Sunday, July 19, 2015

Unit 2: A New Language in 25 Words

In the video interviews at the beginning of this unit, we heard both Emilee Little and Chris Brewster talk about the importance of identify and self-connection. As we’ve seen and discussed, self-connection is a critical step to the entire student engagement process.

We want to continue with that theme in the improvisation activity below. This is another "constraint" improv, design to force participants to see things differently (and creatively).

More specifically, this improv will allow us to explore the importance of language as part of the process of self-connection. Keep in mind that, while we will be using human language as part of this particular improvisation, we’re really talking about language in a much broader sense. This is an important thing to remember because it helps us see possible variations on the improv for different disciplines and courses.


In this activity you will be exploring both the power of language to define both our identity and our experiences. The average graduate student has a personal vocabulary in the tens of thousands of words, and in addition knows many sets of rules, both absolute and conditional.

But have you ever wondered just how many of those words and rules are necessary to communicate your basic and necessary information each day? What is the smallest number of words and rules necessary to communicate the most basic and necessary information each day? What constitutes the necessary and basic information you need to communicate each day? Is it better to have one word/phrase to express many ideas or many words/phrases to express the same idea? Do more words and rules lead to greater clarity or to more confusion? Common wisdom seems to say that larger vocabularies are indications of greater awareness, but is that really true?

Improvisation Activity

You have been chosen as part of a small team whose mission is to colonize a new planet. The ship you are traveling in is small, as are the consequent space and memory allotments for each team member. You are allowed only the minimum baggage necessary for survival and building, as well as a small amount of space for personal items. As a colonizing unit, your entire community is permitted a total allocation of only twenty-five words for communication.

"Twenty-five words!" you say. "That’s drastic. It’s draconian. It’s not enough."

Nevertheless, twenty-five words are all you are allowed.

So, what words will you take?

Take ten minutes to come up with your personal list of twenty-five words. When you have finished (you are on your honor so only take 10 minutes, please. The time constraint makes a difference), Once you have completed your new language, please create a blog post and provide a link, or simply create a note on this page. In either case, use the title "My New Language – FIrst Name" (e.g. "My New Language – Rob) to make it easier for everyone to comment. Once you have shared your new language, please take the time to study and comment on the languages created by others.

A hint. It is generally a good idea to include an "opposite" word or two so you can double the range of your words easily. For example, words such as "not" and "no" are generally worth their weight in semantic gold.

A second hint. Consider the range of phonemes that comprise your word list. This, in turn becomes your range of utterance.

A few things to think about as you read the contributions of other participants. What do you notice? What possible connections do you see between the choice of works and identity?


  1. Here's my attempt.

    big, water, food, not, mother, love, run, eat, work, go, see, sleep, remember, I, beautiful, night, sun, sweet, bright, sharp, square, long, tree, rock, God

  2. And we could come up with a fun story by combining lists... we have some overlap esp. because you have more nouns than I do (I was figuring on a lot of pointing and gesturing for nouns, ha ha). Here's my list:
    I had in mind what kind of conversations I would urgently need to have with my shipmates in outer space, and since I was thinking about conversations I used (squandered?) a bunch of words on interrogatives and replies! :-)

    1. Nice! I love the interrogatives. When I do this in my classes I generally get one group that includes zero as an amplifier or number extender. The interrogatives, however, really lend lots of directions to discussion.

  3. I guess I would focus on words that cannot be mimed or acted out. You can point to yourself for "me" or "I", for example. Hmmm...

    God (stole this one from somebody!), help, sick/ill, make or create, find, need, think, dream, breathe, grow, friend, (this is hard), barter/exchange, time, food, drink/water, carry, computer, code, solve/fix, rest.