14 Ways to Learn Vocabulary and Explore the Language with The New York Times


Another lens through which to look at language? The Times Upshot team used data analytics to create the interactive “Words Men and Women Use When Writing About Love,” pictured above. It uses the language of Modern Love’s four years of testing. What questions does this raise for you?

You can see graphics the team made on topics as diverse as “The Rise of the ‘Middle Class’ as an Ordinary American Term,” “The Word Choices That Explain Why Jane Austen Endures, and the Language Used by The Times since 1860 to describe newcomers to America. You can also read the data analysis on topics related to language and culture, including the words used in job postings and how we described our mental health on social media in 2020.

As you explore these analyzes, you could borrow the protocol we use in our weekly What’s Going In This Graph? characteristic. Ask yourself:

  • What do I notice?

  • What am I wondering?

When you are done, ask yourself: is there anything interesting that I have observed about language and language models that might be useful to explore using analytics? data, perhaps through tools such as Google Trends or Google Books Ngram Viewer? What and why? How could you present your findings visually?

Language changes all the time and, in turn, changes us. The choice of words is important. It could also be relatively small as scientists are calling for less sensational ways of describing human encounters with sharks. It could be as important as a major overhaul of the language we use to talk about gender, sexuality or race. From the various examples we have given above, you can see that significant social, cultural and political changes in our society can only affect the language we use. And thanks to the Internet, these changes are happening faster than ever.

If you are a regular Times reader, you can follow these conversations in real time. For example, in 2020, the newspaper reported that after conversations that began in earnest after the death of George Floyd and the protests that followed, the Times would start capitalizing “black” to describe the people and cultures of origin. African. Nearly 800 readers commented on the change, with some supporting it, others rejecting it and many offering nuanced reasons for their opinions.

You can find articles that touch on language and its relationship to culture in the newspaper’s sections, including Politics, Sports, Style, and Food. However, if you only want a recent example, we recommend the August 2021 article by linguist John McWhorter exploring “How ‘Woke’ Became an Insult”. After tracing how and why its meaning changed, he wrote:

A mature societal view of language will understand that words are not just what they mean in what is called the dictionary and that words referring to societal or controversial issues – i.e. the most interesting – will often need to be replaced about once per generation.

Last but not least, we invite you to join the conversation as well. The daily opinion poll of the students in the Learning Network often focuses on issues of language, culture and politics, and gives young people a dedicated place to express themselves.

Here are some of the questions we asked recently. Post your thoughts in the comments section for each – and read and respond to what other teens have contributed:

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