Every so often we make seemingly small decisions that end up changing the course of our lives forever…

For me, one such choice was taking an introductory linguistics class as a humanities elective the third year into studying Industrial Design in university. I had planned to design and sell mountain bikes and accessories after college (my focus up to that time was being on a bicycle, not becoming bilingual). Sure, I had done a short homestay in Brazil at age 12 and studied a little French in high school, but languages didn’t factor much into my career plan or expected life path at the time.

But just a few weeks into the class, I already knew my future was going to be very different than what I had expected up to that point. I fell hard for Señora Idioma, a love affair that still consumes me to this day (though I’ve had some “flings” with nutrition, martial arts, start-ups, and other interests). I ended up living in Japan and Taiwan, teaching English, starting the Language Mastery blog and podcast, and writing a series of books on self-guided language learning, none of which would have happened had I happened to fulfill that humanity credit with Art History or Postmodern Dance (though my dance moves might be a bit better).

I suspect that if you’re reading this blog, you too may be interested in linguistics, at least as far as it can aid your approach to mastering foreign languages. While a college degree in the subject can certainly help in this regard, the good news is that you can learn all the core principles you need from a small list of books, saving yourself four years and  thousands of dollars!

Here now are three of my favorite books on linguistics, which show how languages work, how they’re acquired, and how best to learn or teach them.

The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker is a linguist, best-selling author, and psychology professor at Harvard. He has written widely on languages, cognition, evolutionary psychology, the computational theory of mind.

His national best-seller The Language Instinct: How The Mind Creates Language was one of the first required texts in my linguistics classes, and the only university text I’ve bothered to keep to this day. In fact, I’ve reread it multiple times in the 17 years since graduating.

What do I like so much about it? Most writing about languages and linguistics is either overly simplified for a lay audience to the point of inaccuracy, or is so technical and convuluted to be unapproachable for most readers. Given all his experience as a “pop science” writer, Pinker has the rare ability to translate scholarship into fun, approachable language that can be understood without a degree in linguistics (or a bad case of scholastic masochism).

Here is but a small sampling of the fascinating topics covered in the book:

  • Why spoken languages are an an “instinct” wired into our genes through evolution, while written languages are a relatively recent technological innovation.
  • Why languages are “acquired” from exposure and practice, not “learned” through study (i.e. languages are “caught” not “taught”).
  • How the brain decodes, computes, and produces language, and why we actually think in metalinguistic concepts (“mentalese”), not words.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes from the book:

“The complexity of language, from the scientist’s point of view, is part of our biological birthright; it is not something that parents teach their children or something that must be elaborated in school—as Oscar Wilde said, ‘Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.’”

How Language Works by David Crystal

I have many linguistics heroes, but David Crystal is right near the top of the list. From lecturing on linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor and the University of Reading, to writing, co-authoring, or editing over 120 books, to pushing the budding field of Internet Linguistics forward, Professor Crystal made a profound impact in our understanding of how languages work.

While any of his works will help shed light on the wonderful world of human language, I recommend starting with his book How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning, and Languages Live or Die, which the The San Diego Union-Tribune aptly describes as follows:

“An invigorating plunge . . . A crash course in linguistics, covering spoken, written, and sign language . . . The book will prove, to language geeks, invaluable.”

The books covers a lot of ground, but here is a small sampling of what you’ll encounter:

  • The origins of human languages.
  • How children acquire their first language.
  • How speech sounds are produced and deciphered.
  • How sign languages work.
  • The significant differences between the spoken and written word.
  • The relationships between language and social status.
  • How and why we consider certain words “rude” or “polite.”

Japanese: A Linguistic Introduction by Yoko Hasegawa

For those of you wanting a linguistic look at the Japanese language, you can’t do much better than Japanese: A Linguistic Introduction by Yoko Hasegawa, Professor of Japanese Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley.

Since it’s intended as a college-level reference book, this is definitely more on the “textbook” end of the spectrum than the two pop science books above. That said, it is well-written and approachable, and offers a good balance between readability and depth.

The book explores all major aspects of the language, including:

  • The Japanese lexicon (i.e. words).
  • Japanese phonetics and phonology (i.e. sounds).
  • Japanese structure and syntax (i.e. grammar)
  • Historical and sociocultural aspects of the language

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