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        The Language Spark

        In this lesson, students use selected videos 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.

        Lesson Summary


        In this lesson, students will use selected videos 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 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


        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.

        Grade Level:


        Suggested Time

        Two to three 45-minute class periods

        Media Resources

        The Language Spark Video

        Dr. Steven Pinker: Language Makes Us Human
        Please note: This video is found on the Human Spark website. It is NOT downloadable.


        Web Sites

        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 howspecific parts of the brain process different aspects on language comprehensionand production.

        Part I: Introductory Activity

        1. Ask students what they think might set humans apart from other animals. Explain that there are no “right” answers, but each response should be accompanied by an explanation or justification. (Accept all answers, writing them all on a blackboard or whiteboard.) Explain that the debate about what is or is not uniquely human is highly controversial and always evolving. Ask students why they think the debate is always evolving. (Answers will vary; suggest that it is largely because so much of what informs the debate about what is uniquely human is our understanding of the human brain—the most complex human organ, and that which we understand the least.) Frame the first video clip from the PBS series The Human Spark by explaining to students that it features Dr. Stephen Pinker speaking with series host Alan Alda, attempting to answer the same question they just were by considering themselves: what makes us unique? Provide a focus question by asking students what the three parts of Pinker’s response are. Play Dr. Steven Pinker: Language Makes Us Human.

        2. Review the focus question. What are the three parts of Dr. Pinker’s response to the question “What makes us unique?” (Language, cooperation, and technological “know-how.”) Explain that while two other The Human Spark lesson plans focus on Cooperation (“Social Skills”) and technology (“Sticks and Stones”), this lesson will be examining language as it exists in our brains, and what it may tell us about what it means to be human.

        Part II: Learning Activity

        1. Frame the next clip from The Human Spark by explaining thatit follows host Alan Alda as he speaks with Harvard Universityprofessor Elizabeth Spelke about what she thinks might constitute “the humanspark.” Provide a focus question by asking students what Spelke believes thisspark is and whether she thinks it exists in humans at birth. Play The Language Spark.

        2. Pause the video after Alda says that language is “an innate ability, but one which doesn’t begin to kick in until we’re a year old.” Review the focus question: what does Spelke believe the human spark is, and does she think we have it at birth?” (Spelke agrees with Pinker that language is what distinguishes us, but she does not see it in us at birth or early infancy.) Does Spelke think that human children in their early months as infants are very developmentally different from other primates? (No.) What is Spelke’s conclusion about the experiments involving children placing Kermit in the correct bucket? (That children learn by explicit linguistic instruction rather than by inference.)

        Ask students how they would define language. (Answerswill vary, but encourage an understanding that language is a capacity forthinking and communicating through the manipulation of symbols.) Askstudents what some examples of those symbols might be. (Words, sign languagesigns.) What might the manipulation of those symbols be called? (Grammar.) Frame the next video by explaining that it follows Alda as he learns more about human language development from Helen Neville, a professor at the University of Oregon. Provide a focus question by asking students what the earliest stages of language acquisition are for children, according to Neville. Resume playing The Language Spark.

        3. Pause the video after Alda says “his first two word sentence was ‘eat out.’” Review the focus question: according to Neville, what are the earliest stages of language development among human children? (First sounds, then nouns, then verbs, then simple sentences at 1.5 years of age.) Ask students if they think this developmental sequence makes sense. (Yes.) Why? (The ability to consistently make certain sounds necessarily precedes the ability to attach meaning to those sounds to make nouns, which in turn precedes the ability to arrange those nouns and other word types in complete sentences.) Ask students if they think there is any connection or correspondence between the sound and the meaning of words. (Accept all answers.) Have the class divide into five groups and distribute The Sound of Language Student Organizer to each student. Assign each group one of the columns and allow groups 5-10 minutes to brainstorm as many words as they can think of which start with their column’s two-letter sound.

        4. When time is up, have each group present their list of words to the class. Ask students in other groups to contribute any other words they can think of that were not listed. Ask the class as a whole if they can think of any commonalities in many or most of the words chosen for each sound. Do they tend to have something to do with one of the senses, or one of the sense organs? (Accept all answers, revealing those listed in the student organizer answer key when no more suggestions are forthcoming. Remind students that there will be “outlier” words with no clear connection to the others in its phonetic group.) Ask students who speak or are learning foreign languages if they think such connection between sound and meaning exists in other languages. (Generally speaking, they do.) After explaining that no answer is definitive, ask students for theories about why certain sounds seem to connote certain meanings, or apply to certain senses and/or perceptions (Answers will vary. Explain that while linguistic theory may never definitively explain the origin of human language, it is widely accepted that language evolved from simpler noises and sounds similar to those made by other animals.)

        5. Ask students what they think the similarities and differences might be between human language and animal sounds. (Accept all answers.) Do they think the sounds made by animals might have specific meanings for the animals? (Accept all answers.) Do they think animals capable of understanding the meaning of human words, even if they’re unable to replicate the words themselves? (Accept all answers.) Provide a focus for the next portion of the video by asking students to be looking for what Professor Neville thinks is the primary difference between human language and other animal communication systems. Resume playing "The Language Spark."

