Engage, Interact, Inspire: Interview with Ann Friedman

There’s a new museum in town, and we can’t wait to see what Planet Word will have to offer. The immersive language experience is slated to open in Washington, D.C. in 2019 and is already picking up buzz in the community. We caught up with Planet Word Founder and CEO Ann Friedman to learn more.

Interview conducted by NML Vice President Greg Nedved.

Ann B. Friedman, Planet Word Founder and CEO

As a philanthropist, you have been involved in many worthy causes.  Why did you decide to build a language museum now?

As a former reading teacher, I wanted to find a way to excite people about words and reading. I was discouraged by national surveys showing a decline in reading for pleasure, by a stagnation in national reading test scores, by the shuttering of bookstores.  I thought that museums, which specialize in informal education, might be the right place to try some innovative approaches to literacy – museums offer large spaces; they bring people together (which encourages dialogue and interaction); they build community (which strengthens democracy); they can convene groups and attract speakers, including celebrities; they can afford new technologies that engage visitors; they can bring together people of all ages and ethnicities. Museums can go where no teacher or individual can go!

What will Planet Word offer that other museums in the United States don’t?

Planet Word may not be the first language museum in the U.S., but it is certainly going to be the first interactive museum of words and language.  And I hope it will play an important civic role in highlighting the importance of words in every aspect of our lives – from technology that is based on an understanding of how language works to the persuasive power of words in marketing and diplomacy to the joy words bring to our lives through poetry, song, and literature to the medical and psychological advances that speech and text analysis now reveal.

What is your own foreign language background?

I have studied several languages: Spanish, Italian, French, Hebrew and colloquial spoken Arabic, but I wouldn’t claim to be fluent in any.  I enjoyed learning languages from an early age, and two girls from France lived with our family in Des Moines, Iowa, when I was in high school, and tutored me in French.  I learned Italian through the Experiment in International Living before my month-long homestay in Fermo on the Adriatic coast when I was 16.  I studied Hebrew in an ulpan when we lived in Jerusalem for the New York Times, and I studied colloquial Arabic when we lived in Beirut.  I worked as a translator from French to English for 3 years in Beirut, translating research on the economics and politics of the Arab world.

You also have a background as a reading instructor.  How did this come about? 

I taught an extracurricular class for kindergarteners through 2nd graders called “World Class” for three years.  It was very popular – teaching hands-on arts and crafts, geography, music, dance, food of many different world cultures.  That enjoyable experience led me to return to graduate school for a Masters in Teaching.  I first taught fifth grade and then became a first grade Reading Initiative teacher in the Montgomery County Public Schools.  It was a part-time position, which was much better suited to my busy personal life, but I had taken several graduate-level reading courses to become a fully-certified teacher in Maryland and MCPS, so I was well-prepared to teach reading.  After one year of teaching just reading, I expanded my role to teaching all facets of literacy: reading, writing, spelling, speaking.  I am now retired.

The focus of your museum appears to be on the English language (speech, literature, journalism, poetry).  How much of your focus will be on other languages?

Planet Word will shine a spotlight on language in general. Exhibits will cover a wide range of topics – the main constraints determining what will or won’t be in the museum will be the available floor space, funding, and whether the exhibit designers can imagine how to present a concept in a compelling, interactive way.  In addition, we’ll want a mix of types of exhibits, from analog to digital to fully immersive, from permanent to temporary.  Some topics may be best addressed by speakers and programming in the auditorium.

How will you inspire young people to begin to explore and develop a fascination with language? 

Planet Word will inspire them through the right mix of engaging exhibits and experiences.