading linguists - has been back to talk language to us here in Australia. It's two years since his last successful visit, when he convinced large numbers of people that language is inherently interesting: something well worth talking about; something we already know a great deal about; and clearly something we enjoy rather a lot. This time he was here to promote his latest book, English as a Global Language, as well as the second edition of his well-received The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, but also, one suspects, to take up where he left off in terms of revving us up some more on the issue of why we really ought to be paying more conscious attention to the whole business of 'languaging'. From keynote addresses at the ALEA Conference in Darwin and the Victorian Literacy Conference in Melbourne, to bookshop breakfasts, lunches and afternoon teas, lectures at universities around the country, radio interviews and sessions with print journalists - for the two weeks of his visit, Crystal's very distinctive voice seemed to be coming from all directions, coaxing and persuading us, in a wonderfully reassuring, matter-of-fact kind of way, that interest in language is for all of us and not just for a dusty few in academic corners.

I talked with him 'long-distance'. He was in Adelaide, nearing the end of the intensive tour, about to leave for Perth for more interviews before flying back home to Wales. I was on the other end of the phone in Townsville, interested to talk with this ex-academic, now solidly established as a freelance writer, editor and public speaker - still clearly 'teaching', in the most powerful sense of the word, but operating in the much more flexible mode that has earned him the label of 'the people's linguist'. Any residual notions of dry, erudite linguists - the butt of more than their share of generic jokes - evaporated in the opening minutes of our conversation. David Crystal not only knows an amazing amount about language - he's also extremely good at doing it. What he has to say - whether he's talking about language forms, structures, usage, history, relationship with culture or political implications - all comes out in the most matter of fact way, making instant, interesting sense. He has that rare combination which we long for in our beginning teachers: total passion for and knowledge of his area, combined with the kind of easy communicative style that makes it all sound totally plausible, accessible, and, above all, enjoyable and interesting.

Crystal talks well and he talks a lot. He'd been talking for two weeks virtually non-stop by the time we spoke, but still gave the impression of enjoying our conversation. We talked about the new book - a timely account of the phenomenon of English as a global language, which Crystal says developed its own momentum, rather than coming out of any conscious decision on his part that such a book needed to be written. 'I was being constantly rung up; first from American sources, where the issue of English as a global language was especially contentious; then later from a number of British and European sources, and everyone was wanting answers to the same sorts of questions: Is English a global language? If so, why has it become so? And is it likely to remain so?' In response to the gathering momentum for answers to these three questions, Crystal decided to produce a 'fairly short book', to look historically at the situation; summarise the current state of play of English as a world lingua franca; and to provide 'a bit of speculation about what's likely to happen from here'. Which is exactly what the book does - clearly, accessibly and economically - in 120 pages, in fact.

It's not in any sense a theoretical analysis of the kind of complexities at issue in the language-culture-politics debate. In fact Crystal takes a clear position in the introduction to the book, pointing out that this is factual analysis rather than cultural theory. He sets out to be determinedly neutral in what can be a contentious debate. While the book clearly establishes the right of English to the title of 'global language', Crystal is very emphatic about what he wants to see as issues of complementarity rather than confrontation. The notion of 'global language' immediately invites debates about linguistic colonisation and mainstream supremacy, and clearly involves important issues of access and equity. Crystal's analysis of the historical and political trajectory of English as an emerging global language is careful and detailed. But he emphasises the balance implicit in the main argument of his book: 'Everybody needs two languages, or at least two dialects: one for international intelligibility, which is the lingua franca kind of argument; and one for personal or community identity, which is the local dialect argument.' The common oppositional framing of these issues, as in the U.S. scenario where the Official English Movement has totally alienated most bilingual educationists, is seen by Crystal as unhelpful. His analysis of the status of English as a global language - increasingly necessary for communication and intelligibility - in no way impacts on his commitment to fight for the maintenance, support and appreciation of linguistic diversity. The book he's planning to write next is to be about language diversity.

I mentioned a reported expression he'd used - 'green linguistic arguments'. He was happy to claim ownership of the term - seeing it as an appropriate notion for young people in particular, who now have conservation established as part of their social/cultural conceptual repertoire - of birds, animals, trees, global resources, historic sites. 'It's part of the state of mind of young people now - but when you point out that there is also a need to save a language - in the sense that linguistic diversity is at real risk - then the point generally hasn't occurred to them.' Crystal believes in presenting arguments as starkly as possible: although international movements supporting language preservation are, as he put it, picking up steam, he feels we need to be as confrontational as possible in alerting people to the need for bottom-up, grassroots support for linguistic diversity. Languages are dying around the world - and there's not a lot of time left to do anything about it. He recommends similar tactics for dealing with the depressingly lingering monolingual/monocultural attitude that is still too common in English-speaking societies: 'I like to point out that one third of the world's population is functional in English - which means that two thirds are not. It is the normal human condition to be bilingual - three-quarters of the world's population are bilingual. People in a totally monolingual frame of mind need to be shaken out of their complacency. To put it crudely: monolingual people are the handicapped ones'.