        6. Pause the video after Neville says “I think everybody agrees about that.” Review the focus question: according to Neville, what is the primary difference between human language and the other animal communication methods? (Grammar.) What is grammar? (The set of rules that govern the composition of complex sentences, conjugations, and words.) Ask students if they think that the human capacity for grammar is something we’re born with, or something we learn. (Accept all answers.) Frame the next clip by explaining that it delves deeper into how our brains process grammar, and in so doing suggests an intriguing connection between our capacity for language and another distinguishing human characteristic which the class discussed earlier in the Introductory Activity. Provide a focus question by asking students to be watching for what this connection might be. Finish playing "The Language Spark" to the end.

        7. Review the focus question: what distinguishing human characteristic shares a connection with our capacity to process grammar? (Tool use/technology.) What is the connection? (Both activities make use of the same portion of the brain, and both activities are based upon logical, sequenced action planning. Just as a tool like a spear must be assembled in a certain manner to be useful, so too must words be assembled in certain configurations in order to make sense.) What does the EEG brain scan test undergone by Alda and the young girl reveal about the portion of the brain that processes grammar? (It is quicker and more focused in an adult brain than in a child’s.) Does this same area of the brain also process the meaning of language? (No—that is a separate part of the brain.) What does this suggest about the way language works in the brain? (Answers will vary, but encourage an understanding that language involves the use of many different parts of the brain and is a process which is refined during our maturation.)

        8. Go to the Language on the Brain website. Provide a focus for the video on the website by asking students to be watching for unique capacities of human language, as opposed to animal communication. Play the video.

        9. Pause the video after of Martin Luther King, Jr gives his“I Have A Dream” speech. Review the focus question: according to the video, what are some unique capacities of human language? (Humans can talk about the future, abstractions, culture, and technology.) Ask students if they thinkthese capacities could be considered subjects. (Yes.) Could they also be considered fundamental modes of thinking that might be beyond other species? (Yes. For example,a detailed prediction about the future is certainly beyond other species, but on an even more basic level, the very notion of “the future” is fundamentally--and perhaps uniquely--human.) Suggest to students that both the vocabulary and grammar of language are not only a means of our communication or expression, but the medium and currency of our thoughts. Frame the remainder of the segment by explaining that it will explore some categories of those thoughts and where they may originate in the brain. Provide a focus for the next portion of the video by asking students to be looking for some of the specific brain processes involved with language. Resume playing the video.

        10. Pause after Columbia neuroscientist Joy Hirsch says “ourlanguage system can be revealed through an orderly sequence of specific tasksthat we use to probe it.” Review the focus question: what are some of thespecific brain processes involved with language? (Conceptualizing,modulation, object naming, passive listening, problem solving, and decisionmaking.) Ask students if they can think of any other processes involvedwith language. (Answers will vary, but may include word choice or physicalarticulation of speech.) Ask students if they think these processes mightuse different parts of the brain? (Yes.) Provide a focus for theremainder of the video by asking students to list the parts of the brain whichHirsch described as the “language toolbox.” Resume playing video through to theend.

        11. Review the focus question: what are the parts of the brain that Hirsch describes as the “language toolbox?” (Auditory cortex, Wernicke’s area, arcuate fasciculus, Broca’s area, motor cortex, visual cortex.) Ask students what they think the linguistic function of each of these parts might be. (Answers will vary; the auditory, motor, and visual cortexes are clearly linked to hearing, speaking/signing, and seeing, respectively, while Wernicke’s area, Broca’s area, and the arcuate fasciculus will be obscure.) Have the class reform the five groups they were split into earlier. Have groups log on to The Language Loop website. Distribute a copy of The Language Loop Student Organizer to each student and allow groups 10 minutes to complete them.

        12. When time is up, ask for volunteers from all groups to answer the questions on The Language Loop Student Organizer for theclass. Explain to students that the schematic of the brain’s linguisticfunction which they’ve just looked at is an extreme simplification of what isknown, and that what is known is very little compared to what remains unknown. Even at this very low level of understanding, however, it is possible to appreciate in this interweaving of language functions throughout the brain what neuroscientist Joy Hirsh describes in the video as the difference between human brains and those of other primates. Ask students if they can recall what that is. (Although they share a similar anatomy, the human brain is far more interconnected than a non-human primate’s.)

        Part III: Culminating Activity

        1. As homework, have students write a one page essay summarizing what they learned in the course of the lesson. Each essay should make mention of the following themes:

        • Language development in children
        • A definition of grammar and its role in language
        • What makes animal communication different that human language
        • How the brain processes and produces language

        Additionally, the essay should include one unanswered question about the material covered.

        2. In the following day’s class, before the essays are collected, go around the room and have each student ask their question aloud. Promote classroom discussion of what the answer might be; where no answer is known solicit suggestions of what further research or experiments would need to be undertaken in order to find an answer.


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