Monday, June 04, 2007

The importance of a large vocabulary

Parents play a fundamental role in the development of their children’s vocabulary. The more words children know, the better understanding they will have of themselves, society, the economy, history, and so on.

This concept pops up in odd places. For work, I am reading Code Complete, 2nd edition. (Bare with me a second, very little of this post is about programming.) Chapter 4 is titled “Key Construction Decisions.” The selection of a programming language is made early in a programming project. On page 63 is this thought:

In the case of natural languages, the linguists Sapir and Whorf hypothesize a relationship between the expressive power of a language and the ability to think certain thoughts. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis says that your ability to think a thought depends on knowing words capable of expressing the thought. If you don’t know the words, you can’t express the thought and you might not even be able to formulate it (Whorf 1956).

Think about that for a moment.


A large vocabulary facilitates a greater range of thoughts.

A key part of education is acquiring vocabulary. This is true for any subject. In algebra a student needs to learn words such as equation, graph, sin, cosine, tangent, and so on. In history a student needs to learn words describing government, war, business, and so on. Thus, a big part of learning a new subject is learning the lingo.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis points out that a limited vocabulary will limit progression. If a child is only taught two words to describe emotions, for example hate and love, then they will have a hard time understanding fear, anger, sadness, anxiety…etc.

Science Fiction plays with this idea. Twenty years ago, I read The Languages of Pao by Jack Vance. Pao is a conquered planet which frees itself by learning new languages. Each language tries to mold the mind set in different ways. For example in talking about chopping down a tree one group of people on Pao are taught a language that frames the action in terms of the industry invested in bring the tree down and the benefits. This group becomes the businessmen and industrialists of the planet. Another group learns a language that frames the same action in terms of aggressiveness and destroying the tree. This group is being molded to become the warriors of Pao. A third language is developed for scientists and engineers. There were even more languages. Eventually the planet is able to rebel and free themselves, largely because of the languages. (Remember, it is science fiction.)

In our society, successful people tend to use a rich vocabulary. Having a large vocabulary allows a person to see more options and thus make better choices.


What can we do to help children develop a rich vocabulary?


1) The first is rather obvious. Talk to your children. We learned this first hand from our neighbors. My wife and the mother next door would go walking with their babies in strollers. For my wife, these little walks were her chance to zone out and hopefully put the baby to sleep. Not so for the mother next door. During the walks, she would run an almost constant dialogue with her baby. It sounded something like this.

Look we are coming to the fire hydrant. We are almost there. Here we are at the fire hydrant. Look, it is bright red. Let’s wave good bye to the fire hydrant. Now we are coming to the stop sign. ‘Hello Mr. Stop sign.’ Let’s turn right at the corner. Here we go to the right.

My wife was exhausted just listening to her. All their children are brilliant and do very, very well academically. They never pushed academics on their children. It just came naturally.


2) Another important step is to encourage the reading of good books. Children will learn thousands of words from context. I am often surprised by the wide vocabulary my daughters know. Often we’ll be talking and they’ll include a word many learn in high school, or even college. Some times my daughters will pronounce the word incorrectly, but they what the word means and how to use it.


3) Make a dictionary available and model the use of a dictionary. When asked what a word means, don’t always give the answer. Say “Let’s see, walk over to a dictionary, and look it up.” This will show your children that a dictionary is a good option for understanding words.


Make a conscious effort to help your children master a large vocabulary. It doesn’t take a lot of extra effort, just a little more focus. It will pay great dividends.


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3 comments:

Dorota z Cezarowa said...

I couldn't agree more. This is what John Holt said in Insted of Education describing Ny Lilleskole (Our Little School) in Denmark (alternative, "unschooling" school): "...all of this may begin to explain to a small degree why the children are lively and happy there. It does not explain how the children get so good at conventional schoolwork. What happens to account for that? The answer is given by the teacher narrating the film. After showing and talking about some of what the children do, he says, "Mostly we talk and listen to each other." ...This does not mean that the teachers talk and the children listen ...There are only conversations." My elder one is only 3-year-old but right now I can watch him using a range of vocabulary that suprises adults around him. And I know that the reason is we just talk and listen to each other about the world around us, the way we feel, things we plan, people we meet. "...only conversations". Sorry for my English, I am a stranger, greeting from Poland, your blog is great :)

Janine Cate said...

We appreciate your comment from so far away.

HappyHomeschooler said...

I just found your blog and enjoyed this entry! My children have always displayed a rich vocabulary and have often been deemed super-intelligent after a simple conversation with someone. They enjoy the "Wordly Wise" Vocabulary books, but I was wondering if you had other suggestions on building Vocabulary? We read to them daily, and I always try to keep the level of the book above their current reading level. I stop & point out new words as we go along. I am currently tutoring a child who is desperately behind in her vocabulary. Any other suggestions you have would be very welcome!