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January 25, 2013

Interesting Article on Education, Claiming Vocabulary is the Key to IQ and Advancement

I don't buy the premise, but it's still interesting.

I thought this was an interesting (even if obvious, now that I read it) explanation by which vocabulary is gained unconsciously:

If vocabulary is related to achieved intelligence and to economic success, our schools need to figure out how to encourage vocabulary growth. They should understand, for starters, that word-learning occurs slowly and through a largely unconscious process. Consider the word “excrescence.” Few know the word; fewer still encounter it in their everyday lives. Maybe you do know it, but imagine that you don’t.

Now suppose I gave it to you in a sentence: “To calculate fuel efficiency, the aerospace engineers needed an accurate estimation of excrescence drag caused by the shape of the plane’s cabin.” That single exposure to the word is probably insufficient for you to grasp its meaning, though if you know something about aerospace engineering, you’ll be likelier to make a good approximation. Here’s an encounter in another context: “Excrescences on the valves of the heart have been known to cause a stroke.” Perhaps now you have a vague understanding of the word. A third meaningful encounter will allow you to check your understanding or refine your sense of the meaning: “The wart, a small excrescence on his skin, had made Jeremy self-conscious for years.” By now, you probably have a pretty solid understanding of the word, and one more encounter in a familiar context should verify your understanding: “At the far end of the meadow was what, at first glance, I thought a huge domed building, and then saw was an excrescence from the cliff itself.”

You’ve probably figured out that the word “excrescence” means “an outgrowth.” That’s an accelerated, artificial example of how word-learning occurs. The sense of a word that a listener or reader gains from multiple exposures to it isn’t a fixed and definite meaning but rather a system of meaning possibilities that get narrowed down through context on each occasion. As Miller showed, knowledge of a word is a memory residue of several meaningful encounters with the word in diverse contexts. We retain bits of those past contexts in memory as part of the word’s meaning-potential. Almost all the word meanings that we know are acquired indirectly by intuitively guessing new meanings as we get the overall gist of what we’re hearing or reading.

I would generally agree with a lot of his basic notion -- he argues, as many reformers do, that the great bulk of the educational "reforms" of the 60s and 70s were in fact monstrous disasters and that true reform can be had by returning to the pedagogies that worked.

On vocabulary, specifically, though, I'm thinking this: Is a high vocabulary an cause of a high IQ or an effect of it?

Or, let's take "IQ" out of the statement for a minute. Let's talk about reading. People who read a lot of books -- kids who read a lot of books, especially books that are a bit beyond them (that is, they're always reaching for the next level up) -- are going to accumulate vocabulary via the process Hirsch explains above.

Further, the process he explains -- which involves recalling previous instances of a word's use and then making educated guesses about its likely meaning -- is itself an aspect of intelligence, and people who are better at that will tend, overall, to just be smarter at people who aren't as good at it.

After all (echoing an argument I just saw in the comments!), intelligence, broadly defined, is recalling previous experience or example and extrapolating from them and teasing out conclusions and different, new information.

So, while the basic thrust of what he's writing about seems level-headed enough, I don't know if it's the right idea to focus on vocabulary specifically, which might just be an artifact of the real generators of intelligence, which is a desire to consume information (via reading) and an active mind that likes making educated guesses.

Incidentally, I think vocabulary maybe got a bad rap because of words like "excresence." I've been learning a bit of vocabulary lately, because the Kindle makes it very easy to look things up, and I'm finding that I divide new vocabulary into exciting words and bullshit words.

Bullshit words are words like "excresence" which in my mind are the "five-dollar words" people knock. If the word means "outgrowth," then why not say "outgrowth"? You can't even mark a victory for excresence in terms of poetry -- "outgrowth" seems more poetical than excresence.

These words are duplicative of better-known words and hence, to me, aren't all that useful. Once in a while a five-dollar word, which really says nothing more than the $0.05 variety, wins out on poetry, as with (I think) "coruscating," but a lot of these words that no one uses? There's a reason no one uses them. They add nothing and they're sort of ugly.

On the other hand, there are lots and lots of very specialized words for which there aren't any duplicative vocabulary for. That is, the word is not just a different word for a concept you already understand (as "excresence" is simply an alternate word for the already-understood concept of "outgrowth") but in fact introduces an entirely new concept or a very specific thing you weren't aware of.

Here's one I learned a couple of months ago: Velleity. (This is probably known to people who study religion, but it was a word I'd never even heard before.)

Velleity has been defined[by whom?] primarily as "the lowest degree of desire or volition, with no effort to act". Thomas Pynchon, in Gravity's Rainbow, described "[t]his connoisseuse of 'splendid weaknesses', run not by any lust or even velleity but by vacuum: by the absence of human hope".

The marketer Matt Bailey described it as "a desire to see something done, but not enough desire to make it happen".

The Times used 'velleity' in the sense of "a slight wish not followed by any effort to obtain" an outcome." Author Howard Jacobson called it "the feeblest and most unanticipated of anticipations..."

Several prominent writers, philosophers, and psychologists have discussed the usefulness of the concept of "velleity".

Bill Bryson uses velleity as a perfect example of "words [that] deserve to be better known." He argues rhetorically, "Doesn't that seem a useful term?

The minute I looked that up I realized that the concept of a "velleity" is ever-present in politics -- there are a lot of things the public says they want but, in reality, doesn't care about -- and yet I had no actual word to express this.

Well, I had ten words for it, but not a word.

Other neat words -- to me, exciting words -- are words that invoke a place or a time. Words like burnoose. The very fact that you're talking about a "burnoose" (a cloak and hood favored by medieval Arabs) puts you in a mindset you wouldn't be in with just "cloak and hood."

I got turned off to vocabulary, myself, by the SAT world-building lists. They tend to be very heavy on words like "excresence" -- duplicative vocabulary that instantly makes me think "Why not just say outgrowth?" -- and very light on the highly-particularized sort of evocative words like "burnoose."

Vocabulary lists tend to favor words like "excresence" you could, theoretically, use in everyday conversation. After all, you'll have far more opportunity to invoke the concept of "an outgrowth" than a "hood and cloak favored by medieval Arabs."

But the first word adds nothing to your picture of the world, but the latter one does.

And you kind of sound like a dick saying the first one.

When burnoose is the right word, you actually gain something as far as clarity and evocation from writing "burnoose;" but you almost never really have good cause to write "excresence." Burnoose is the right word in a tiny number of occasions; "excresence" never is. "Outgrowth" would be the correct word. Anytime you'd use "excresence," you should probably just go ahead and write "outgrowth."

The best vocabulary doesn't give you another word to say the same thing -- it gives you a word without which you couldn't express yourself properly at all. It doesn't just stick a new synonym in your head; it introduces an idea that you probably weren't even aware of.

So up with that sort of vocabulary, sure, but please save me from the "excresences."


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posted by Ace at 06:31 PM

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