A pool of linguistic lesson starters

Go to the index to this collection.

#1. Is it a noun, is it a verb? – Ambiguity in English

Aim: to explore how ambiguity can arise in English as a result of word classes such as verbs and nouns being indistinguishable.

Relevant to target language: English

Language of data: English

Data: the real headlines from a range of British and American newspapers below. They are all ambiguous – in other words, as well as their intended meaning, there is another way of reading the headline, changing the meaning completely.


(a)   Eye drops off shelves

(b)   Antarticta’s unique space rocks

(c)    Child teaching expert to speak

(d)   Dealers will hear car talk at noon

(e)   Elephant seals dive for science

(f)     Cancer in women mushrooms

Question: Spot the word in each headline that makes the whole headline confusing, because it can be read as a noun or a verb.

Example: (f) Cancer in women mushrooms – the word “mushrooms” can be both a noun and a verb, creating two possible readings.



(a)   “drops” can be noun or verb.

(b)   “rocks” can be noun or verb.

(c)    “teaching” can be a noun (gerund) or a verb (present participle / progressive).

(d)   “talk” can be a noun or a verb.

(e)   “seals” can be a noun or a verb.

#2. To be or not to be…Different verbs for “to be”

Aim: to understand the differences between the verb “to be” when used to describe certain states that differ in some pragmatic or semantic sense.

Relevant to Target Language: Spanish (which has “ser” and”estar” which in English are both translated with “to be”)

Language of Data: Irish

Data: Here are some sentences in Irish, all using one of the two possible verbs that both mean “to be”: “Is” and “Tá”. In Irish sentences the verb comes first, before the subject (so in Irish you’d say “Am I a student” where English has “I am a student”).


a)      Tá mé ansin. = I am there.

b)      Is mé Máirtin. = I am Martin.

c)      Is tú an dochtuír. = You are the doctor.

d)      Is í Cáit mo bhean. = Cate is my wife.

e)      Is í an múinteoir í. = She is the teacher

f)       Tá muid anseo. = We are here.

g)      Tá fear agus gasúr anseo. = There are a man and a child here.

h)      Tá an teach ansin. = The house is there.

i)        Is Éireannach mé. = I am Irish.



Irish English
ansin there
an the
dochtuír doctor
í special form of “she”
mo my
bhean (“bean” is normal form, the “h” appears here because of “mo”) wife
múinteoir teacher
muid we
anseo here
fear man
agus and
gasúr child
teach house
Éireannach Irish



  1. Explain in your own words the difference between using “tá” and “is” different verbs for “to be”.



Irish (like Spanish) distinguishes between temporary states and permanent states. Where you are from and your profession are thought of as permanent, characteristic of a person or thing. However, where someone or something happens to be at a particular moment in time can change at other times and so are not characteristic of the person or thing. As a result, Irish uses “tá” for temporary states and “is” for permanent characteristics of the person or thing.

However, the examples given here don’t allow this interpretation to be distinguished from another, in which “tá” is used just for places (‘locative’), i.e. for saying where someone or something is.

#3. In – Accusative or Dative?

Aim: to highlight the different ways in which languages can express location and direction. Develop sense of how German uses Acc or Dat to distinguish the two (as opposed to Dutch and English which have lost their case forms).

Relevant to Target Language: German

Language of data: Dutch, German, English

Data: Here are some sentences in German, Dutch and English, which all mean exactly the same in each language. So 1 in German corresponds with 1 in Dutch and English etc.



  1. Der Hund läuft in den Park.
  2. Der Hund läuft in dem Park.


  1. The dog runs in the park.
  2. The dog runs into the park.



  1. De hond rent in het park.
  2. De hond rent het park in.




Using the vocabulary below, construct the equivalent German and Dutch sentences of the English versions.

German: Die Frau geht das Zimmer
English: The woman walks the room
Dutch: De vrouw loopt de kamer


Translate into German and Dutch:

3. The woman walks in the room.

4. The woman walks into the room.



  1. Die Frau geht in dem Zimmer.
  2. Die Frau geht in das Zimmer.



  1. De vrouw loopt de kamer in.
  2. De vrouw loopt in de kamer.


#4. Telling Time – Dividing the hour


Aim: to explore how different languages divide up the clock when it comes to telling time.

