6 Books For Language Enthusiasts

Claire Handscombe

If you've ever tried to learn a language -- or tried to communicate trans-Atlantically -- you've no doubt found yourself thinking about culture and how it manifests in our words. These six books explore and unravel some of that mystery.

Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing: Encounters with the Mysteries and Meanings of Language, by Daniel Tammet

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“Though English is the language of my parents,” begins this book, “the language in which I was raised and schooled, I have never fully felt I belonged to it”. As a high-functioning autistic little boy, Daniel Tammet first thought in numbers and had to struggle to translate them back into words for people in his life. This struggle led to a fascination for words, and in this book he leads us through some of his discoveries about language in its many forms.

Fifty Sounds, by Polly Barton

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Out in the US this coming August, this memoir chronicles the author's cultural and linguistic journey as she becomes a literary translator after moving to the Japanese island of Sado.

Here's what author Kate Briggs said about it: ‘This book: a portrait of a young woman as language-learner, as becoming-translator, as becoming-writer, in restless search of her life. It is about non-understanding, not-knowing, vulnerability, harming and hurt; it is also about reaching for others, transformative encounters, unexpected intimacies, and testing forms of love. It is a whole education. It is extraordinary. I was completely bowled over by it.’

In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri

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This is a book like no other I have come across. Part memoir, part love letter to Italian, it chronicles Jhumpa Lahiri’s falling in love with the language of Dante and her move to Rome with her family to further immerse herself in it. Parts of this will resonate with anyone who’s ever seriously studied a language.

That's The Way It Crumbles, by Matthew Engel

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It’s a cliché by now that Americans and Brits are “separated by a common language” (thanks, George Orwell)… and yet, maybe not for much longer. Brits are adopting more and more Americanisms, and Matthew Engel isn’t going to stand there and take it anymore. According to the publisher, “he explains how America’s cultural supremacy affects British gestures, celebrations and way of life, and how every paragraph and conversation includes words the British no longer even think of as Americanisms. Part battle cry, part love song, part elegy, this book celebrates the strange, the banal, the precious and the endangered parts of our uncommon common language.”

The Prodigal Tongue, by Lynne Murphy

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I’ve followed linguist Lynne Murphy on Twitter since my very early days on the social network and from time to time I’ve tweeted her when I’ve been bewildered by an American word or needed a British equivalent for something. I’ve always been jealous of her handle, which is so perfect for her: @lynneguist. Her blog, Separated by a Common Language, goes deep into the weeds of cultural and linguistic differences between the U.S. and the UK, and I’m excited to see her work come to us in book form.

When in French: Love in a Second Language, by Laure Collins

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Lauren Collins' journey of learning French came out of left field: she met a Frenchman at a party, and ended up married to him and living in French-speaking Geneva. Adelle Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, loved this memoir. ‘"I devoured Lauren Collins’s sharp, funny tale of bilingual romance and learning to speak French. Part acerbic love letter to that language and part meditation on language itself, When in French is so charming it made me want to learn French too."

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Claire Handscombe is a British writer who moved to Washington, DC, in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but really, let’s be honest, because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the host of the Brit Lit Podcast, a monthly show about news and views from UK books and publishing; the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan; and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives.

Washington, DC
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