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


Are you and your friends “lexical innovators?” According to a 2015 analysis of almost one billion tweets, those in the vanguard of word usage are “overwhelmingly young.”

That conclusion isn’t surprising to us. The Times has been reporting on the word-wizardry of teenagers since at least 1943, when young people were introducing the world to “hep” and “jam session.” Over 75 years later, our reporters are still regularly documenting the origins and meanings of youth-driven expressions, only now it’s “cheugy,” “OK boomer,” and “that’s so cringe.”

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Read more: Vocabulary learning

Take this 2015 language quiz, “Are You on Fleek?” to observe just how quickly slang comes — and sometimes goes. Then create your own version of the quiz by mining your daily spoken and written language and analyzing your social media feeds. How many of your questions can your friends get right? What about your parents or grandparents? Of the words or expressions that are viral right now, which do you predict will stand the test of time? Why?

For teachers who want to help students look at how slang can both shape and reflect culture — and how new words move from the Urban Dictionary to the Oxford Dictionaries — check out our classic lesson plan, OMG!!! Exploring Slang. Though created on our old blog back in the days when “OMG” was a new phrase, the activities and questions are evergreen.

12. Explore the relationship between language and identity.

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What does the way you express yourself say about who you are? How does it connect you to specific communities, cultures and histories? The Times can help you go deeper into how you think about the many intersections between language and identity. Here are just a few ways to start:

  • If you were raised in the United States, you might begin with a fun Times quiz, “How Y’all, Youse and You Guys Talk.” How accurately does it capture your background?

  • Read “What We Believe About Identity,” by the novelist Julia Alvarez. As she writes about first coming to the United States from the Dominican Republic, “There was no vocabulary to light up the margins where my outlier selves were camped.” Who are your “outlier selves” and how does your language include them — or leave them out?

  • What is your gender identity? What are your pronouns? How do you, or others you know, express gender identity through language? “A Guide to Neopronouns,” published in 2021, is just one starting point for thinking through these questions. “P.C. Language Saved My Life,” from 2018, is another.

  • If you are a fan of hip-hop or comics (or both!), read a personal essay by a young man who discovered that “Hip-Hop and Comics Speak the Same Language.” How have words — in the form of stories, comics, lyrics, poems or anything else — helped you “inhabit a new skin”?

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    What labels do others put on the communities you belong to? How do you feel about them? Read an essay by a 16-year-old winner of our 2021 Student Editorial Contest, “For Most Latinos, Latinx Does Not Mark the Spot,” to consider the nuances of naming.

  • How do young people “find a language suitable for our current state of disaster, which is almost biblical in its force and Shakespearean in its unfolding?” asks the Times critic Maya Phillips in her introduction to this multimedia feature about 10 teenage Black poets. Their work, and our related lesson plan, can help you think about the deep connection between personal voice and word choice.

  • Whether or not you are a native English speaker, reading “We All Speak a Language That Will Go Extinct” can show you that “no two people really speak the same” language. What misunderstandings around words — humorous or otherwise — have you experienced?

  • Language isn’t conveyed just in speech and writing. This article describes how today’s Deaf creatives are celebrating, sharing and protecting American Sign Language, and this piece — “Black, Deaf and Extremely Online” — explores how young Black signers are celebrating the language on social media. Our related lesson plan invites you to learn more.

The list above, of course, is incomplete. What else can you discover in The Times about language that is connected to a community or culture you are a part of?

Watch more: Five Research-Based Ways to Teach Vocabulary

13. Use data to uncover word patterns.


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