Monday, 8 March 2010

CBR2 Book 32: "Mother Tongue" by Bill Bryson

Publisher: Penguin Books
Page count: 270 pages
Rating: 4 stars
Date begun: March 1st, 2010
Date finished: March 8th, 2010

My review of Mother Tongue, (the American title appears to be The Mother Tongue) or proof to any readers who may have doubted that I read anything but paranormal fantasy and/or romance, that I do indeed, on occasion, read other stuff as well.

Bill Bryson writes not only non-fantasy and/or romance, but non-fiction. I have read several of his travelogues, and his musings on living in the U.K., the U.S. and was greatly entertained. As a language teacher and an eager student of languages myself, I honestly don't know why it took me so long to pick up his book about the English language, which is just as well written as the other books by him I have read. In Mother Tongue he covers most aspects of the English language, from the emergence of various Indo-European languages, to speculations on where and how English will evolve in the future.

I teach English as a foreign language to secondary school pupils (age 13-15). Many of them come from a large variety of ethnic backgrounds, but seem to find many of the same things very difficult when attempting to learn to read, speak and write English. In Bryson's book, he explores exactly why foreigners might and (probably should) find English such a difficult language to learn, as it is probably the most vocabulary-rich language used in the world today, and there is scarcely a word that cannot hold more than one meaning. Add to that the fact that many names, places and words are pronounced wildly differently from the way they are spelled, and that spelling itself can vary depending on whether you use British English or American English.

There's a fascinating chapter on the origin of words, which emphasized what I already know, that English will happily borrow and assimilate words from pretty much any language it encounters and make them part of an ever-increasing vocabulary, but also that many words that we use today originate from common misspellings, or were simply invented by clever people, like Shakespeare. I was, quite frankly baffled by how many words and expressions that are quite commonplace today were first used by Shakespeare. To mention a few: barefaced, critical, monumental, majestic, obscene, radiance, countless, excellent, hint, hurry and excellent. A quick search on the internet provides tons more. I always knew Shakespeare was a genius, but never realized how bland and colourless the language would probably be without him.

The chapters on spelling and pronounciation were probably not the most entertaining, but there are chapters on English names, on swearing in a variety of languages, on variations of English all over the world that not only really interested me, but taught me something new. I now need to figure out how to simplify some of Bryson's language a bit, in order to be able to use all the things I've learned in my own teaching.


  1. For the record:

    Malin reads many heavy books full of SADNESS and DEATH - oops.

    I MEAN, Malin reads many heavy books that really are officially literature, like Jane Eyre and Jane Austen and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and lots of others. I have watched her read these and then borrowed them. True, she is trying to get out of reading Diary of A Provincial Lady right now, but that is just because she knows it will change her life as it is the ultimate meeting of fluff, style, substance, and more fluff.

    Just for the record, thought I'd mention it, to counterbalance her adorably modest fear that we will all think she reads only trash. Her reviews would not be so funny and witty if that was true!

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