Our Essential Lessons are a sequence of lessons that form the backbone of the Writing Program curriculum, illustrating what we want all students to learn across our program’s diverse course topics.

International students in WR 112 learn more about and start analyzing global diversity with respect to language and culture. This lesson serves as an introduction to the Hub unit for Global Citizenship and Intercultural Literacy and foregrounds these themes for the rest of the course.


By defining and explaining the purposes of freewriting, this lesson helps level the playing field for students who may be new to this practice, which is common in North American writing classes.


Students will analyze global diversity across multiple languages and/or cultures.

Key Terms

culture, diversity, linguistic relativity


This lesson works best if placed early in the semester, so that it can help introduce the Hub unit for this course, by asking students to reflect on the relationship between language, cognition, and culture.


Genre Awareness

In addition to reflecting on Boroditsky’s ideas, the homework activity asks students to consider the TEDTalk as a genre with its own moves and its own opportunities and limitations. Students are asked to identify strategies used by Boroditsky in the TEDTalk and to compare/contrast them to the choices made by the same author in the essay, “How Does Our Language the Way We Think?”.

  1. Prepare for discussion by asking students to familiarize themselves with some key concepts (Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis/linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity).
  2. Assign the reading “Does the Linguistic Theory at the Center of the Film ‘Arrival’ Have Any Merit?”, from Smithsonian.com, which uses the movie Arrival to introduce the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (linguistic determinism) and linguistic relativity. This article even mentions Boroditsky at the end, thus serving as an excellent preview of class discussion.


The initial freewriting activity or discussion encourages students to activate relevant vocabulary and generate as well as reflect on their ideas. Students should also be encouraged to revisit and reconsider their ideas during the group discussion.

    1. Offer a prompt on the board or project it as a slide (“Learning another language is like becoming another person,” by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami).
    2. Ask students to either freewrite for about three minutes in response to the quote or (if time is short) to jump right into a brief class discussion about the relationship between language, culture, and cognition. During this discussion, students should be encouraged to connect their ideas to the key concepts from the Smithsonian article (Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis/linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity) and to explain these concepts in their own words.
    3. Note that if using freewriting, as students may have never done freewriting before, it may be beneficial to explain that the purpose of freewriting is to activate and generate ideas, that the prompt can be addressed in different ways (such as by taking a position on an idea/argument or relating personal experiences), and that the written responses need not be polished and can be somewhat informal. You may choose to later collect or not collect the written responses, but it is recommended that they not be graded as formal assessment runs counter to the idea of freewriting.
    4. View the 14-min TEDTalk by Lera Boroditsky, “How Language Shapes the Way We Think.” Alternatively, students could be asked to watch the video at home on their own time, to save on classroom time, or the lesson could span two days, Steps 1-2 (above) on the first class day, the viewing for homework, and then the rest of the lesson on the next class day.
    5. Ask students to take notes about the key ideas/arguments presented by Boroditsky and the evidence or examples she uses to support her arguments.

While watching Boroditsky’s TEDTalk, take notes to answer the questions below. Also note any points or idea that you find interesting, puzzling, or important.

  1. How many languages are currently used in the world?
  2. Who said “to have a second language is to have a second soul”?
  3. How do you ask someone how they’re doing in the language Kuuk Thaayorre?
  4. Besides affecting how one thinks about directions/space, what other cognitive abilities can be shaped by language?
  5. How many of the world’s languages will be gone in 100 years?
    1. Divide students into small groups and have the groups discuss some or all of the questions below:
  1. How does Boroditsky answer the question she poses in the title of her TEDTalk and what evidence does she use to support her claims? Do you think she is an advocate of linguistic determinism or linguistic relativity, and why?
  2. How convincing do you find Boroditsky’s arguments and evidence, and why?
  3. Can you think of any other examples from languages you know that support Boroditsky’s ideas and demonstrate different ways of conceptualizing the world?
  4. Can you think of any examples that would complicate or counter Boroditsky’s claims?
  5. (Optional; if time permits) Would you revisit any of the ideas from your free writing response or earlier discussion after watching Boroditsky’s TEDTalk? How do your own ideas align with or diverge from Boroditsky’s?
  6. (Optional; if time permits) What are some potential counter-arguments to Boroditsky’s claims? What, if any, are some problems or limitations of her arguments and/or evidence?
    1. Call students together to debrief the group discussions. Rotate calling on groups to share their responses and observations with the rest of the class; each group can volunteer/be called upon to answer one of the selected questions.
    2. Encourage students to reflect on the questions raised by Boroditsky within the context of the course’s Hub unit. Prompt students to make connections between Boroditsky’s ideas and other texts discussed in the class so far. You might want to pose one or more of the following questions:
  1. If Boroditsky is correct that the language we speak shapes the way we see the world, what does this mean for us in our everyday lives? What are some real-world consequences of this idea in a globalized world?
  2. If Japanese writer Haruki Murakami is right that “learning another language is like becoming another person,” how (if at all) might this affect the way we teach foreign languages? How might it affect teaching composition to multilingual students?
  3. What connections can you make between Boroditsky’s ideas and those presented by Leonard, Nobel, and/or other authors we have read? How would these authors answer the question posed by Boroditsky, and why?
      1. Assign Boroditsky’s essay version of her TEDTalk and ask students to reflect on the genre differences between the two.
      2. You may want to use this handout to help guide their responses.

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