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Playing with Language

By Paul Magnuson | Published: October 12, 2016

I’ve been working at the Leysin American School (LAS) in the Swiss Alps above Lake Geneva now for eight years. Along the way, I’ve had some really interesting opportunities.

There just aren’t that many high school research departments around, so as the director of one, I mostly get to make up what we are doing. Several of the projects we’re working on relate to learning language, an interest of mine that started with my first Kursteilnehmer learning group in Waldsee, the German Language Village, in 1988. Here are two cool projects we’ve worked on here at LAS Educational Research.

Students at the Leysin American School learned language online -- and taught each other. Julia and Patricia taught each other Portuguese and Spanish.

Language Awareness

We created a class for grades 10, 11, and 12 to study one or more world languages using online resources and to author an iBook with a set of exercises designed to raise awareness about language. 

To help students create language awareness exercises, I first shared with them some exercises developed in a joint program between  Concordia Language Villages (CLV) and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board that started almost 20 years ago, in 1998. The exercises were short and sweet, designed to get students thinking about language in new ways, starting with easy examples that lead to good discussion.

Two heads are always better than one, so I contacted a CLV colleaque I first met in 1989, Beth Skelton. Beth and I skyped about what was working, what wasn’t working, and what additional exercises might be interesting. Together we got the students started on a number language awareness activities and created a good backlog of possible future activities. 

What are these exercises like? You might start with what seems like an easy question, but proves to be difficult.

For example: Do you know how to look up a phone number in a Chinese phone book?

How do you “alphabetize” a language that uses characters and not an alphabet? Or you could highlight something students might not usually think of.

For example: Do you know why the Swedish government introduced a neutral (non-gendered) pronoun?

Enough Swedes must believe that how we speak influences how we think, otherwise they wouldn’t worry about the sexist use of pronouns! Or you take something that many of us may have heard about and more or less accepted, even though it probably isn’t true.

For example: Is there really a group of languages (improperly called “Eskimo”) that has dozens and dozens of words for snow?

The students created exercises to explore these types of questions - and by creating exercises they wrestled with some of the big questions in the study of language, like … can the pronouns you use really make you sexist? 

A couple of great books if you are interested in creating a language. Did you know Hollywood now hires people to make languages for films?!

DIY Language

Now we’re creating a new class, piloting it first this year as an afternoon activity. The goal is to get students thinking about linguistics and wondering about the amazing phenomenon of language.

We’re capitalizing on the number of languages our students speak, probably somewhere upwards of 40. Students will be able to draw on their own backgrounds to explore language from a whole new perspective: the decisions that go into creating a new language. Yes, our new language will be reeeaaally easy, but nonetheless, a new one.

Students will create new ways of representing numbers, pronouns, tenses … all in as easy a way as possible. They’ll come to agreement on spelling conventions, deciding what letter (well, if they choose to use letters) represents which sound or sounds. And in the end, they’ll have to perform a skit in the new language to friends who don’t know anything about the language. Will they be able to understand?

As part of their preparation they’ll study a bit of Esperanto, made easy in the past year by the introductory course available for free on Duolingo. Ĉu vi parolas Esperanton?

In both classes, we’re trying to develop curiosity in the wonderful world of language. It’s an amazing world, one which CLV opened to me a couple of decades ago, and one that has profoundly enriched my life.

About the Author

Paul worked with Concordia Language Villages for 15 years between 1988 and 2009 in a variety of roles. His oldest daughter attended El Lago del Bosque in 2015. He is the curriculum and middle school director at the Leysin American School in Switzerland, where he also leads the LAS Educational Research Center. He can be reached at

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