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A Language Museum?

Franklin_School

Franklin School in Washington, D.C. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

The question mark was to get your attention. As of last Wednesday, we can change it to a period: A language museum.

On January 25, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development in Washington, D.C., announced that the historic Franklin School has been approved for development into a museum called Planet Word. The project is spearheaded by — and privately funded by — the philanthropist and former reading teacher Ann Friedman.

A friend who clearly reads The Washington Post closely emailed me last Wednesday to see if I knew anything about this what-clearly-seemed-to-her-surprising bit of news. I replied, “I’m on the Advisory Board!”

When Ann Friedman emailed me last summer about joining the board of language experts she had put together for Planet Word, it took me about, oh, two seconds to decide that I would say yes. Not only was I joining some wonderful colleagues on the board, but I was supporting a project that could make a real difference in language education.

Let me explain what I mean by talking about the introductory-linguistics course I teach at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Early in the course we talk about how language changes, how dictionaries are created, and where some of the well-known usage rules (e.g., don’t end a sentence with a preposition, don’t use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun) come from. Suddenly “right” and “wrong” don’t seem like entirely stable concepts when it comes to language. By the time we get to American dialects and world varieties of English near the end of the course, and we read about the ways that people continue to be discriminated against based on the dialect of English they speak, students are often wondering why they never learned this material earlier in their educational career. As one student exclaimed this fall, “It shouldn’t be that I’m learning this only now that I’m in college! And what about the students who don’t take a linguistics course?”

Rethinking K-12 language education in a more linguistically informed way is an ambitious undertaking. At its core is the key realization that linguistics is relevant to our understanding of the language we see and hear every day. My goal, which I share with students in my introductory linguistics course, is to see language incorporated into the curriculum in a much more exploratory way, where students are exploring how language works. As Kirk Hazen at West Virginia University has argued, students should be learning a little linguistics in early grades in the same way that they are learning a little geology, a little chemistry, a little biology, and so on. There is nothing more human than language, and students should learn about how language evolves, how dialects work, how they create new slang, how humans and computers learn language, and more — as they also learn the conventions of standard, formal writing (which right now too often gets equated with “what students need to know about language”). Kids love to play with language, and we could exploit that much more in the elementary- and secondary-school curriculum than we do.

This new museum promises to set the tone for language exploration for people of all ages. The description of Planet Word proposes “to make reading, writing, words, and language surprising, fun, fascinating, and relevant.” We hope to let people experiment with language technologies in a working language-research lab. Exhibits will feature language in all its variation, both spoken and written. The auditorium will host lectures on language, poetry readings, and the like. Most importantly, visitors will have the chance to play with language throughout the museum and seek answers to the questions they may bring (e.g., What makes a word a word? Do men and women speak differently? How could the New York Times dialect quiz pinpoint where I was from? How do puns really work?).

As it becomes less surprising that an entire museum could be devoted to language exploration (which is, of course, fundamental to the entire discipline of linguistics), I hope it will become more commonplace to see this same kind of linguistically informed language exploration in school curricula. This new museum has the potential to support the important efforts of linguists across the United States (and elsewhere) to design curricular materials on, for example, local dialects — and to inspire teachers at all levels to design their own linguistically informed lessons. And it is going to make for some great school field trips.

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