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Anne Azzi Davenport
Anne Azzi Davenport
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The Planet Word Museum in Washington, D.C., which aims to bring language to life, recently opened a new exhibit focused on wordplay. Jeffrey Brown takes a look at the many ways words make the world go round. It’s part of our arts and culture series, "CANVAS."
The Planet Word Museum in Washington, D.C., described as the place that brings language to life, recently opened a new exhibit focused on wordplay.
Jeffrey Brown takes a look at the many ways words make the world go round. It is part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.
About a third of the English words are Germanic.
Words, words, words popping from the pages of books and revealing secrets in some 30 languages, through a speaking willow, even clean-cut only on bathroom walls.
Ann Friedman, Founder and CEO, Planet Word: How to make reading words and language cool again and make them awesome. And my idea was, well, try a museum.
Ann Friedman is the founder and CEO of Planet Word, now occupying an historic building from 1869, appropriately enough, a former school.
Friedman may emphasize the fun side of the experience here, but she is a former elementary school reading instructor. And the idea for the museum began in response to a problem.
Statistics show reading test scores at schools, they're stagnating, at best, perhaps declining, because of COVID, surveys that showed that young people don't read a single book for pleasure during the year.
So that's why I was despairing, because, to my mind, if you don't have a literate, well-read population, it affects the strength of your democracy.
The focus here, she says, is on 10-to-12-year-olds, the age when many stop choosing to read. The way to reach them, through immersive experiences and themed rooms, joking around with language tricks and humor, Lend Me Your Ears, where visitors can see what goes into giving a speech, inevitably perhaps, a karaoke lounge, to make some noise and hopefully learn what goes into songwriting.
So, everything that you see here is there for a reason.
The recently opened Lexicon Lane is a kind of word puzzle come to life, with clues spread throughout the room.
This is the lure?
How do you think about it?
I love that word, lure.
Use technology to suck people in and give them an opportunity to try writing something, try reading something.
Logann Grayce, Planet Word:
My name is Logann Grayce. And my pronouns are they and then.
Or, in a more serious vein, as in the Words Matter gallery, show how words can help people define themselves or resist definition by others.
You may think that it is ignorant to speak broken English, but I am here to tell you that even articulate Americans sound foolish to the British.
Or resist definition by others.
How to reach young people and instill a love of words and language? That's also the goal of Jason Reynolds, best-selling author of 16 books. He serves as the Library of Congress' national ambassador for young people's literature and as an adviser to Planet Word.
Jason Reynolds, Library of Congress National Ambassador for Young People's Literature: Planet Word is a space that does feel magical in certain ways, right?
Because it takes this thing that is only — for young people especially, that is only sort of seen in school or seen as homework, and turns it into something that is just ours, that feels familiar, that feels like it's a part of our everyday lives.
It's immersive, it's fun in the moment, but does it really engage and lead especially young people to words and reading beyond that experience?
I think it can. I think it can.
I think what I hope it does is that the adults of these young people, when they bring their young folk, but hopefully what they will witness is, once a young person's eyes are widened by the immersive experience, that they then say, we have all these different forms of literature, some of which are a little more immersive, or at least have multiple stimuli working simultaneously to engage a young person, whose attention span is — has grown to be such — so short these days.
And I think that Planet Word makes a case for all those other forms of literature.
So, what am I looking at?
Colin Phillips, Professor of Linguistics, University of Maryland: You are looking at the Word Wall.
Hello, and welcome to Planet Word.
Another adviser, Colin Phillips, professor of linguistics at the University of Maryland. He was happy to play at the Word Wall, which demonstrates the origins of words and how they change over time, but also concerned about the ways technology and our political culture have made understanding language and how words work more critical than ever.
Language is a critical part of everything we do as humans, but we often don't give it much thought. We take it for granted.
And I think that what we have seen in the last few years is, more and more, the ways in which language has had a profound and sometimes damaging impact on the way — on things we do. The way in which technology has evolved and the way in which automatic analysis of language has developed in recent years is much more powerful than it was even 10 years ago.
And so getting people to reflect more on how language is important, how we use it, how it can be used against us is more and more important.
Along with colleagues at the University of Maryland, Gallaudet, and Howard universities, Phillips is part of a team creating a new science lab at the museum to study language in a variety of projects.
One new, big question, the impact of the pandemic.
It's been very interesting for us as language learners seeing how the pandemic has changed the research.
It has put people in different situations, led them to interact in different ways. They have been talking more through screens. Scientists are interested in, does that change the way in which we interact?
Children are exposed to — have been exposed to a narrow range of voices. Does that make a difference to how they learn?
Can Planet Word have the impact its creators and advisers hope for? That answer, of course, is still to be written.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I am Jeffrey Brown at Planet Word in Washington, D.C.
It is a place you have got to see in Washington, Planet Word.
Watch the Full Episode
In his more than 30-year career with the NewsHour, Brown has served as co-anchor, studio moderator, and field reporter on a wide range of national and international issues, with work taking him around the country and to many parts of the globe. As arts correspondent he has profiled many of the world's leading writers, musicians, actors and other artists. Among his signature works at the NewsHour: a multi-year series, “Culture at Risk,” about threatened cultural heritage in the United States and abroad; the creation of the NewsHour’s online “Art Beat”; and hosting the monthly book club, “Now Read This,” a collaboration with The New York Times.
Anne Azzi Davenport is the Senior Coordinating Producer of CANVAS at PBS NewsHour.
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