The best books on learning and using language well

Norbert Schmitt Author Of Language Power: 100 Things You Need to Make Language Work for You
By Norbert Schmitt

Who am I?

I began my career in 1988 as an English language teacher in Japan. I originally went for a one-year adventure, but soon found myself fascinated by language, and how it is learned and used. This eventually led to a professorship at the University of Nottingham, where I have the good fortune to consult on language issues worldwide. I have researched language extensively, but all of my previous publications were meant for an academic/educational audience. I wanted to produce a book for general readership which outlines all that I have learned in 35 years of language research, and Language Power is the result. I hope you find it useful in your language-based life. 

I wrote...

Language Power: 100 Things You Need to Make Language Work for You

By Norbert Schmitt,

Book cover of Language Power: 100 Things You Need to Make Language Work for You

What is my book about?

From the minute you wake up until the time you fall asleep, you use language. My book shows you how language functions, and how to make it work better for you. It explains 100 ways to use and learn language more effectively in your everyday life. Although based on research, each topic is covered in a clear, easy-to-understand manner that assumes no previous knowledge. Each topic is introduced by a question you might be wondering about (What kinds of language tricks do salespeople use to get me to buy things?). The reader-friendly answers are given in short but informative descriptions, with a quick summary at the end, and interesting website suggestions for more information. Read Language Power and start becoming a more effective communicator.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language

Why did I love this book?

This is the ideal coffee table book on language. It contains an astonishing amount of information on virtually every aspect of language, ranging from interesting tidbits that might be useful in a trivia game (How many languages are there in the world?) to more extended discussions of weightier issues (What is dyslexia?). 

It is the perfect book for dipping in and out of, because every page you might open up to contains something intriguing about the way language is described, used, learned, or lost. It is meant for a general audience, but when I read it, I found many new ideas that led me to advance my own academic research. 

The fact that it is now in its 3rd edition shows just how useful and popular this wide-ranging gem is.

By David Crystal,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This new, thoroughly revised edition of the acclaimed Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language incorporates the major developments in language study which have taken place since the mid 1990s. Two main new areas have been added: the rise of electronic communication in all its current forms from email to texting, and the crisis affecting the world's languages, of which half are thought to be so seriously endangered that they will die out this century. * All language statistics have been updated, and additional information provided about their linguistic affiliation * All topics involving technology have been revised to take account of recent…

Book cover of Words in the Mind: An Introduction to the Mental Lexicon

Why did I love this book?

Most languages consist of huge numbers of different words. For instance, estimates for English range from hundreds of thousands to millions of words. 

While no person knows every word in a language, they will still hold a repertoire of many, many thousands of words in their mind (their mental lexicon).  Dictionaries are useful for describing this ocean of words, but an intriguing question is how the human mind manages to learn and remember so many, and then to find the exact ones it wishes to use from the numerous alternatives. 

Aitchison’s genius lies in how she is able to draw on quite complex psychological research, but yet still distill it into a fascinating and very readable account of how the mind achieves these formidable tasks.  You will come away from this book with an increased appreciation of just how clever the mind is in acquiring, storing, and retrieving vast amounts of information.   

By Jean Aitchison,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Words in the Mind as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book deals with words, and how humans learn them, remember them, understand them and find the ones they want. It discusses the structure and content of the human word-store or 'mental lexicon' with particular reference to the spoken language of those with English as their native language. Since the first two editions of Words in the Mind were published, work on the lexicon has expanded quickly. This growth is reflected in this third edition, which contains substantial new material. There is an extra chapter on layering and meaning change, and several others have been considerably enlarged. The notes and…

Book cover of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain

Why did I love this book?

When researching my book, I consulted many books on literacy, but this is the one I liked the best.

Many books describe ways to improve reading and writing ability (especially for children), but this one goes beyond that and explains why we need to do them. The answers lie in the way the brain functions, and how it adapted to handle written language over the ages; in essence, how the brain learned to read and write. If we understand that, then the paths towards improving literacy (both child and adult), and addressing problems like dyslexia, become much clearer. 

Maryanne Wolf masterfully weaves historical, psychological, and educational perspectives together to present a fascinating window into the world of reading and writing. Read the book, and the reason for the quirky title soon becomes clear.

By Maryanne Wolf,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Proust and the Squid as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Everything about [this] book, which combines a healthy dose of lucid neuroscience with a dash of sensitive personal narrative, delights ... a beautifully balanced piece of popular-science writing' Boyd Tonkin, Independent
'For people interested in language, this is a must. You'll find yourself focusing on words in new ways. Read it slowly - it will take time to sink in.'William Leith, Sunday Telegraph
'An inspiring celebration of the science of reading.' P.D. Smith, Guardian

'We were never born to read', says Maryanne Wolf. 'No specific genes ever dictated reading's development. Human beings invented reading only a few thousand years ago.…

How Languages are Learned

By Patsy M. Lightbown, Nina Spada,

Book cover of How Languages are Learned

Why did I love this book?

When I took my Master course in English Language Teaching in 1992, this was one of the suggested sources.

I loved it, and so did my fellow students, because it explained language learning in an extremely clear and straightforward way. Later, as a professor, I found that my own students were similarly enthusiastic. But do not get the impression that this is just a good ‘academic’ textbook. It was written for novice English teachers, many international, and so the language is non-technical and accessible.

Lightbown and Spada take the reader through the process of language acquisition step-by-step, with numerous examples and illustrations, and with a conversational writing style. This makes the book suitable for any interested reader who desires an introduction into how languages are learned, and how they should be taught. Now in its 5th blockbuster edition, with even more pictures and examples. 

By Patsy M. Lightbown, Nina Spada,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How Languages are Learned as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Now in its 4th edition, How Languages are Learned is highly valued for the way it relates language acquisition theory to classroom teaching and learning and draws practical implications from the research for the language classroom. How Languages are Learned is widely used as a reference book on teacher training courses, and for new and experienced practising teachers.

Cambridge Grammar of English

By Ronald Carter, Michael McCarthy,

Book cover of Cambridge Grammar of English

Why did I love this book?

We all want to use language well. But language pundits sometimes promote grammar rules (e.g. no ‘split infinitives’) that contrast with what we hear in speech all the time.

The source of the discrepancy is traditional grammar books, which originated in the 18th Century, and were based on Latin models. But English has always had a different grammatical structure than Latin, and so some traditional ‘rules’ have never made sense. Instead of relying on such traditional prescriptive grammars, it is much better to refer to modern descriptive grammars, which describes how English is actually used nowadays.

These are based on thousands of examples of real written texts and spoken discourse, and so they can confidently report how English is really used in today’s world. The Cambridge Grammar of English is one of the best examples. 

By Ronald Carter, Michael McCarthy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Cambridge Grammar of English as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A major reference grammar offering comprehensive coverage of spoken and written English based on real everyday usage. With its clear, two part structure, this is a user-friendly book from the world's leading English grammar publisher. The accompanying CD-ROM (Windows only) makes Cambridge Grammar of English even more accessible with: * The whole book in handy, searchable format. * Audio recordings of all the examples from the book. * Links to the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary online for instant definitions of new vocabulary.

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