Before reading the article:
Pick a letter. Any letter.
Choose one of the 26 letters in the alphabet and imagine you have to explain how to make the sound of that letter to a young child or someone who has never heard or spoken it before.
Write a series of detailed instructions for how to make the sound of the letter you have selected.
Before writing, experiment saying the letter aloud in different ways — at different speeds, for example, or by exaggerating the movement or your mouth and lips. Pay close attention to what your lips, tongue, mouth, teeth, jaw, throat and neck are doing as you make the sound.
After writing your instructions, find a partner and take turns reading them aloud and seeing if the other person can produce the sounds correctly from the description alone. Or play a game with the class: Can students guess the letter just from the detailed instructions?
Briefly reflect on your experience: What was it like writing the instructions? What was it like trying to vocalize the letter based on another student’s instructions? Which letter was harder to describe and produce and why?
Not so easy, huh?
Now imagine inventing that sound for the first time …
Next, read the article, “Did Dietary Changes Bring Us ‘F’ Words? Study Tackles Complexities of Language’s Origins,” and answer the following questions:
1. Who is Balthasar Bickel and what are the two big ideas in the study he recently co-authored? How certain is he of its conclusions?
2. Why would it have been hard to make an “f” or “v” sound for hunter-gatherers living 100,000 years ago? What according to Mr. Bickel made them possible?
3. Why is Mr. Bickel’s consideration of biological factors in studying the development of human language controversial? Why are some linguists concerned about possible ethnocentric or racist interpretations that might arise from the study?
4. How did Mr. Bickel research the sounds humans made thousands of years ago, when obviously there were no audio recordings from the time to listen to?
5. What is the relationship between the alignment of teeth and jaws on the sounds one can produce? What linguistic difference does it make if you have overbite versus an edge-to-edge bite?
6. The article cites several alternate scenarios for the development of certain sounds offered by critics of the study. Which counterargument do you believe is strongest and why? How does Mr. Bickel respond to his critics?
Finally, tell us more about what you think:
— What was most fascinating or thought-provoking in the article? How does it make you think about human language differently? How convincing is Mr. Bickel and his team’s explanation for the origin of the “f” and the “v?”
— How important is this kind of research? What difference can it make in our lives? Would you consider studying linguistics?
— Do you have a favorite letter? If yes, why?
— Nearly 40 million Americans have speech or language disorders. Have you ever had difficulties with speech or producing any letters or sounds? If yes, tell us more about your experiences. What have you done to address this issue or problem?
— What would you like to know more about the development of human language? Create a list of questions for further study. After you’ve created your list, you might choose one of these topics to explore in more detail. Write a paragraph explaining what you would research, why you are curious about the topic and how studying it could potentially benefit the public and other areas of study.