This argument connects with Crystal's views on the language-technology relationship. At first sight, the advent of the internet, for example, seemed to support the notion that global linguistic systems were the way to go: there would be an inevitable exclusion of non-English speaking users. Initially, this was certainly true, with 100% of the net output being in English. Two years ago, argues Crystal, this figure was down to 80%. It's now much lower. Conversely, the number of languages on the net has grown enormously - with well over 300 now using the net regularly in some shape or form. He sees there to be a balance slowly emerging, and believes the net will become like any other medium of communication: it will reflect linguistic realities in the outside world - rather than shape them. Clearly it will be some time before there is equity of access - so he sees the more important issue as being less to do with language and more to do with technological expertise.

Nor does Crystal see the emergence of English as a functionally global spoken language as necessarily meaning the disappearance of local language varieties. On the contrary, he sees the wider range of contexts and cultural situations as possibilities of new varieties. He predicts that there will eventually be a world standard spoken English - analogous to what already exists as a world standard written English; but - as with written text - he believes the range of local variations will co-exist and continue to develop alongside the standard form. 'Go into any country - any bookstore or news-stand - and you'll see an enormous range of idiosyncratic forms of writing - local dialect forms - existing alongside the written standard. I would see exactly the same thing happening with speech. As a new regionally neutral lingua franca develops around the world, it won't replace what exists already locally, because the reason for that language developing is identity, ritual, play - all those other functions of language. So I see all the new developments of the moment - internet communications, new standards of international interaction - as new varieties or genres. They won't involve a levelling out or disappearance of other variations.'

I brought the conversation back to the label of the 'people's linguist': did he have something of a mission in terms of tuning in different kinds of people to language awareness? He has certainly extricated himself from the more conventional context of academic teaching, and now teaches in a wider arena, speaking to many different kinds of audiences. But Crystal doesn't see it as having to work at getting people interested. He's convinced that most people are already fascinated by language - as evidenced by the enormous popularity of language-based TV game shows such as 'Blankety-Blank' and 'Wheel of Fortune'; games such as Scrabble and Upwords; and even books that explain the meanings of babies' names. Most people, he believes, are already interested in language but there is work to be done in terms of organising, developing and responding to this interest. 'It seems to me that people appreciate learning about the complexity of what it is that they're interested in: which is where linguistics comes in. And then it turns out that when you start to develop your awareness of language in this way, all kinds of bonuses come along. All sorts of useful things start to happen, which enables you to become a more thoughtful or understanding human being. Or to actually help others who aren't so good in the language domain to make some improvement.' It's a mixture of what he describes as 'all those applied interests' that Crystal thinks has earned him his title of, and popularity as, 'the people's linguist'.

I asked him if he misses university teaching. He assured me that he definitely doesn't miss teaching what he described as 'sleepy undergraduates, week after week after week', seeing himself as a much more effective teacher now, talking to increasingly varied audiences. He writes and edits a lot, and generally feels the balance in the input-outcomes equation that haunts those of us involved in education is working particularly well for him at this moment. He talked with great enthusiasm about recent developments in the U.K., sketching a scenario of a renaissance in language interest that made me feel more than a little envious. He talked of 'electrifying' large-scale language events, reminiscent of the rock concerts of the 1970s and 80s. Private organisations have apparently grown up in Britain which put on in-service days for all schools in a particular area, taking over a major venue like Westminster City Hall or Manchester Town Hall and inviting schools to send all students who want to come. The teachers come for free, the students pay a nominal fee. 'The amazing thing is that you can have audiences in these venues of 2000 or more sixth formers: out for the day, ready for a good time, wanting to learn about English language. The speakers might include the chief examiner, who will talk for half an hour, giving them tips on exams; a local tutor of some sort; an advisor of some kind; maybe a well-known literary figure to talk say about the links between language and literature; and a well-known linguist'. These 'language fests' are apparently hugely successful. Crystal himself has done several of them and finds the experience of walking into a hall of 2000 plus kids who 'howl and cheer and shout and wave and are just so pleased to see you, because they've read one of your books' is downright exhilarating and re-energising. 'To see that kind of enthusiasm among so many kids, about language, is really the most rewarding experience'.

