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A Life in Languages and Linguistics – An Interview with Professor David Crystal


Professor David Crystal, OBE

Professor David Crystal, OBE

It is with great pleasure that we present this year’s keynote speaker at our Conference – Professor David Crystal, OBE.

Professor Crystal, who has been called a ‘national treasure’, is a writer, editor, lecturer, and broadcaster known chiefly for his research work in English language studies, in such fields as English language learning and teaching, clinical linguistics, forensic linguistics, language death, style, English genre, Shakespeare and lexicography. He held a chair at the University of Reading for 10 years, and is now Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor. An author of over 100 books, he is perhaps best known for his two encyclopedias, ‘The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language’ and ‘The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language’. Recent books include ‘The Story of English in 100 Words’ (2011) and ‘Spell it out: the singular story of English spelling’ (2012), as well as ‘Wordsmiths and Warriors: the English-language Tourist’s guide to Britain’ (2013), written with his wife Hilary.
Professor Crystal is currently patron of the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL). He received an OBE for services to the English language in 1995, and was made a Fellow of the British Academy (FBA) in 2000. Website: http://www.davidcrystal.com/

Vicky Loras: Professor Crystal, I would like to thank you on behalf of all of us at ELTforum.sk for the time you’ve set aside for this interview – it is a great honour.

Professor Crystal: It’s a pleasure. Thank you for your interest.

Vicky Loras: I would like to start at the beginning: How did you become involved in education? Or was it more the language that attracted you?

Professor Crystal: The latter. I spent my early childhood in a Welsh-speaking area of Wales, but in an English-only family. So I was puzzled, when I went out, why I could understand some people and not others. Bilingual environments invite curiosity. I began to pick up some Welsh sporadically, and encountered it more formally in school. My mother told me that I was asking questions about languages as early as age three. So it must all have started there. Other languages followed throughout school (Latin, French, Greek). I then looked for a university course in English where there would be a balance of literature and language (for me, two sides of the same coin), and found this at University College London, where I learned other languages (Gothic, Old Norse, Old English…), followed a course in phonetics, and discovered linguistics. A university career opened up, and I began teaching as part of that.

Vicky Loras: What were the initial challenges in your own education and then career, and how did you deal with them? Do you think they’re still around today?

Professor Crystal: In 1962, when I graduated, there were no courses in linguistics, so when I got my first job in a newly created linguistics department (in Bangor) I had to learn the subject as I went along. And as there were several student groups being taught in the department (undergraduates doing various joint degrees, postgraduates, EFL teachers…) I found myself having to teach all aspects of the subject, at varying levels, and needing to keep both theoretical and applied dimensions in mind. The few textbooks around were very American in orientation (such as Bloomfield’s Language), and not as introductory as I needed. So there were two main challenges: very long teaching contact hours (sometimes 30 or more hours a week) and the need to provide introductions to the various branches of linguistics, and to the subject as a whole. This led to several books in the 1960s, chiefly What is Linguistics? the Penguin Linguistics, and the associated series). Both those challenges have gone now. There are plenty of courses around, and many textbooks at all kinds of levels.

Vicky Loras: Your work in English linguistics is well-known, but what would you consider the highlight of your career?

Professor Crystal: It may not have happened yet! Actually, I find it difficult to single out one particular event, because I’ve not stayed in one particular domain in linguistics but moved around a lot, especially in the applied fields – ELT, speech pathology, stylistics, Shakespeare, the Internet… – and each of these has had its highlights. They’re all so different, it’s not easy to compare them. If I have to choose one… it’s difficult to beat the feeling of delight that comes after a period of working (along with a speech therapist) with a language handicapped child, and finding that my linguistic analysis of the problem has helped that child to make real progress. They are special moments.

Vicky Loras: What advice would you give to young researchers in English linguistics? And, it is a broad question, but what advice would you give to English teachers trying to teach the unmanageable rules of the English language?