Relevant to target language: German

Language of data: Estonian

Data: Here are some phrases for telling time in Estonian – the English translations are given.


Kell on kaks. = It is two o’clock.

Kell on pool kaks. = It is half one.

Kell on veerand kaks. = It is quarter past one.

Kell on kolmveerand kaks. = It is quarter to two.



Estonian: English:
üks one
kaks two
kolm three
neli four
viis five
pool half
veerand quarter
kolmveerand three-quarters
kell o’clock
on is




Translate the following English sentences into Estonian:

  1. It’s three o’clock.
  2. It’s half past three.
  3. It’s half past four.
  4. It’s quarter to four.
  5. It’s quarter to five.
  6. It’s quarter past four.


Solutions 4:



  1. Kell on kolm.
  2. Kell on pool neli.
  3. Kell on pool viis.
  4. Kell on kolmveerand neli.
  5. Kell on kolmveerand viis.
  6. Kell on veerand viis.


#5. Loanwords – Swedish influence on Finnish


Aim: to explore how languages when in contact with other languages can be affected through loans.

Relevant to Target language: any, but especially pertinent to English where students may experience this more commonly and study this. Also, perhaps useful in History or Geography lessons to increase awareness of the effects of invasions / conquering etc.

Language of Data: Swedish, Finnish and Estonian.

Data: Here are some common vocabulary lists from Finnish and Estonian – two closely related languages, which because of their close relationship (like Italian and Spanish for example) resemble each other quite a bit. However, Finnish has been influenced by Swedish, as Finland was once ruled by Sweden, something that never happened to Estonia, so Estonian escaped the Swedish influence.


Finnish English translation
hän “he” or “she”
se it
torstai Thursday
päivä day


Estonian English translation
ma I
sa you
ta “he” or “she” or “it”
neljapäev Thursday
päev day


Swedish English translation
jag I
du you
han he
hon she
det it
torsdag Thursday
dag day



  1. Identify in the data above, the Finnish words that have been influenced by Swedish. Explain your choices.


  1. Why would Finnish have borrowed from Swedish, and not the other way around (Swedish borrowing from Finnish)?




  1. The Finnish for Thursday “torstai” looks very similar to the Swedish “torsdag” – especially when the Estonian word “neljapäev” is completely different. The word “päev” means “day” in Estonian and the Finnish word is very similar to this, “päivä”. Also, the word “hän” (for “he” or “she”) in Finnish looks very similar to the Swedish “han” (the word for “he”). Estonian has only one word for all 3: “he”, “she”, and “it”, which suggests that Finnish borrowed this word from Swedish.


  1. Sweden ruled Finland, as the Swedish speakers were the rulers, they would probably be more important in Finland at the time. So Finnish speakers would think of Swedish as a language spoken by important people, which would make it more likely for Finns to borrow Swedish words than the other way around.



#6. “Colourless green dreams sleep furiously”. – Grammatically correct, but ill-formed sentences


Aim: To explore how sentences’ meaning is not just dependent on grammar, but also on issues of semantics.

Relevant to target language: English and any other language studied in school.

Language of data: English

Data: See the sentences below. They are all grammatically correct, yet something is not right about them.


Explain what is odd or strange about each sentence.


  1. The bird neighed.
  2. He had left next Friday.
  3. She broke her scarf.
  4. The teacher counted the sky.
  5. The car crashed for two hours.




  1. The verb “neighing” is associated semantically with horses, NOT with birds.
  2. The adverbial phrase “next Friday” suggests a future event, yet the verb phrase “had left” is a past tense – perfect, which suggests the action has already been completed.
  3. Scarves are not items that can be broken in the way a cup or a mobile phone can.
  4. Sky is an abstract concept, which makes it strange to think of it as an object that can be counted.
  5. The verb “crash” suggests a one-off event that only happens for an instant, yet the adverbial “for two hours” suggests that the action was on-going.

