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July 5th, 2010
The Language Spark
Lesson Overview

For a printer-friendly version of this lesson, click here: (PDF) (RTF)

Grade Levels: 9-12

Time Allotment: Two to three 45-minute class periods


In this lesson, students will use selected segments from the PBS series The Human Spark to explore how the capacity for language develops in the human brain, and about how that capacity distinguishes us from other animals.

The Introductory Activity first asks students to brainstorm what distinguishes humans from other primates, and then presents a video clip in which psycholinguist Stephen Pinker suggests that language is one of three unique human qualities. The Learning Activities further explores the development of language in children, the possible origins of words, the function and nature of grammar, and the interconnected anatomy of the brain’s “language loop.” For the Culminating Activity, students will write a short essay summarizing what they’ve learned and positing an unanswered question as a jumping-off point for further research.

This lesson is best used as an introduction to linguistics or psychology, or as a supplement to a biology unit on the anatomy of the brain

Subject Matter: Psychology, Biology, Linguistics, Evolution

Learning Objectives:

Students will be able to:

  • Describe several ways in which humans are unique among species
  • Outline the sequence of language developmental in children
  • Suggest theories for the origins of language
  • Explain how tool use and language capacity may be linked in the brain
  • Name the parts of the brain involved in language, describing their specific function and relative location in the brain’s anatomy


From the National Science Education Standards

Content Standard: 9-12
Content Standard A: As a result of activities in grades 9–12, all students should develop:


  • Scientists usually inquire about how physical, living, or designed systems function. Conceptual principles and knowledge guide scientific inquiries. Historical and current scientific knowledge influence the design and interpretation of investigations and the evaluation of proposed explanations made by other scientists.
  • Scientists conduct investigations for a wide variety of reasons. For example, they may wish to discover new aspects of the natural world, explain recently observed phenomena, or test the conclusions of prior investigations or the predictions of current theories.
  • Scientists rely on technology to enhance the gathering and manipulation of data. New techniques and tools provide new evidence to guide inquiry and new methods to gather data, thereby contributing to the advance of science. The accuracy and precision of the data, and therefore the quality of the exploration, depends on the technology used.
  • Results of scientific inquiry—new knowledge and methods—emerge from different types of investigations and public communication among scientists. In communicating and defending the results of scientific inquiry, arguments must be logical and demonstrate connections between natural phenomena, investigations, and the historical body of scientific knowledge. In addition, the methods and procedures that scientists used to obtain evidence must be clearly reported to enhance opportunities for further investigation.

Media Resources:


Clip 1: “Dr. Steven Pinker: Language Makes Us Human”

In this outtake from The Human Spark, Psycholinguist Stephen Pinker discusses the three things he believes makes us distinctly, uniquely human: language, cooperation, and technological “know how.”

Clip 2:  “The Language Spark”

An excerpt from episode 3 of The Human Spark, Episode Three: “Brain Matters” exploring the human brain’s unique capacity for complex language.


“Language on the Brain”

A video exploring how the brain processes language,  produced by the American Museum of Natural History for its exhibit “Brain: The Inside Story.”

“The Language Loop

An educational website from McGill University in Montreal exploring how specific parts of the brain process different aspects on language comprehension and production.


For the teacher:

  • A computer with internet access connected to a projector and speakers for classroom use.
  • “The Sound of Language” Student Organizer Answer Key (PDF) (RTF)
  • “The Language Loop” Student Organizer Answer Key (PDF) (RTF)

For each of five group of students:

  • A computer with internet access.

For each student:

  • “The Sound of Language” Student Organizer (PDF) (RTF)
  • “The Language Loop” Student Organizer (PDF) (RTF)

Prep for Teachers:

Prior to teaching this lesson, you will need to:

Preview all of the video segments and websites used in the lesson.

Download the video segments used in the lesson to your classroom computer, or prepare to watch them using your classroom’s internet connection.

Bookmark the website used in the lesson on each computer in your classroom. Using a social bookmarking tool such as or diigo (or an online bookmarking utility such as portaportal) will allow you to organize all the links in a central location.

Proceed to Lesson Activities.

Inside This Lesson

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