Theory and practice

Untranslatable Words:


Exploring the power of the untranslatable in RE classrooms

Words are incredible things. Through words we understand our world. They allow us to identify and articulate our experience and everything around us.

(Lomas 2019a)


For some time, I have been interested in untranslatable words from around the world. Put simply, these are words for which although it is possible to convey some essence of the meaning, there is no direct equivalent in another language. An example is the German word ‘fernweh’, meaning a feeling of homesickness for a place even though you have never been there. It literally translates as ‘farsickness’ (in contrast to ‘homesickness’) or a longing for far-away places (The Intrepid Guide 2020). I perceived something powerfully beautiful and awe-inspiring about these words and how they may help us find a window onto other lives and cultures, revealing something about experience, values and traditions (Lomas 2019a, 2019b). From this, my thoughts turned to how untranslatable words might work in the RE classroom. Might they be used deliberately by teachers to enhance religious literacy?

Untranslatable words in the RE classroom

In RE, as in other subjects, pupils are exposed to words from different languages. Some RE words have migrated into the English language in an etymological sense – for example, ‘theist’ and ‘atheist’ from Greek – and are relatively translatable; but the meaning of other specialist terms, perhaps from ‘older’ languages foundational to religious traditions – such as the Arabic concept and practice of hajj (a pillar of Islam) – are more difficult to convey. The term ‘hajj’ can be translated as ‘pilgrimage’, but this does not convey a deeper meaning attached to the word, of ritual, community and unity, that exists within Muslim communities.

As Stephen Stahl (2005) suggests:

‘Vocabulary knowledge is knowledge; the knowledge of a word not only implies a definition but also implies how that word fits into the world.

Quigley (2018, p. 49) also speaks of the depth, history and biography of words:

Too often though, our focus on vocabulary in schools is shallow … we fail to plumb the rich depths of words which can unlock essential knowledge and understanding.

If we do not, as Quigley suggests, learn more about the biographies and histories of words, especially those that have been translated or adapted through a Western lens, we risk missing out on the richness and depth that could be added to our knowledge and a realisation of how words have been loaded with meaning in different cultures. For example, the word ‘Sikhism’ was coined by the British Raj; it was not a term Sikhs used themselves (Singh 2020). Singh Mandair (2013) describes the word ‘Sikhism’ as a ‘colonial construct’; many Sikhs prefer the term ‘Sikhi’ instead. More than a social justice or an anti-racist issue, decolonising words enriches our knowledge and understanding of the world as well.

Lomas (2019a) has developed what he terms a ‘lexicon’ of untranslatable words, describing them as working like either old friends or mysterious strangers. Comparable to meeting a childhood friend, Lomas suggests that some words strike an immediate chord of recognition without getting the full meaning, while the meaning of others is harder to fathom, even with detailed descriptions. His proposal invites playfulness from his audience, and I began to see possibilities for RE. I decided to explore the possibility of creating familiarity with words that could be seen as new and untranslatable, firstly with years 7 and 8 and then in two primary settings. Would providing a more playful approach assist them in their understanding, memory and application of the new vocabulary?

Can playfulness with words happen in RE?

Play can be difficult to define because it is ambiguous. We think we might know what play is, but it has a broad and often changing theoretical definition (Sutton Smith 1997). Miguel Sicart (2014) makes a helpful distinction between play as an activity and playfulness as an attitude. He suggests that playfulness involves projecting and appropriating some of the characteristics of play into non-play activities, through being in the mode of play. Playfulness respects the purpose of an activity; it can be disruptive without destroying the activity itself; using a playful approach can change how we perceive and interpret activity in a context (Sicart 2014). I saw parallels in the way that Sicart refers to play as being in the world with Lomas’s suggestion that untranslatable words have the power to bring things into being (Lomas 2019a).

I began my intervention with pupils in Year 7 and Year 8 classes conventionally, using the list of vocabulary identified for each unit of work on the front of pupil RE books. However, I quickly moved to a more playful approach, inviting pupils to consider which words were ‘known before or learnt in the unit’ using Lomas’s two terms. I asked pupils to circle words on the list that were like old friends to them and underline words that were like mysterious strangers. I then asked them to compare the words they had identified with someone else’s choices. I immediately noticed how pupils’ conversations seemed longer and more animated than before, when vocabulary had been considered using standard phrases around knowledge and learning. For example, a Year 7 pupil said,

Using “old friends” and “mysterious strangers” makes it more like playing. It’s more fun than when I’ve done this activity before using know and learn.

