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Interactive museum strives to boost the love of words


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Judy Woodruff: 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.

Narrator: About a third of the English words are Germanic.

Jeffrey Brown: 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.

Jeffrey Brown: 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.

Ann Friedman: 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.

Jeffrey Brown: 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.

Ann Friedman: So, everything that you see here is there for a reason.

Jeffrey Brown: The recently opened Lexicon Lane is a kind of word puzzle come to life, with clues spread throughout the room.

This is the lure?

Ann Friedman: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: How do you think about it?

Ann Friedman: I love that word, lure.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes?

Ann Friedman: Yes.

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.

Jeffrey Brown: 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.

Person: 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.

Jeffrey Brown: 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.

Jeffrey Brown: 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?

Jason Reynolds: 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.

Jeffrey Brown: So, what am I looking at?

Colin Phillips, Professor of Linguistics, University of Maryland: You are looking at the Word Wall.

Narrator: Hello, and welcome to Planet Word.

Jeffrey Brown: 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.

Colin Phillips: 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.

Jeffrey Brown: 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.

Colin Phillips: 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?

Jeffrey Brown: 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.

Judy Woodruff: It is a place you have got to see in Washington, Planet Word.

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