#7. What verbs can and cannot do – Categorical Constraints


Aim: to explore how verbs can be used with arguments (such as indirect and direct objects).


Relevant to target language: English and any other language studied.

Language of data: English

Data: Verbs differ in the number of arguments they require, i.e. the number of noun phrases which must appear in the sentence with the verbs to make grammatical sentences. Some verbs (intransitive) only need a subject, e.g. “sleep” whereas others such as “give” can take a subject, a direct object, and an indirect object.

For example:


“She sleeps.” Has 1 argument, the subject “she”. I cannot add any other arguments – e.g. She sleeps a duvet” does not make sense.

“He gave her a book”. Has 3 arguments, the subject “he”, the direct object “a book” and the indirect object “her”.


Question: Identify how many arguments the following verbs can take. Give contrasting examples to support your claim.


  1. Disappear
  2. Lend
  3. Bring
  4. Announce
  5. Resent
  6. Weep




  1. Disappear – 1 argument (subject ) (I disappeared)
  2. Lend – 3 arguments (I lend you a book)
  3. Bring – 3 arguments (I bring you a cup of tea)
  4. Announce – 2 arguments (the government announces a new tax)
  5. Resent – 2 arguments (I resent having to travel)
  6. Weep – 1 argument (I weep – not I weep a river)



#8. Vive la différence! – Different French verbs in different clauses


Aim: to explore the use of the subjunctive in subordinate clauses.

Relevant to target languages: French, Italian (called confusingly “conjuntivo”), Spanish.

Language of data: French

Data: Below are sets of French sentences with their English translations.

Question: In the sentences (b) the verb forms used in the original shorter sentences (a) are different from the verb forms in (a). What is the reason (in terms of meaning) that the verb forms in (b) change from their normal forms in (a)?


  1. (a) Nous sommes seuls dans l’univers. – We are alone in the universe.

(b) Il est possible que nous soyons seuls dans l’univers. – It is possible that we are alone in the universe.


  1. (a) Il boit du Pernod. – He drinks Pernod.

(b) Il est douteux qu’il boive du Pernod. – It’s doubted whether he drinks Pernod.


  1. (a) Vous partez. – You leave.

(b) Je suggère que vous partiez. – I suggest that you leave.


  1. (a) Nous allons au cinéma. – We go to the cinema.

(b) Marie préfère que nous allions au cinema. ­­- Marie prefers that we go to the cinema.


  1. (a) Nous passons les vaccances à Paris. – We spend the holidays in Paris.

(b) Il est important que nous passions les vacances à Paris. – It is important that we spend the holidays in Paris.


Solution 8:

In the (a) sentences the clause (the main clause making up the sentence itself) is in indicative mood – it makes a statement. However, in the (b) sentences the clause is now no longer a main clause, but has become a subordinated clause dependent on the rest of the sentence, the main clause. The main clauses in 1 and 2 suggests hesitation and insecurity. Sentences 3, 4, and 5 express opinions – in both these situations the dependent clause must be put in the subjunctive mood, which is why the verb forms change. The subjunctive signals a hesitation or preference / opinion rather than a plain statement (which is in the indicative mood).

#9. To do, a doer, doing – Derivational Morphology


Aim: to introduce the concept of derivational morphology.

Relevant to target language: English and all other MFL.

Language of data: Zulu

Data: Languages often make new words out of existing ones by adding a syllable in front (prefix) or at the end (suffix) of the existing word.

Here are some examples of Zulu:


(a)   ukucula = to sing – this gives Zulu the following words:

  • umculi = singer
  • umculo = singing, music
  • isiculi = person who sings often


(b)   ukudlala = to play – this gives Zulu the following words:

  • umdlali = player
  • umdlalo = game
  • isidlali = playful person
  • isidlalo = toy, thing to play with


Question: Give the Zulu words for the English words, using the original verb that gave Zulu all the new words.