The background to this enviable excitement and resurgence of language interest is the British National Curriculum, which is described by Crystal as still being in a transitional phase but beginning to settle into productive place. Two key things have happened: the introduction of an advanced level English language syllabus for students in the final years of secondary school, which now attracts more students in some parts of Britain than the long-established English literature syllabus; and the implementation of the National Curriculum itself, with its four key stages which means that children from the age of five onwards are getting language awareness work systematically built into their program. Crystal talks of a 'compromise position' now represented by the curriculum and its commitment to explicit study of language. The current transitional stage is proving challenging. The nervousness of many teachers in relation to explicit language study, after the considerable period when it disappeared completely from school, is compounded by the fact that although the curriculum gives pretty clear indications about what should be taught and about why it should be taught, it gives little indication about how it should be taught. In the last couple of years serious work has begun in this area, with some excellent 'friendly' resource materials coming through as the result of collaboration between teachers and linguists. But Crystal reports continued anxiety and concern among teachers about the details of the 'how?', now that the 'why?' has been dealt with. Explicit teaching about language is apparently an intimidating proposition to all but the older generation of teachers; or those who have a foreign language teaching background. The terminology is apparently threatening - even traditional terminology, terms like verbs, nouns, prepositions; never mind the less familiar language of functional grammar. The need to adopt a 'softly-softly' approach to reintroducing a general language for talking about language was highlighted for Crystal when he was about to publish a simplified 'Discover Grammar' book aimed at the 14-15 age market. The book was sent out on trial, and returned to the publishers with the almost universal comment: 'Nice approach, great content, suitable level but please get rid of the technical terms in the chapter headings'. It seems such headings as 'Auxiliary verbs' had sent teachers into panic: even though when they read the chapter the meaning was totally clear. The chapter headings were duly changed, the book recirculated, and no one had any further problems. This kind of nervousness explains the positive response to the new privately-provided language events.

Crystal was interesting on the parallel of the British experience and what's happening now in Australia, reporting a definite sense of deja vu around the discussions he had with people here. He sees us as roughly ten years further back down the track, negotiating the same configuration of circumstances which he saw played out in the U.K. during the 1980s. The political climate is similar, and the same resurgence of the declining literacy standards debate is monopolising public debate. It was the combination of these circumstances with a recognition of the poor outcomes of much compulsory foreign language experience in British schools, and the overdue acknowledgement that 'English' teachers for the most part had very little expertise in language - being for the most part Arts graduates with predominantly literature-based backgrounds - which resulted in the decision to do something serious about language education at national curriculum level. The debate, according to Crystal, was long and hard, with opinion varying widely as to the best way of introducing language study: a widely-framed language awareness approach; a traditional grammatical, or systemic functional approach; or whether, indeed, to teach it at all. Interestingly, he sees the genesis of the debate as stemming from the original work of Michael Halliday in the U.K. - although, perhaps ironically, the Hallidayan functional grammar approach never became as powerfully established in Britain as it did here in Australia. 'This was possibly due to the influence of the other, more traditional, approach to grammar and to language study associated with Randolph Quirk, which I think informs the language professionals now most influencing the curriculum in Britain. This approach adopts a more traditional looking grammar whose success is possibly due to the fact that it's less scarey to teachers than the systemic functional approach because it looks more familiar. After all, the terminology of traditional grammar goes back two thousand, five hundred years. Even if you're critical of the old approaches, in some fundamental way, at least terminologically, an approach which talks about nouns and verbs, and subjects and objects, is one which makes you think you're linking hands with a long-standing intellectual tradition - and you don't have to make any great kind of intellectual effort in order to make that link.' Most teachers find this an easier path to follow at the outset, when working explicitly with language. It becomes more difficult eventually - inevitably, as complex analysis is required to explain the more intricate aspects of language. But Crystal sees those crucial opening steps, at least in terms of motivation. as responding favourably to familiarity. Which is why he see functional grammar as having less appeal to teachers generally.

This is an interesting commentary for us here in Australia; at a point when we're once again engaged in the 'back-to-basics'/'falling literacy standards' debate, and where many teachers sidestep the issue of language awareness completely. Crystal recognised the concerns he'd experienced ten years ago in Britain as he talked with Australian teachers and language professionals. The issue of how we will deal with language in the classroom is once again squarely on the table. Much of the last decade's work in the area of critical literacy, discourse analysis and functional grammar, which made the Australian language-literacy scene arguably the most interesting in recent times, is now being challenged and accused of diverting resources from the important business of basic numeracy and literacy. Crystal recognises the orchestrated call for a return to the mythological 'good old days', when kids knew how to spell and talk 'properly'. If his reading of our current situation is right, and we're heading into the same labyrinth of debate that characterised the British experience, then we're in for some heavy discussions. Hopefully, we will emerge with similar outcomes and similar curriculum commitments to taking language - all language, our own as well as those that we continue to describe as 'other' - very seriously, and well worth attention in its own right. We might then look forward to inviting David Crystal back to Australia to address a language fest of our own.

Jo Carr, School of Education, James Cook University of North Queensland Townsville.


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