Professor Crystal: Look out for the areas that have had little or no study. You’ll find that it’s possible to do really original research quite quickly. The Internet, in

David and Hilary Crystal

David and Hilary Crystal

particular, has presented linguists with a totally new world to explore. Everything we have discovered about spoken and written English in traditional (i.e. offline) contexts now has to be researched anew, to see whether the results obtain in online situations. And because the Internet is developing so rapidly, it is presenting us every year with new horizons of study. But even ‘old’ domains have a great deal to offer – such as Shakespeare. People say that, after 200 years of study, we know everything there is to know about Shakespeare. This is definitely not true when it comes to his use of language. Here’s a proof that anyone can do. Go to the website of the book Shakespeare’s Words (www.shakespeareswords.com) and type into the search box any word that you know turns up in the canon. Look at the list of quotations where it appears, and reflect on them from a linguistic point of view. You will start to notice patterns that nobody has studied before – interesting collocations, word associations with particular characters, and so on.

As for teaching, the job has indeed become more difficult, as English has developed a global reach, and more variation is encountered from the ‘new Englishes’ that are found around the world. But I don’t see it as unmanageable. In some ways – again, thanks mainly to the Internet – the job has become easier. It’s now possible to get online advice about any aspect of English that you find problematic. Twenty years ago, this would not have been possible. Today there are forums, blogs, websites, chatrooms, and more. If you have a problem understanding a particular aspect of English, or teaching it, you’ll probably find that someone else has already worried about the same thing. And organizations such as IATEFL now have a strong online presence to provide further help, especially through their special interest groups.

Vicky Loras: You’ve researched and written on many aspects of language. Is there anything left in language or linguistics that intrigues you – that you would like to research and write on?

Professor Crystal: With language, tomorrow is always another day. Whatever English (or any language) is like today, it will be different tomorrow. So there is always something new to write about. Again, the Internet presents a huge range of opportunities, because the technology is changing so rapidly. But old subjects too need to be revisited, in the light of new findings. As more and more texts become available online (from the 16th century, for example) suddenly it proves possible to search them in a way that was inconceivable a decade ago, and each of them is calling out: look at me, write about me! There is so much to be proactive about that I tend to be reactive in my writing – in other words, writing a book about a topic where there is a widespread feeling that information is lacking or that a new approach is needed. That’s why I wrote The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, for example, and its sister-volume on the English Language. And in fact most of my books have been written in response to a particular demand. The ones I’m writing at the moment are the same. There’s a book out later this year, written with my actor son Ben, on English accents. Another one in the press is an introduction to the amazing historical thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary. And next year there’ll be one on the history and present state of English punctuation. Two years ago, I had no idea that I would end up writing on any of these topics. So, in two years time, who knows…?

Vicky Loras: A wonderful educator from Brno, the Czech Republic would like to ask you a question.

Nina Hanáková: Professor Crystal, how many foreign languages can you speak, at what level and what helped you most when learning them? Could you identify three key tools and would the list include a course book?

Professor Crystal: This is actually a very difficult question to answer, as it all depends what is meant by ‘speak’ – as opposed to listen, read, and write – and ‘how well’. I have real multi-modal fluency in only one language, English. I have quite a good command of Welsh, but as I left Wales when I was 10 I never got to develop what one would call an advanced stylistic level in the language. My French is good enough for me to have lectured in it a couple of times, but I didn’t find it easy. I have ‘got by’ in Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, with the aid of a dictionary. I did the BBC courses in German, Russian, and Greek. I can order a gin and tonic and other essentials in a few more. The point is, when you’re a linguist in the general sense, you end up learning a little about a lot of languages – enough to handle the phonology, and the basic grammar, with a small vocabulary. It’s the vocabulary that’s the killer, isn’t it, because there is so much of it. Learning vocab requires a level of motivation and opportunity that I’ve rarely had. We used to have ‘language practicals’ at Reading: a class would meet with a lecturer and an informant who spoke some language or other. The rules were: the informant was allowed to understand English but not to speak it. After ten hours of investigation, one ended up actually able to hold a basic conversation with the informant, and to feel that – given the opportunity – one could learn that language easily if one had to. These classes take away the fear of foreign languages that some students have. And in this way, I’ve ‘learned’ about 30 or so languages over the years, including several from Africa and Asia. All forgotten now, of course. For the languages I remember something of, I still have the coursebooks I first used – and whenever I visit one of the countries these days I cast my eye over those old lessons, and hope that they will surface from somewhere deep within my brain. Fragments usually do. And these days, I sometimes do a bit of online listening or interacting, which I find helps enormously.