(c)    ukubhula = to thrash – this gives Zulu the following word:


  • thrashing stick (literally: thing to thrash with) =


(d)   ukuthula = to inspect – this gives Zulu the following word:


  • inspector =


(e)   ukucabanga = to think – this gives Zulu the following word:


  • thought =


(f)     ukubuza = to ask – this gives Zulu the following word:


  • question =


(g)   ukuthunga = to sew – this gives Zulu the following word:


  • tailor =


Solution 9:

(c) thrashing stick = isibhulo


(d) inspector = umthuli


(e) thought = umcabanglo


(f) question = umbuzlo


(g) tailor = umthungli



#10. Where does the pronoun go? – Pronoun positions in French


Aim: to explore the rule for positioning the pronoun in French.

Relevant to target language: French, Italian

Language of data: French

Data: Have a look at the sentences below. They are all correct, except for the ones marked with *, which have not been translated into English. A very general rule reduces le to l’ before a vowel.


a.1. Jean a acheté le livre. John has bought the book.
a. 2. Jean l’a acheté. John has bought it.
a. 3. * Jean a acheté le.


b. 1. Je vois le professeur. I see the professor.
b. 2. Je le vois. I see him.
b. 3. * Je vois le.


c. 1. J’ai donné le livre à Jean. I have given the book to John.
c. 2. Je lui ai donné le livre. I have given him the book.
c. 3. * J’ai donné lui le livre.


Question 1: What is the rule for placing the pronoun in French?


Question 2: Look at the following sentence: it appears to go against the rule. Can you explain this?


d. 1. Regardez le professeur! Look at the professor!
d. 2. Regardez-le! Look at him!
d. 3. * Le regardez!




Question 1: The pronoun must go in front of the verb (when pronouns are substituted for nouns in the role of direct or indirect object).


Question 2: This sentence is an imperative (where the verb comes at the start of the sentence) so the normal word order is reversed, which affects the rule for placing pronouns. To keep the imperative mood, the pronoun is “attached” with a hyphen to the verb instead, so the verb is still at start.


#11. Lend or borrow? Exploring the difference.

Aim: To explore how some language use one word where English has two, as in “loan/borrow”.

Relevant to target language: German, also English where sometimes students get confused about the difference between “lend” and “borrow”.

Language of data: Dutch

Data: Here are some sentences in Dutch, which only has one verb that can mean both “lend” and “borrow”.


Dutch Sentences English Translations
a. Ik leen jou een boek. I lend you a book.
Ik leen een boek van jou. I borrow a book from you.
Ik leen een boek aan jou. I lend you a book.
Zij leent een euro aan hem. She lends him a euro.
Zij leent hem een euro. She lends him a euro.
Zij leent een euro van hem. She borrows a euro from him.



1. What does Dutch do to compensate for lacking two distinct verbs like English “lend” and “borrow”?


2. “To lend” can be expressed in two ways in Dutch as seen in the sentences a. + c. and d. + e., but “to borrow” can only be expressed in one way as seen in sentences b. + f.

Explain why the following sentences are not possible in Dutch. Because these sentences are not possible with the meaning of “borrow”, they have been marked with * and there is no English translation given.


* Ik leen jou een boek.
* Zij leent hem een euro.


Solution 11:


1. In Dutch, the word order matters – so “Ik leen jou een boek” always means “I lend you a book” and can never mean “I borrow a book from you”. Similarly, you can express “lend” by adding a phrase: “to you” – in Dutch “aan jou”.


2. Both sentences already mean “to lend to” and therefore cannot also be used to express “borrow from”.

#12. The long and short of it – Spelling and Pronunciation of long and short vowels

Aim: to explore how spelling rules / orthographic conventions are used in different languages to convey vowel length.

Relevant to target language: English

Language of data: Dutch, Finnish, English

Data: Many languages have different length of vowels, for example in English the vowel sound in “fit” is short, whereas the one in “feet” is longer. Short and long vowels in English are generally different in other ways too, but in some languages length is the only difference between pairs of vowels.


