By Karelia Isabel Pallán
“...I hoarded secret syllables I read
until my tongue (my lengua) learned to run
where his stumbled. And still the heart was one.”
-Bilingual/Bilingüe by Rhina P. Espaillat
The poem’s words washed over me as I sat in a nook hidden behind a bookcase in D.C.’s newest museum, Planet Word. Growing up bilingual — and especially learning English at an early age — has made me particularly attuned to the power of words and language. I grew up considering which words in my two languages were very similar, or which seemed similar but had different meanings, and being frustrated at the ones that had no good translation. I grew up unraveling all the hidden meanings and unspoken cultural literacy behind language and communication. I didn’t think a fun afternoon in a museum would prompt me to analyze my upbringing and worldview, but I’ve found that the best museums often do make you reconsider and restructure your lens of understanding.
Planet Word celebrates not just words, but also the mechanics of how we speak and how we can communicate with each other: sharing ideas and stories, telling jokes and persuading, enlightening and inciting action. This museum combines the old idea of lifelong learning with new technology and design to create a true 21st century experience — you are invited to speak aloud, sing, laugh and interact digitally with the various exhibits all around you.
Like a fish noticing water for the first time, the exhibits and interactive elements encourage you to consider the mechanics and impact of something you may have taken for granted — language. Real-life examples bring the power of language to life and show how it is important in many different contexts.
It’s difficult to write a complete review of the museum without giving too much away — I want to share all the fun discoveries I made there, but I’d rather you go in person and discover these surprises for yourself. I will share, however, a little bit of the exhibits and what makes this museum so unique.
You begin at the top floor where you get a short primer on how babies acquire language. This is a useful allegory for the experience of the visitor from this point on, as, like a baby, you will be discovering how the exhibits work and respond to your gestures and voice.
You then encounter the pièce de résistance of the whole museum: the magic Word Wall, which responds and changes the script according to your answers to its prompts. It goes over the intricacies and discrepancies of the origins and influences of the English language as we know it today.
In a world languages great hall, you can interact with videos of native speakers in more than 20 languages as they not only teach you phrases in their language, but also explain to you what aspects of their language make it uniquely structured. A large, brilliant globe at the center of the room reacts with lights, pictures and sounds as you complete a module or say a certain phrase correctly.
An interactive library hosts the aforementioned hidden nook that goes through a curated selection of poems from authors around the world, as well as a speech recording booth and whimsical miniatures of famous literary scenes that light up when you speak a phrase or quote from the story.
In between the large exhibits, smaller modules in the hallways around the museum explain bite-sized aspects of the use of language.
Exhibits that kids may be drawn to include a wordplay room filled with games that use jokes, puns and idiomatic expressions, and a karaoke studio that teaches you the lyrical components used to write a hit song.
For me, one of the most impactful rooms was the very last exhibit called Words Matter. This part highlighted the sometimes darker side of language — how it can be used to discriminate, marginalize or hurt others. It featured videos from different storytellers sharing their experiences, as well as some interactive quizzes on linguistic bias. It was a good reminder that language can connect or divide depending on how you wield its power.
Ultimately, Planet Word champions language as a beneficial tool and celebrates the power of communication, through its text and context, as humanity’s defining characteristic. It succeeds in its mission to engage both children and adults in literacy and language, while reminding everyone of the importance of words.
I highly recommend visiting Planet Word soon and attending their online events. Timed-entry tickets are available on their website, though the museum can also accommodate a limited number of walk-up visitors. Tickets to both the museum and events are currently free, but you are also able to make a small donation to the museum or become an inaugural member. Learn more about Planet Word and schedule a visit at planetwordmseum.org.