Creating Languages: Invented Languages in the Classroom

(This is a piece I wrote for Issue 26 (Summer 2021) of Teaching English, the magazine of the National Association for Teaching English (NATE). The full version with the pretty pictures is in the mag itself!)

Linguists typically spend their time analysing languages. We try to work out what makes them tick, how they differ from each other, how they change and how people use them. It’s a strange occupation. After all, most of us use the languages we speak in a way that seems effortless. Why do we need to study them? As anyone who’s poked around in a linguistics book or two knows, when we do start to study language, there’s a huge amount of complexity to be got through, sometimes shrouded in impenetrable jargon.

This makes teaching school students about language, especially English, even more challenging. The National Curriculum mandates all sorts of concepts and terms which have had many parents, during lockdown home-schooling, in a state of shock. The dreaded fronted adverbial has once again graced the pages of newspapers. Parents’ scepticism about the value of learning grammatical terms is echoed by teachers, and the materials available for learning and teaching about the structure of language don’t often help. The issue is how to engage both teachers’ and students’ creativity in an area that seems to leave little scope for it.

But once you can analyse something, you have the ingredients to create something new. This is the core idea behind a scheme we’ve been running for a while from Queen Mary University of London’s Linguistics Department. A few years back, I had been asked to create some languages for a TV series. This was a huge amount of fun and made me think that I could use some of the excitement around films like The Lord of the Rings or TV programmes like Game of Thrones, both of which feature complex constructed languages, to enthuse students to invent their own languages. If you are to invent your own language, you need, of course, to know something about how language works. I tried this first in a module for our own undergraduates, which got them to use the linguistics they had already learned, but it became clear quite quickly that creating their own language also motivated them to learn a lot of new things about how language works. This made me wonder if the same approach could work as a way of teaching some linguistics to students at school.

Poster from a two day workshop

My colleague Coppe van Urk and I started off with a summer school aimed at Year 10 students from schools local to Queen Mary, using our widening participation programme. We were amazed at the excitement that the students showed, and also at how much they learned in the short one-week course we ran. By the end of that, the students had created languages which had their own special sound systems, used particular syllable structures, had exotic words orders, and had their own writing systems. The students summarized their languages, as well as key facts about the worlds they’d invented for their languages’ speakers, on posters, and we ran a poster presentation competition for the final day. I wrote a blog about this and that blog led to our initial engagement with the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE). Louise Johns-Shepherd, the director, had read the blog and was excited about using the same idea with KS1 and KS2 students to help improve reading and to help both teachers and students with the linguistic concepts in the National Curriculum. We began to work with CLPE to develop training materials for primary teachers that would allow them to cover those core concepts with their students in a new way.

Since then, we’ve expanded our materials to each stage of the National Curriculum, from primary through to A-level English Language, and helped teachers use the idea in many different ways: from one off sessions, to designing whole modules of study through it. There are distinct issues at each level. In KS1 and 2 the question is how to provide support for phonological knowledge (especially the grapheme-phoneme correspondences that lie at the heart of synthetic phonics) and how to cover the grammatical concepts and terms that so troubled parents struggling with helping their children during locked-down. KS3 through KS4 is a time when little is done to maintain students’ linguistic knowledge or to help students who had trouble with it catch up. The absence of that focus in KS3 and KS4 has knock on effects on both how the English Language material in the GCSE is taught, and it makes the A-level in English Language look both forbidding and off-putting. The A-level itself requires rich knowledge of the linguistics of English, and our approach provides a new way of developing that and engaging students with it, especially in the frameworks sections, helping them connect with phonology, morphology and syntax in a different way. Because the basic idea is very simple, learn the things you need to learn in order to create your own language, it can be used flexibly across the whole curriculum where knowledge of the linguistics of English is relevant (as well as being a useful adjunct to modern foreign languages).

Here, I’ll just sketch some of the work we did with CLPE to help teachers engage students with concepts in KS1 and KS2, and I’ll also briefly summarise the kinds of activities that can be done with KS3 students and above. The idea is to give you a sense of how this approach might work, without being overly prescriptive. We have a wealth of materials at our website that everyone is free to use and adapt.

Students working on their languages

For CLPE we developed a series of training programmes for primary school teachers. We focus the work around a map that the students (either individually or in groups) draw of an imaginary island, with mountains, volcanos, bays, forests, lakes, cities etc. The students first task is to create words for the geographical features on the map. But to do that, they need a language. We teach them (or their teachers!) some simple phonology of English, covering stops, fricatives, nasals, and vowels. This allows us to engage the students with the difference between a sound and how you write it. It also allows us to draw on the knowledge of students whose community language is not English, as we can add in uvular stops (like the q in Qu’ran) which are found in Arabic and Somali, palatal nasals (the ñ in mañana) found in Spanish and Bengali, velar fricatives (the ch in Scots loch) found in Polish and Turkish, and whatever else suits the students’ backgrounds or the teacher’s knowledge. 

