Tuesday, June 19, 2007

"It Pays Makes-Some-People-Very-Nervous-That-You-Want To Increase Your Word Power"

Okay, have you had time yet to read the Big Words article? (First mentioned here.)

Is it undemocratic and elitist to celebrate words? Should those who do have large vocabularies back off and shut up because it might make the less erudite feel bad? (erudite: characterized by great knowledge; learned or scholarly: an erudite professor; an erudite commentary.) Did you catch that first line of the article: "With the Lord of Loquacity on trial in Chicago and schools playing down language to level the playing field...." [italics mine]

How long ago was it we were talking about that example from The Incredibles?
Helen: Right now, honey, the world just wants us to fit in, and to fit in, we gotta be like everyone else.
Dash: But Dad always said our powers were nothing to be ashamed of, our powers made us special.
Helen: Everyone's special, Dash.
Dash: [muttering] Which is another way of saying no one is.
But that whole angle of level playing field, undemocratic, elitist is just missing the point. It's not about a few people having talent for words and time enough to enjoy them (I still love Burgess Meredith). Our collective gift of language is one of the most democratic things we have (please take "democratic" as a positive idea there). It is being able to read and understand the greatest ideas that have been written, and express our own as well, that keeps us from slavery--including slavery to propaganda. What kind of a Brave New World would we be living in if we were limited--by political correctness or any other such foolishness--to using "story" for "narrative," "very big" for "prodigious," and "teach" for "instruct?" (See the "Forbidden Words" sidebar in the article, about OISE professor Clive Beck, who believes that "teachers should avoid unnecessarily big words so that they can 'talk on the same level' as their students.") With such spavined vocabularies, we would be locked out of some of the most influential books ever written--like Common Sense (thank you, DHM). (spavined: adjective 1. suffering from or affected with spavin. 2. being of or marked by a decrepit or broken-down condition: a spavined old school bus abandoned in a field.) What's democratic about that?

How do you teach or learn new vocabulary--by endless drills, by writing out definitions? I can think of several more effective ways:

1. By listening to those who use language powerfully--and that would, we hope, include the teachers Clive Beck wants to limit. (Can you imagine getting "bleeped" for using a phrase like "nefarious villain?")

2. By reading what those same people have written--and though that road may end with books written for adults, it begins much earlier. If we wanted to limit our children's literary menu to books using the easiest and most commonly used words, we wouldn't have read them A.A. Milne, Beatrix Potter ("I am affronted," said Mrs. Tabitha Twitchit), William Steig, the Bible, Jacobs' English Folk and Fairy Tales, Lewis Carroll, Graham Oakley...or Melissa Wiley.

Our Crayons (just turned six) is reading Anne of Green Gables to herself--she doesn't want it read to her. The motivation was that she found a small porcelain Anne doll at one yard sale, and then a copy of Anne at the next one. We already owned two copies, but she wanted this one for her own self, to go with her doll--and it was her quarter. She sits in my grandfather's little rocking chair with her doll beside her, and reads it while Mr. Fixit reads the newspaper. It's way beyond her vocabulary and experience, and I didn't expect her to get past the first couple of pages--but she has read eight chapters already (and did allow me to read her the ninth). I'm sure she skips what she doesn't understand, but she can still tell you a lot about the story, particularly about Anne's imaginary friends. Would she be better off with an adapted version? Define "better off."

3. By reading books that lead us gently through unfamiliar territory--like Melissa's Martha books, set in Scotland in the 1700's. (Want to read an excerpt? And then there's the whole sad business of their current state of abridgement, which is itself a perfect example of where all this is taking us.) (2012 update: sorry, both of these links are now defunct.) Again it was Crayons who first asked to be read these books. She's now acquainted with box bed, waulking wool, governess, kirk, peat, spindle, flax, loch, dustgown, Hogmanay, and pianoforte. When I asked her if those were hard words, she said (I quote): "Kids know DUST and kids know GOWN so you just put them together and make DUSTGOWN." What's a governess? "A lady who takes care of you." No problem.