Here are some examples of similar pairs in Finnish:

Short vowel sound English translation Long vowel sound English translation
tuli fire tuuli wind
mutta but muuttaa to move, to change


Here are some examples of similar pairs in Dutch:

  Short vowel sound English translation Long vowel sound English translation
bot bone boot boat
botten bones boten boats



1. What one strategy do Finnish and Dutch have in common when it comes to distinguishing short and long vowel sounds?


2. Why is Finnish more straightforward in the way it represents the difference between long and short vowels than Dutch?



1. Both Finnish and Dutch write one vowel-letter when the sound it represents is short, and write two when it is a long vowel sound.


2. Finnish always write 1 vowel-letter for a short sound, and 2 vowel-letters to mark a long vowel sound. However, Dutch can also use double consonant-letters to indicate that the preceding vowel was short (e.g. “botten”).

(The full rule for Dutch is to do with syllables – if a syllable ends in a vowel, that vowel automatically becomes long, so to make sure that a short vowel stays short, when a word gets a suffix, the consonant must double to ensure that the initial syllable ends in a consonant – hence “bot” – “botten”).



#13. Subject-verb agreement

Aim: to show how different subjects require different verb forms; or how a language can do without subject pronouns.

Relevant to target language: Spanish

Language of data: Latin


Here is a table of forms for the present tense of the verb amare, ‘to love’:

singular plural
1st person amo amamus
2nd person amas amatis
3rd person amat amant



What forms of the veb laborare, ‘to plough’, would you use in the gaps of the following sentences?

(1)             Agricola ___.   ‘The farmer ploughs.’

(2)             Agricolae ___. ‘The farmers plough.’

(3)             Vos __. ‘You people plough.’



laborat – laborant – laboratis

#14. Translatability


Aim: To show that meanings aren’t always translatable.

Relevant to target language: German

Language of data: German


German has three basic verbs for describing people moving from place to place:

  • fahren: to move using a vehicle
  • reiten: to move on horseback
  • gehen: to move on foot.


Question: Which of these verbs would you use in translating the following into German?

(1)             I drove to the shops.

(2)             I rode to the shops.

(3)             I walked to the shops.

(4)             I went to the shops.



General – none of the German verbs accurately translates any of the English verbs.

1: fahren allows going by bike, but drove doesn’t.

2: reiten requires a horse, but rode allows a bike.

3: gehen allows running, but walked doesn’t.

4: all the German verbs are more specific than went.

#15. Gern


Aim: To introduce the idea that languages can borrow abstract grammatical patterns.

Relevant to target language: German

Language of data: Dutch and Czech


Here are some sentences in Dutch:

(1)             Ik zwem. ‘I swim’

(2)             Ik zwem graag. ‘I like swimming.


and Czech:

(3)             Plavu. ‘I swim.’

(4)             Rád plavu. ‘I like swimming’


Questions [check Czech data]

Q1. If ‘You swim’ is Jij zwemt and Plavaš, how would you say (in both languages) ‘You like to swim’?

Q2. What is the grammatical difference between this pattern and the English ‘I like swimming’?

Q3. Why do you think this pattern is found in these two languages, bearing in mind that a similar pattern (with gern) exists in German?



Q1. Jij zwemt graag. Rad plavaš.

Q2. like is a verb, with swimming as its (subordinate) object, graag and rád are adverbs, which attach as subordinates to the verb.

Q3. Both The Netherlands and the Czech Republic are geographically next to German, so they probably borrowed the pattern from German (or German borrowed it from one of them and passed it to the other).



#16. Once, twice …


Aim: To show that single words may express complex meanings, and that irregularity of expression is especially common among common words.

Relevant to target language: any

Language of data: English


(2)             once – twice – three times – four times …

(3)             first – second – third – fourth – fifth … twenty-third – twenty-fourth – twenty fifth …


Q1. What does twice mean? Is its meaning any less complex than that of four times?

Q2. Do expressions become more or less regular as the number rises? Why?

Q3. What’s odd about the expression twenty-fifth?



Q1. ‘two times’. No.

Q2. More regular, because less common. Irregular expressions have to be memorised, so they tend to be common.

Q3. Twenty-fifth means ‘25-th’, but the –th clearly belongs to five (which it turns into fifth), not to 25.