Language Materials, Handouts, Activities

“Language serves not only to express thought but to make possible thoughts which could not exist without it.” Bertrand Russell

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Nelson Mandela

You can use any or all of the resources linked below with attribution when appropriate

Web Resources on Language

Here is a collection of web resources I have collected connected to language as a way of knowing.

Handouts and Activities

Language is important and unique among the different ways of knowing and worth exploring on its own in addition to its connections with other WOKs.

What is language and how does it work?

Students have an intuitive understanding of language and how it works but it takes time to really spell out the process and for the full implications to set in. Linked below is the worksheet I use to help introduce students to language. Initially, I have them consider two different quotes on language by first explaining the ideas conveyed and then taking a position on which they think is more accurately. Ultimately the quotes are about the relationship between language and knowledge.

After responding and discussing with partners, I’ll compile ideas on the board.

Afterwards, kids will work in groups to put together some thoughts about what language essentially is in regards to the concepts of conveying knowledge. I’ll make a big list of ideas on the board and then sketch out the process of communicating through language from one person to another (my bizzarro sketch linked below).

Download Language Intro

Download Language Intro with Notes


An interesting, related video to play for kids is this clip of acclaimed scientist, Richard Feynman, discussing the idea that simply knowing names does not constitute knowledge.

The handout below gives kids space to write about Feynman’s point and an accompanying quote to help them consider the concepts further.

Download Names are not knowledge

Language and Consciousness 

There is so much to be said about the role language plays in our minds. I found two complementary resources to help explore the idea that language does not simply allow us to communicate ideas but that it gives structure to our thoughts and in some way, may be a fundamental ingredient in our consciousness itself. I am not sure whether these ideas are well established but these two resources give rise to great discussion.

These are the worksheets and accompanying notes from the day. Below are the resource files.

Download Language Intro 2

Download Language Intro 2 with Notes

This is an excerpt from the very excellent Radiolab podcast titled, Words. The relevant chapter tells the story of Jill Bolte Taylor, who is a neuroanatomist, who had a stroke and for a while, lost the language center of her brain. She describes in the podcast excerpt linked below her existence without language.

Download Radiolab Words edit

Jill Bolte Taylor also did a TED talk and wrote a book about her experience. All of these provide fascinating and thought provoking discussion with students about the role of language in our minds.

The next, related activity is to read this powerful excerpt from Helen Keller’s autobiography in which she discusses her mental and existential transformation after being taught language. It is quite an amazing reading.

Download Helen Keller Reading

How do you communicate with people 10,000 years in the future?

I got the idea for this activity from a really great episode of the 99 percent invisible podcast, titled Ten Thousand Years in which designers have to decide how to communicate the danger of radioactive waste to future humans who may not speak the same language or share the same assumptions that we have about how written language works. I adapted the reading into a handout that explains the problem and then challenges students to design a solution to this problem. You can click on the link to the episode notes for great images and answers about how designers solved these problems.

Download Language Future Handout



Language and Translation

One of my favorite topics to explore is the concept of translation. What seems so simple to students on the surface turns out to be such a fascinating can of worms. I would spend a month on translation issues if I could.

To introduce the concept, I ask students to pick among a group of words which they think would be found in all languages and then explain why.

Download Translation Intro Worksheet

Words not in English

After that we look at a handout I adapted from one of a million sites and articles that identifies words that exist in other languages but that don’t exist in English. What I liked about this one was that it came with nicely designed images to accompany the words. The discussion that follows is always interesting and that is whether it is significant that some languages have words that others don’t. Does it say something about the culture? Is it random? Does it mean that languages that lack those words cannot fully grasp a concept? (by the way, some kid inevitably says something like, “Eskimos have like 172 words for snow.” It is an urban legend at this point based on some linguists misunderstandings. Here is a fun buzzfeed explanation of the issue)

Download Words Language Not in English

Invent Your Own Word

After that, I have students work in groups to identify a concept that is understandable to them and to other people that does not have a word to describe it and then ask them to name it and if time allows, make a little drawing to accompany it. The kids have a lot of fun with it. I do also include the disclaimer that languages don’t evolve new words this way. How new words evolve is a bit more decentralized and random than that. Below are some examples my kids have come up with. I included an example on the worksheet above but I am torn about doing this. For one, it is an example that combines two existing words: phone+snubbing=phubbing. Once kids get the portmanteau concept in their minds, they often cannot let it go when imagining their own words.

Samples (click on any image to view the gallery)

Want more student examples?

What makes a good translation?

For this set of activities, students consider what makes a good translation and the extent to which knowledge can be effectively translated from one language to another.

Download Good Translations Worksheet

There is a very good episode of a Radiolab podcast titled, Translation that has one excellent chapter detailing one writer’s desire to translate a French poem into English. His quest ultimately led to his writing a book on the trials and tribulations of translation along with many different versions of the poem by Clement Merot. Here is the edited version of just the first chapter, titled, 100 flowers.

Radiolab Words edit

I find the whole thing fascinating but it is hit or miss with my students. I aspire to make all my students podcast addicts and so I keep making them listen. My efforts so far have not been successful…

Translation and Religious Text

After having them discuss the section of the podcast, I give out a worksheet on different Bible translations. My school is in New York City and most of the kids are not religious (and I’m not a Christian) so it is safe for me to have the kids discussing Bible verses though you may not be in such a situation. I’m not quite sure where the idea came from but it is a very interesting activity and the kids get a lot out of it. Students look at competing translations of the same verse of the Bible, John 3:16 (that’s the only specific verse I’ve heard of). They consider the subtle linguistic differences and discuss the impact of those differences. Students invariable notice that the most popular English translation, the King James version, is the most different from the others.

Download Compare and Contrast John 3 16

There are so many further places you can take this discussion. Muslims (most? many?) believe that the Quran should be read in Arabic. Translations are allowed but that the original Arabic is official Quran. Why might this be the case?

You can explore the importance of Latin to Catholics and the controversies around doing Mass in vernacular languages. John Wycliffe’s story is also fascinating. In the 1300s he promoted radical ideas about the Church. He produced the first complete English translation and was ultimately branded a heretic by the Church. He was ahead of his time particularly when we see the issue of vernacular languages was a core issue in what became the Protestant reformation. Why all this fuss about language? Really fascinating topics to explore.

Other Translation Resources

One of the more excellent science fiction books I’ve read recently was the Three Body Problem Trilogy. What was remarkable, aside from being an imaginative work of fiction, was that the books were translated from their original Chinese into English. The books were so well translated that they felt as though the English was the original language of the text. I was excited to find a really great translator’s note at the end of the book which, of course, I made into a handout linked here. He raises many interesting points about the nature of translation and staying faithful to the original text.

Download Translator’s Post Script

Years ago I this quirky and what I thought was funny note about tr

Why do we fight about the terms we use?



podcast lexicon valley

tok day 17


podcast lexicon valley

sapi wharf

orwell, book as well

animal language


language as a window

luntz? climate change and iraq memo, chnage of heart

99pi activity

Design your own word activity


Translation Issues

tok day 16 words language not in english (add samples)

tok day 19 compare and contrast john 3 16

translator_s post script

regime changes language translation


Indirect Language and Euphemisms

why do humans need euphemisms

George Carlin

Steve Pinker

Culture, Language and Thought