In Year 7 classes, pupils seemed to have conversations in which they placed themselves in a role: this is an old friend word from primary RE, but I don’t know them really well. Some pupils playfully shifted categories through their conversations: ‘Oh yes, I remember them now, they are an old friend, I just didn’t recognise them at first!’ I questioned pupils on what makes a word a mysterious stranger. Their responses included: never having heard the word before, not being able to read it, it was a long word or it sounded like it was not an ‘English’ word. Their overall feedback was positive.

We repeated the activity at the end of the unit. Pupils immediately remembered the categories and completed their underlining to make a circle to illustrate how some mysterious stranger words had become an old friend. A few pupils commented that two categories were not enough. They felt a third category of ‘new friends’ better described words they had only recently been introduced to. When I asked them to compare this approach with the ‘know and learnt’ one, one pupil said:

When a teacher asks me if I know a word and I don’t, it feels like I have got something wrong and they are expecting me to know that word. Thinking of a word as a mysterious stranger doesn’t do that. It’s feels more like I don’t know that word yet.

My experience showed that subsequent conversations, where pupils shared and amended their groupings, provided the most opportunity to increase religious literacy. There seemed a genuine sense of curiosity towards words they were unfamiliar with. Crucially, I also noticed that words pupils identified as ‘mysterious strangers’ were most often words distinctive to a particular religion or worldview.

I wanted to dig deeper. Could the playful approach to developing vocabulary also be used with younger pupils at Key Stage 2? Could that helpfully prepare the ground and shift pupils’ attitudes to encountering mysterious and untranslatable language at Key Stage 3? I approached primary RE teachers involved in our local syllabus review, who I hoped might also be curious to use the tool.

Developing the approach

In recent locally agreed syllabi (2012, 2017 and 2023) for schools across Cumbria, words as concepts are used in RE to ‘interpret human experience and make sense of the world’ across three distinct groups. This is drawn from the work of Erricker, Lowndes and Bellchambers (2010) and includes concepts common to all, such as forgiveness and remembering; concepts shared by many religions or worldviews, such as worship and the Golden Rule; and concepts distinctive to a particular religion or worldview, such as the Khalsa and dukkha. This progression can be helpfully compared to the word level or tier vocabulary framework first explained by Beck, McKeown and Kucan (2002). The three tiers are based on the frequency, complexity and meaning of words. For example, Tier 3 words that are comparable to concepts distinctive to a particular religion or worldview are low-frequency but central to understanding concepts and therefore require a different method of instruction to high-frequency words.

With the idea of developing pupils’ engagement with untranslatable words found across these categories, I was interested to go beyond the established set of age-appropriate word lists found in the new Cumbrian Agreed Syllabus (Cumbria SACRE 2023). Could the framing of words as ‘old friends’ or ‘mysterious strangers’ better prepare Key Stage 2 pupils for encountering them in the Key Stage 3 curriculum? In addition, a category of ‘new friend’ was introduced, in response to feedback from Key Stage 3 pupils, to identify recognition and engagement with a new term.

One teacher was immediately interested in introducing this to her Year 3 class; I was later able to visit the school and work with both her class and a Year 6 class as well. I also worked with a Year 5/6 class in another school that was unfamiliar with the thinking tool. Ian Long (illustrator of the well-known kindly agreed to create a series of playful illustrations to accompany the terms as I introduced them.

I used the thinking tool to introduce words at the beginning of a unit with the Year 5/6 class, and as an activity at the beginning and end of a single lesson in Year 3 and Year 6 in the same school. For example, in the Year 3 and Year 6 classes, I revealed words together on a screen connected with the non-religious worldview of Humanism. I then provided a lesson in the form of a Humanist school speaker visit. At the end of the lesson, I went back to the words and the class gave feedback on whether any of the words had changed their category.

In this exercise, three particularly stood out for many children: ‘theist’, ‘atheist’ and ‘agnostic’. One of the pupils said, ‘These words seemed really mysterious at the beginning of the lesson but they are just words for something I already know about.’

In this exercise, three particularly stood out for many children: ‘theist’, ‘atheist’ and ‘agnostic’. One of the pupils said, ‘These words seemed really mysterious at the beginning of the lesson but they are just words for something I already know about.’

