A great (grave?) assumption made around the world is that native English speakers are experts at the English language. The existence of spelling bees, grammar books in high school, and Twitter should be proof enough that native speakers are not natural born experts – no more an expert than any other native speaker of any other language. Still, English language teachers have certain expectations of them to know the hows and whys of the subject they teach, and with good reason. Would we expect any less from chemistry or music teachers? Of course, even the top PhDs in any field might need a few minutes of introspection or Googling when asked out-of-field questions they have never encountered. So, we can also forgive the English teacher when they are asked about the subjective mood in English and are left literally dumbstruck.
Nevertheless, a firm foundation in the English language is perfectly reasonable goal for any English language professional; it is also quite a lofty goal. A firm foundation in the English language encompasses a great number of topics, which include but are not limited to: grammar, phonology, orthography, pragmatics, semantics, synctatics, and history. Some of thee are quite interesting. Others will put you to sleep. I have personal experience with some of them, so below are a number of resources I feel can give one a grasp of the beast that is the English language.
History of the English Language
There are numerous books on the history of the English language, many of which have interesting title’s I’d like to read, like “A History of English: A Sociolinguistic Approach” and “The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language“. But, when it comes to the history of the English language, David Crystal seems to be God. He is referred to most often when this subject comes up. His quintessential texts are “The Stories of English” and “The Story of English in 100 Words“.
“Stories” presents a unique perspective of the English language tracing not only standard-English’s rise, but also the evolution of a number of English dialects. In “100 Words”, Crystal uses 10o hand picked words to tell the history of the language in an entertaining fashion.
Not to be outdone by a non-linguist, Crystal does have a tough competitor that has made it on my list of English language history books: Bill Bryson. Bryson has two excellent and highly entertaining books on the subject: “The Mother Tongue – English And How It Got That Way,” which traces English throughout history, and “Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States,” a book about English in the US.
If you don’t have time to read a book on the subject, or just can’t decide, you can watch this video series instead:
English spelling is lambasted the world over for its irregularity and difficulty. I actually enjoy English spelling, because each odd word holds a bit of history in it. I haven’t read any serious books on English orthography, but I had to include it here because a new book by David Crystal has just come out. “Spell It Out: The Curious, Enthralling and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling” is supposed to be an entertaining and informative journey through the history of English spelling.
There is a secret to English grammar: there are no rules. Unlike French or Turkish, there is not a governing body of English which sets rules and standardizes spelling. What we have are agreed upon notions of how English should look and sound. Some take it too far and prescribe rules that are in actuality only personal preferences, such as not ending a sentence with a preposition, starting a sentence with and, or splitting an infinitive. Despite the lack of authority, these agreed upon sentiments are important and do constitute English grammar. So, where does one learn all the “rules”? I recommend two resources:
- Michael Swan’s “Practical English Grammar“, which is an in depth grammar guide for both learners and teachers. It is often considered the Bible of English grammar. It is an easy to read grammar reference guide which contains pretty much everything you may need to know about English grammar.
- I like Swan’s book, but my actual go to book is Cowan’s “The Teacher’s Grammar of English“, which, like “Practical English Grammar,” is a reference book – but Cowan’s book is so much more. It contains detailed grammatical descriptions with contrasting examples, as well as highlights which languages have problems with specific grammar points and why. In addition, it offers useful grammar teaching activities to address each point’s anticipated problems. To me, this is the Bible of English. Swan’s is only secondary. Also, unlike Swan’s, if one wished, they could sit down and actually read this grammar book without falling asleep.
The focus of phonology and morphology is the production of sounds, and thus pronunciation. It seems every aspect of TESOL has its “bible”, and this remains true for pronunciation. At over 500 pages, “Teaching Pronunciation” by Celce-Murcia et al. is probably the best reference guide for pronunciation teaching and practice. It has detailed descriptions of the English sound system, which includes phonetics, stress, intonation, and connected speech. In each chapter, there are a plethora of teaching techniques and activities as well. Only half the book is dedicated to pronunciation practice. The other half focuses on testing, implementation, listening, and a host of different teaching techniques. Using this book will definitely give you a leg up in terms of your pronunciation teaching effectiveness. Though it is very detailed, I still found it easily approachable, especially since the basic phonetic concepts are clearly explained in each chapter. There are lots of practice and sample exercises which are perfect for adaptation or using straight out of the book.