Each student or group then chooses a subset of the various types of sound for their language, consonants and vowels, and figures out how they are going to write them down. Through this the students also learn about the idea of digraphs, and that in English the same sounds may be written in different ways. Dialects can also be brought in here, especially looking at vowels. Finally, we introduce the idea of syllables, using blank multiple sided gaming dice onto which students can write their consonants and vowels. They throw the dice and use them to create syllables for their language. Sometimes students and teachers get stuck in trying to come up with syllables, and the dice are a great way to create them automatically. Once they have a list of syllables, the use them as monosyllabic words, or put them together to give disyllabic or polysyllabic words.

Once students have words, they can write these on their map, naming the rivers, mountains, bays and cities. This approach allows teachers to draw on cross-curricular knowledge from geography and biology. There are lots of ways to expand on this. 

Example of creating an alphabet

One that directly engages with concepts from the National Curriculum is to get students to create a writing system, following something like the development of our own alphabet. Imagine a student’s word for `mountain’ is shroog, then a very simplified drawing of a mountain (a simple upwards pointed triangle, say), could be the symbol for the sound sh. Following this through, an alphabet that connects with the sound system of their invented language can quite quickly be created. Students can then play with the order of letters when the words are written down (left to right, right to left, top to bottom, even a spiral!), and add in their own versions of punctuation. They can create capital and lower-case versions of their letters, decide how these are used, and annotate their maps with the words in their own writing systems. They can go further, swapping in their words for words of a poem in English, writing a nonsense poem using words in their language, making sure it rhymes, creating an illuminated manuscript version. The possibilities are very large depending on what suits the students’ talents and interests. 

Crucially, through doing this, they have developed phonemic awareness and learned all sorts of important concepts that are part of KS1: phonemes vs graphemes, how multiple letters can be used for single sounds and vice versa (think of x!), dialectal variation, conventions in capitalization and punctuation, the differences between types of sounds and how they combine. It is fairly straightforward to then extend this same technique to issues in morphology (the forms of words) and syntax (how words are put together to build sentences). One way of doing this is to ask the students to populate their islands with monsters, and to use this to introduce plurals, including irregulars, perhaps again illustrating with languages that students in the class might have (e.g. Somali, Turkish) as well as with English. Syntax comes in when the monsters start doing things to each other: talking, fighting, building new cities, fleeing erupting volcanoes, wherever the students’ imaginations take them. This will involve teaching them the notions of subject and object, and the orders that that subject, object and verb go in in English, and how they might vary that in their own languages (for some reason the order Verb Subject Object seems very popular with students who we’ve done this with). Ideas of tense can then be introduced, and, when the monsters start talking about what they are thinking, or what another monster said, subordinate clauses, pronouns, definite articles and so on. The important point is that the different grammatical concepts can be linked to a purpose. The students want to express something, so they need to learn the relevant bit of grammar to know how to do that. This reverses the usual passive learning of English grammar, which is based on analysis, not creation. 

At KS3 and KS4 the same ideas can be used but more intensively. Students can be introduced to the International Phonetic Alphabet when they are learning about sounds, a hugely useful skill for them when learning foreign languages. When looking at syllables, students can learn how the clusters of consonants allowable in English are quite restrictive, and this knowledge can be used to deepen their skills in analysing poetry. They can evaluate how the different sounds of conlangs they might know (Tolkien’s Elvish, Star Trek’s Klingon, or Parseltongue from Harry Potter) contribute to what the goals of the creators of these languages were (there’s nothing quite so eerie as a whole class of 13 year olds hissing Parseltongue in unison!). They can learn about lexical relations between words (wet vs dry – perhaps their language has wet vs unwet), grammatical changes (how does their language turn the adjective wet into the noun wetness), compounding through writing Viking style kennings for their language (book = mind-filler; ship = wave-farer). Their writing systems can evolve beyond alphabets to Abjads, like those used to write Hebrew or Arabic, or Abugidas like that used to write Hindi, and can incorporate Chinese style ideograms for especially important words. 

Poster from our Summer School at QMUL

At A-level we have had some schools follow a system where the teacher `commissions’ the students to create a language for an imaginary TV series, using more and more complex ‘briefs’ from an imaginary producer to teach students the frameworks of English required by the curriculum. We’ve also done fast sessions with schools in person and on Zoom, where students go from zero to a couple of sentences in a made-up language in an hour. The method is very flexible, because it focusses on what can be created over a time period, as opposed to what can be learned. 

Teachers have certainly reported improved engagement (one teacher told me he came across two of his previously less engaged students excitedly talking about subject verb object order one lunchtime!), and some improvement in attainment, but teachers will know themselves whether this kind of approach might work with their students. From my point of view as an academic, it’s been great fun to be involved in developing this, in listening to teachers’ feedback, and in teaching classes (I learned that giving Year 9 students, especially the boys, the license to make up whatever words they liked and then to read them out to the class was not necessarily the way to do it!).

References:

Materials can be found at creatinglanguages.org

An excellent primer on inventing languages is 

Peterson, David J2015. The Art of Language Invention: From Horse Lords to Dark-Elves, the Words behind World-Building. New York: Penguin Random House.