Aimed squarely at pre-teen readers, much-respected linguist David Crystal takes us on a breezy overview of language. He follows an ambitious path, starting with baby talk and progressing through phonetics, grammar, written language, conversation, bilingualism, language change, computer-related language and on, and on to linguistics itself.
The broad scope is not without problems though, with 40 short chapters and 250 pages, the book is not exactly 'little' and it would take a dedicated and smart kid to complete it. Said smart kid might therefore become quickly irritated by the 'avuncular' (i.e. vaguely patronising) style in which no prior understanding - at all - is assumed. Terms line 'jargon', 'jam', 'first name' etc are explained in painstaking detail. The result is it is all a bit superficial and often simplistic. As an example, isn't it misleading, to say the least, to suggest linguists distinguish dialect from language by a hackneyed "when people speak different languages they don't understand each other" (p85). Even my own 10-year-old, who speaks the mostly mutually-intelligible languages Catalan, Spanish and Mallorquin would challange that. The underlying 'politics' of language/dialect definilition is actually much more interesting than this sort of determinism, and easily understandable even by pre-teens.
There is no excuse either for the annoying sloppiness that occasionally creeps in; the Celtic language of Scotland, for example, is not 'Gallic' (p126) and there is no such person nowadays as 'the Queen of England' (p132). Did the great David Crystal really make such schoolboy mistakes?