When teaching Year 7, I had been intrigued to find that the word ‘theist’ was often assigned as a ‘mysterious stranger’ – even when ‘atheist’ and ‘agnostic’ were like ‘old friends’. It was as if some students seemed unaware of any kind of etymological connection between ‘atheist’ and ‘theist’. My conversations with primary RE teachers revealed that for some schools, ‘theist’ was not part of the key vocabulary, even when ‘atheist’ and ‘agnostic’ were. I suggest that introducing the word ‘theist’ alongside ‘atheist’ and ‘agnostic’ might help to build up a conceptual framework of RE-specific vocabulary.

With the Year 5/6 class, I initially introduced the thinking tool by pulling the words on slips of paper from a special bag. Groups of pupils had their own set of words about the different ways of understanding the concept of God. They had freedom of choice in how they presented them as ‘old friends’ or ‘mysterious strangers’, using large pieces of paper and colouring pencils. Talk expert Topsy Page suggests that grouping, ranking and matching slips of paper with words is a good way of generating classroom talk. Page ( 2020) also suggests the output of the work is tangible, and this raises responsibility for the learning in collaboration with others. I would add that giving pupils choice often leads to more creative outcomes. It was wonderful to see the range of responses in a classroom buzzing with playful and informed conversations. These involved connecting words, discussing meanings and asking questions – an excellent example of religious literacy in action. At the end of a lesson, pupils confidently told me which words were now ‘new friends’ and which were still ‘mysterious strangers’.

Some pupils added illustrations, causing me to consider the potential value of using visual cues (rather than clues) to make the activity more inclusive for SEND pupils.

What are the different ways of using the tool for thinking about words?

The thinking tool can be used in various ways to assist pupils’ learning. One of the primary schools involved focuses on increasing pupils’ vocabulary across the curriculum (they describe it as ‘vast vocabulary’) and my research fitted well with their approach. One teacher created a permanent display of the words to use throughout the whole term, not just the beginning and end. The words then became a reference point as the unit progressed; the teacher described how pupils would refer to the display as words were introduced in lessons, especially ‘mysterious stranger’ words. The teacher also described how enthusiastic pupils had been when starting other units and using the approach again as a class discussion, displaying the words under the headings they identified. She recounted one enthusiastic response from pupils: ‘Nope, that one is definitely a mysterious stranger!’

On my visit, I was able to engage in verbal feedback with Year 3 pupils about their experiences of using the thinking tool. They especially liked the new ‘blob’ images. I was most interested in their comments about not worrying if a word was a ‘mysterious stranger’ to them. This supported my findings in Year 7 and Year 8 around the need for psychological safety with word activities. Pupils seemed to be saying they felt less inhibited to admit when they were unfamiliar with a word when it was described as a ‘mysterious stranger’.

In summary, I think the ‘old friends and mysterious strangers’ thinking tool has many applications. It is versatile, once pupils are familiar with it, and can be used with value for 5–10 minutes as a paired, group or class activity. Equally, it has potential as an activity when small groups of pupils are given time to sort, group, order, connect and ultimately discuss and question the meaning of words. When I set out on my research, my intention was to try out different ways of using it as a stand-alone activity. I had not expected its wider potential as part of ongoing classroom practice, providing teachers with ongoing formative assessment opportunities as pupils become more religiously literate through a unit of work.

Conclusion and next steps

The value of explicitly introducing the idea of untranslatability into the RE classroom is considerable, because many RE-specific words derive from languages other than English. Teachers should be cautious when defining words through simple translations, as this may diminish their depth. Using the terminology of ‘old friends’ and ‘mysterious strangers’ can be a way to explicitly introduce the idea of untranslatability, evoking a sense of awe and wonder, and potentially supporting spiritual development. Furthermore, using these metaphorical terms offers a playful approach to vocabulary activities, meaning pupils may feel less inhibited by unfamiliar words and they are more likely to be memorable. The ‘old friend and mysterious stranger’ approach received enthusiastic feedback from both teachers and pupils, whether as a stand-alone activity or as part of a general classroom approach to pupils becoming more religiously literate.

Finally, while this research has continued to indulge my curiosity in untranslatable words, it has also fuelled new interest in reading more widely about the value of playful attitude or mode as an educator. I look forward to exploring the wider implications and potential for playfulness in the RE classroom and how it might contribute to well-being and spiritual development.