Language is Fluid: A series of lessons on identity, variation, and analysis


This lesson sequence moves from lessons on personal language to solving problem sets in Standard American English and Nicaraguan English. It aims to develop students' awareness that through regular observation, data collection, analysis, and testing, they can recognize patterns in language and acknowledge that variation and change characterize language.

Grade Level: 
Grades 6-8
Class Time Needed: 
Lesson Plan: 

[A Sequence of Six Lessons (45-minute timeframe with 35-minute actual teaching time; one per week)]

These lessons have been adapted from the following sources: Selected articles and presentations by Maya Honda and Wayne O'Neil; Sharon Reeves' paper presented at the LSA Annual Conference 2006; Nigel Fabb's Linguistics for ten-year-olds (MITWPL 6.45-61); Paul Justice, Jr.'s text, Relevant Linguistics; Marina Yaguello's Language Through the Looking Glass; and the following lesson plans on TeachLing designed by Anne Lobeck: Cognates of name John, Language Change: Origins of Names, More on Cognates and Language Families, Origins of Names. I welcome all suggestions.

Goals: 1. To develop student awareness that language varies extensively.
2. To develop student skills for observing language using scientific methods.

Lesson 1: To begin the sequence, I focus on each student's personal language profile (See Sharon Reeves' paper), having looked up the etymology of their first names before class and prepared a linguistic ID which includes the name, its language of origin, its meaning (sometimes interpreted using poetic license), and three cognates. For homework, I give the students a questionnaire to go over with their parents. This handout asks about the first words they spoke, their parents' first language, and the parents' reasons for giving them the name they did. (Be prepared for students whose unusual home situation might make this activity difficult and try to adapt the activities.)

Lesson 2: For review, I covered basic vocabulary, which would be only the term linguistics from Lesson 1.(This strategy maintained continuity since I saw the students only once a week, yet I did not stress learning vocabulary as part of the study, instead presenting the words in dotted lines which the students would trace as they defined them aloud. This way students could enjoy learning new words and still try to create their own terms for particular linguistic phenomena, i.e., buddy words for cognates.) Using the material from the questionnaire and a list of the class names with their language of origin (See Lobeck's work), I introduce the concepts of cognates and language families, moving from their personal family language tree to a simplified version of a formal language family tree.

Lesson 3: (Vocabulary review: etymology, cognates, linguistics) In this lesson, following Nigel Fabb and Honda-O'Neil, I introduced the vocal tract and its parts by asking them to pronounce a favorite word (In one class, it was Mom.) and name all the parts required to say that word. Then I gave them a diagram of the vocal tract with its parts labeled through dotted terms, which they completed. (This material reviewed information they had already covered in biology.) I continued discussing and describing voicing, borrowing Fabb's illustration with rubber bands.

Lesson 4: (Vocabulary review: above plus voicing, phonology, lexicon) Continuing with the focus on sounds, I reviewed a handout with tongue twisters in English and Spanish, introduced the strategy for writing sounds, i.e., /p/, and worked through a handout adapted from pp. 42-43 in Justice's text.
(See attachment)

Lesson 5: (Vocabulary review: selected from above) During this class, I worked through an adaptation of Honda & O'Neil's lesson described in On making linguistics useful for teachers. (See attachment.)

Lesson 6: (Vocabulary review: selected, hypothesis) During this class, I worked through an adaptation of Honda & O'Neil's lesson on plural nouns in Nicaraguan English. (See attachment)

The different forms for the plural in American English and Nicaraguan English extend the scope of Lesson 1 & 2, which call attention to personal differences in language, and reinforce, through observation, the awareness that language is fluid.