You can use any or all of the resources linked below with attribution when appropriate
- “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
- “People spoke grammatically for thousands of years before anyone knew there were rules” — B. F. Skinner
- “We live not only in a world of thoughts, but also in a world of things. Words without experience are meaningless.” – Vladimir Nabokov.
- “Language is the mother, not the handmaiden, of thought; words will tell you things you never thought or felt before.” –W.H. Auden
Web Resources on Language
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. Below are a bunch of different activities and readings I have done with my students over the years. This is far more than one can do with any individual TOK class but it can offer you some ideas and choices.
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 bizarro sketch linked below).
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.
In the past, I’ve had kids look at some form of popular culture, in this case it was Jersey Shore (I did this in 2015, you can probably find a more contemporary example), and examine questions around what gives language its meaning. This gets into interesting conversations about denotation and connotation, intent and reception, context, etc.
Here is an interesting, short passage I adapted from Hyperion by Dan Simmons.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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)
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.
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.
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 because write the name of the verse on banners and display it at American Football games for some reason). They consider the subtle linguistic differences and discuss the impact of those differences. Students often notice that the most popular English translation, the King James Version, is the most different from the others which raises interesting questions for discussion.
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 the 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.
This past year, I juxtaposed part of Ken Liu’s post script with some of the controversy surrounding Amanda Gorman (the poet who spoke at Joe Biden’s inauguration). The controversy stemmed from the identities of those people chosen to translate her work into other languages. Does the identity of the translator matter? How effect does it have on the quality of the translation? Is quality able to be measured objectively?
A few years ago, I found this interesting piece published in Harper’s Magazine that came from emails published on Wikileaks between Bashar al Asad and his translator. The notes offer some more insights about the ins and outs of translation.
Why do we fight about the terms we use? Why does word choice matter?
I found this topic fascinating though I think it fell flat with my kids. I think there is something to this concept or idea but I probably need a better way to approach it. On the heels of various attacks (gun, terrorist, etc.), media news cycles follow predictable patterns. One of the parts of the cycle includes a…discussion? argument? about what words we use to describe incidents and the meaning of important words. Below are some of the articles and reader comments I adapted from the New York Times after one such incident (Las Vegas) in which users argued over whether to call it “terrorism.” Some students understood the ultimate purpose of the lesson was to discuss why word choice matters at all but many kids got sucked into the argument itself. That’s what hard sometimes about making lessons on the heels of emotionally charged events but I think it’s worth trying. Maybe if I were an English teacher I’d be better prepared to lead such discussions.
Implications of official languages
Language and Thought: The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
One fascinating topic related to language as a WOK is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. A quick summary of this hypothesis is that it is a “theory that an individual’s thoughts and actions are determined by the language or languages that individual speaks.” Though largely discredited, it seems to refuse to go away, probably because the implications of the theory being true are so cool. If you haven’t seen the movie Arrival, it is an extreme take on the concept in which the protagonist is a linguist.
In any case, there are some interesting concepts to explore with students regarding the impact of language and culture on thought. Here are two articles I have used with kids introducing the concept.
John McWhorter’s excellent podcast, Lexicon Valley, did an awesome episode exploring the theory and thoroughly refuting it. It’s really worth a listen. Look into the other episodes of his show for other interesting topics related to language.
A really interesting article from a few years ago about a tribe in the Brazilian jungle that doesn’t have words from numbers past four. What are the implications of this linguistic limitation? Does this inhibit their ability to do math or to conceive of mathematical concepts?
Here are some more general web resources I have categorized around the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
Euphemisms, Indirect Language, Orwell
These three topics are not one in the same but I stuck them together because this is all getting entirely too long.
One topic that is interesting to explore is why we use the words we use and more importantly, why do humans speak indirectly. I have shown this clip from comedian George Carlin about why he hates the use of, what he calls, “soft language.” It is probably not appropriate for school but (knocks on wood), I haven’t gotten fired yet!
A good follow up video on the topic is a great animation of a talk by Steven Pinker titled, “Language as a Window into Human Nature”.
Here is an article I adapted that I pair with these videos.
Frank Luntz and Language
Frank Luntz is a popular American pollster but also famous for helping the Republican Party hone its messaging and use of language in the 1990s and 2000s. He authored a famous memo on messaging the “War on Terror.” One can argue with the ethics of what he did (intentionally tying 9/11 and Iraq in people’s minds without ever explicitly making the connection for example) but his work was devastatingly effective. This memo made for much better discussion teaching TOK 10 years ago but I think is very interesting to still study.
Image of Luntz now discussing messaging on discussing climate change.
And another article about Luntz, climate change, and language
Whenever discussing language in TOK, one cannot avoid discussing George Orwell or the concept of Orwellian language. Though it is outside the time I (we?) have in TOK, it is worth having kids read his famous novel 1984 in some capacity or at least excerpts. I haven’t had the chance to make something yet. The book ties together so many of the concepts discussed above. This is particularly relevant when we so often fight about the use of language.
Here is his famous essay, Politics and the English Language
The essay is lengthy and I’ve abbreviated it in a hand out you can download here.
Biased Language and Word Choice in the News
This is a good activity in which different groups of students evaluates how language and word choice are central issues in a given news story or headline. This is a good introduction into conversations around language and politics.
Here are some various web resources I have tagged “Orwell”
Bias Free Language Guide
I’ve shown this to my kids who get a laugh at it. I’m not sure whether to call it Orwellian or just foolish. The intent is clear and I believe it is well intended but…see for yourself.
Language and Sense Perception
Watch clip from BBC Documentary, “Do you see what I see?”
Animals and Language
A topic my students find very engaging is whether animals have language and how we should characterize their communication.
Here are some resources on that topic.