It’s a problem. Each year I visit several countries, but typically I’m never there for more than a couple of days, and while I’m there people want to speak English to me, naturally. So the opportunity to improve my meagre linguistic skills is very limited. Time, motivation, opportunity. Not really tools, but critical factors for me.

From Lyn Steyne who teaches in Slovakia: You’ll be doing a performance with your wife Hilary on the 1st night of the conference. And you often perform with your son, Ben. Where did the idea come from to start these language performances? How long have you been doing them? Who writes the material for them?

Professor Crystal: I see no difference between lecturing (or teaching in general) and acting. They are both performances. The only difference is that acting is easier, as actors have a script and only have to perform it once or perhaps twice a day. A lecturer may have half a dozen performances a day, and have to make each enthralling for the class. That’s the theory, anyway. The best way I know how to make this work in practice is to turn lectures into performances. Prepare them well. No notes. Speak from the front of a podium, not from behind a lectern. Insist on good technology (eg a lapel microphone, which allows movment around). Be interactive with the audience (like at Shakespeare’s Globe). Put the old BBC mantra into practice: to inform, educate, and – above all – entertain. People remember more if they’ve enjoyed the experience. I’ve always tried to do this, and don’t recall any particular moment when I decided to do it. It just seemed the right way to go about things. The only exceptions are when I know a lecture is going to be published afterwards. Then I write it out and read it – but again, there are ways of reading aloud which can make a reading seem spontaneous and interactive.

Certain topics demand a second voice, if they’re to come across well – language play, for example, or Shakespeare’s language. Hilary has provided this. And because we both have a lot of amateur dramatic experience it works well as a performance. Then when Ben became a professional actor, with a special interest in Shakespeare, another avenue opened up. We did a couple of books together, and wrote some scripts to help the marketing of these. We did these duologues all over the place, especially at literary festivals, and once at the National Theatre in London. So when IATEFL asked us to do something ‘different’ at their annual conferences, we decided to script some light-hearted language-based events. We did this for about ten years. Each year was a new script, most of the time – I would write these, with input from Ben and Hilary – and we still do extracts from these shows from time to time. I say ‘most of the time’ because on a couple of occasions we did something different: at Brighton, we did a reading from my play about endangered languages, Living On; and at Cardiff we did a complete reading of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood.

Vicky Loras: Professor Crystal, thank you so much for your time – we all look forward to hearing what you have for us in Bratislava in June!

Professor Crystal: We’re looking forward to it too. We’ve visited Bratislava before – and have passed through it a couple of times en route to the film festival at Uherske Hradiste. Ben had a part in Jon Avnet’s film, Uprising, which was filmed at the studios in Bratislava in the early 2000s. We visited the set, and stayed a couple of days. It was a surreal experience. They had recreated the Warsaw ghetto, with minute accuracy. And during the breaks we found ourselves in the canteen, surrounded by Nazis and Jews in full costume, all chatting happily together! I suspect our visit in June will be less surreal.

Vicky Loras: What a story! Thank you ever so much for this interview.


Author: Vicky Loras

My name is Vicky Loras and I am an English teacher born in Toronto, Canada. I have been teaching since 1997. For ten years, my sisters and I owned an English School in Greece, The Loras English Academy, but I have now moved to Switzerland with my eldest sister, where we have opened a new school, The Loras Network. I believe in teaching as an ongoing learning process, both for the benefit of the students and the teacher. One of my primary educational interests is celebrating diversity in education and languages.

3 thoughts on “A Life in Languages and Linguistics – An Interview with Professor David Crystal

  1. enjoyed the blog. I met Prof Crystal at Liverpool IATEFL last year and attended his plenary talk.

  2. Reblogged this on Stop Complaining – Enjoy Teaching! and commented:

    We’ve got the Professor up for an interview 🙂

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