4. By actively seeking out the specialized vocabulary that we need to learn to do the things we want to do! Sometimes for pleasure, sometimes out of necessity. Pod in The Borrowers Aloft has a very short time to learn the vocabulary (and thus the technology) of building a hot-air balloon [actually it was gas-filled]; his understanding of words like "ballast" and "envelope" is what allows his family to escape from their kidnappers.

From Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH to Roald Dahl's Matilda, the key to freedom has always been reading, reading, reading--and those are just the fictional examples.
Books fall open, you fall in,
delighted where you've never been;
hear voices not once heard before,
reach world on world through door on door;
find unexpected keys to things locked up beyond imaginings.
What might you be, perhaps become,
because one book is somewhere?....
--David McCord
Consider what happens if we lose the ability to look beyond our own place in time and space. We become small-minded, small-souled, wrapped up only in our immediate interests...and vulnerable because we are unable to think clearly.

"But they couldn't do it,
for their poor brains were such
That they couldn't think often,
and hadn't thought much."
--Virginia Kahl, The Duchess Bakes a Cake

Freedom lies in our ability to discern truth and choose right actions. Leadership, courage, hope, conscience, character, faith, critical thinking, magnanimity--all those things are available to those who take and read--but only if we develop the vocabulary to understand.

P.S. Clive Beck responds here, but I can't get a link to the full text--sorry. This link takes you to a few other letters in response--also just the beginnings, though--I hate these subscriber-only newspaper sites! I liked Eileen Reardon's comment: "My first reaction on reading the list of 'unnecessarily big words' Clive Beck would like to remove from teachers' mouths was: Nuts! (Simple enough?) Then I started the cryptic crossword and had a horrible thought: If Prof. Beck has his way, he won't merely be gutting the language of nuance, he'll be taking the fun out of crosswords. Egad!"

P.P.S. One more comment here, linking to the Common Room post "Interesting comments".


Sarah at SmallWorld said...

Excellent thoughts. I do admit to monitoring my vocabulary sometimes depending on the "audience." I don't do this to change who *I* am, but to make others feel comfortable. I have had people tell me that they are paranoid around me because of my grammar "expertise"--they are afraid they'll slip up around me and I'll call them out. (I don't DO this, but there is still a lingering doubt that I am judging one's grammar.) Similarly, I've had people stop in mid sentence and ask, "Did I say that right?" While I completely disagree with dumbing down vocabulary to suit today's standards, I know that I need to sometimes tone down my word choice. Sometimes it really is better to say "think" than it is to say "ponder."

Headmistress, zookeeper said...

I notice in that Beck's response (where we can only read a paragraph), he says he's concerned about "It is the self-indulgent flaunting of know-ledge of large words. " Sure, but you usually cannot make that call for somebody else, and quite often those that try merely demonstrate their own prejudices.

Sometimes using a lesser word in favor of a more complex word isn't facilitating communication, it's patronizing and condescending. And sometimes it's less accurate. Sometimes ponder really is the better word choice.

Unknown said...

I endorse this thread!!!

Both our children have seen Speech Pathologists since 2 years of age. With both children the Pathologists were amazed at the size of their vocabulary. At 2 my son had the vocabulary of a 6 year old, we were told. The only problem was deciphering his syntax and knowing which sounds stood for which syllables. With our daughter, she developed her own language. She would consistantly substitute syllables and they were amazed to discover how much language she actually was using, including proper grammatical sentence structures. Something with which I have problems.

Anyhow, both my children continue to test high in the amount of vocabulary they know, all because of simple exposure. The only thing that moderates my use of vocabulary is my atrocious spelling!

Becky said...

I read the article in the G&M, too, and interestingly at the same time there were a few hs questions at various groups about what vocab programs to use.

We don't use any. We read, aloud and independently, good books, and my husband and I talk to the kids as we do to each other, not choosing simple words just because they're children.

My reasons for wanting my kids, and others, to have a rich vocabulary is so that they can paint bright pictures (even of not always bright objects and thoughts), and to communicate clearly, for my benefit and theirs. Since when did that become erudite and elitist, sigh...

Rebecca said...

Thanks for this post...I'm linking to it, and add my thoughts on my own blog.