Monday, June 18, 2007

Losing our lexicons?

Ian Brown, writing in Saturday's Globe & Mail, takes a hell-in-a-handbasket tour of society's love-hate relationship with vocabulary. (As far as I can tell, the Globe conspires to make it impossible for me to link directly to an article without making it appear as though you have to pay for it. So I'm hoping that by linking through Google I can to bypass this barrier.)

I'll start by getting my quibbles with the first line out of the way. "The last days of long words! The sunset of syntactical surplusage!" I can understand the lure of easy alliteration, but in a feature about vocabulary, the choice of syntactical here is sad. Semantic would have been a smidgen closer, and there's still that juicy /s/ at the outset. The loss of lexical lavishness would have been just right.

Yes, well, on to the article proper: In one corner, quoth Brown, we have the logophiles like Conrad Black: those poor, misunderstood folk who simply love words and can't understand what anyone could have against dropping "tricoteuses (knitters of yarn, used to describe reporters and gossips, augmented by the adjective "braying"), planturous (fleshy), poltroon (a coward, a.k.a. former Quebec premier Robert Bourassa), spavined (lame), dubiety (doubt: Mr. Black rarely uses a simple word where a splashy lemma will do), gasconading (blustering) and velleities (distant hopes)" into everyday chit chat.

In the other corner (because setting up false dichotomies makes for a juicier read) we have
"the linguists, who have the upper hand at the moment, (and) are very much of a type. They tend to be acolytes of American scholar William Labov, who developed the concept of code-switching. Standard vocabulary doesn't need to be taught, the Labovites claim, because there's no such thing as a standard vocabulary... Teaching a standard vocabulary today isn't just ineffective: According to the linguists, it's undemocratic and limiting."

Some of the most militant linguists are Canadian. Clive Beck, a professor of education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, relishes the collapse of the standard Western vocabulary. "I think it's partly a democratization, of getting teachers to have a closer relationship with their students, and being able to talk on the same level. I love correctness in speech and in writing. But I think to some extent I have to go with the change."

Here I fight my innate desire to smother hyperbole with sarcasm and simply note that the phrase, "I think to some extent I have to" doesn't exactly reek of militancy or relish. Indeed, there is little truth to be found in this quoted section (though the lack doesn't stop there).

  • I have yet to meet a linguist, in any sense of the word, who is not also a logophile.
  • To be effective at code switching, you need a diverse vocabulary, not a restricted one.
  • Of course there is a standard English vocabulary, but, by definition, it doesn't include words that most people don't know.
  • As to whether you should teach vocabulary or not, that all depends on what the learners already know and what their purpose is, (more here).

All in all, Brown misses the point that it's simply impractical to teach someone enough words to have a large vocabulary (problems with counting words aside, his numbers are wonky; high school graduates know 6,000 + 35,000 = 41,000 words, but the average adult knows only 30,000?) A large vocabulary is merely a symptom of an educated person. Yes, some direct vocabulary teaching is probably useful with young children and ESL students, and having a good basic vocabulary will bootstrap other learning, but simply stuffing a bunch of words into your head is a trivial pursuit. The benefits that come with a broad vocabulary are those that stem from having a variety of interest, reading widely, and discussing concepts in some depth with other interested parties.

Which leads us to one more of Brown's forced choices: deploy grandiloquent vocabulary indiscriminately or use only short simple words. This is like saying that your wardrobe should be limited to white t-shirts & jeans or formal-wear. It should be obvious that you match your vocabulary to the topic and audience at hand. Occasionally using a rare but fitting word in a context that will make it clear is fine. Weighing down your speech with word after word that your audience is unlikely to be familiar with is like wearing a tux to your child's soccer practice. What purpose could the speaker have other than obfuscation or pretentiousness? I suppose there is one other likely explanation: an abiding lack of empathy. Either way, you're going to arouse suspicion. And that's why Black's lawyer kept him from testifying.


alienvoord said...

According to the OISE site, Clive Beck is not a linguist, not even a militant one.

Anne said...

It seems a trifle overbroad to state that it is impractical to teach others to have a large vocabulary. I'll happily grant you that it's impractical within the confines of trying to teach a second language, but a substantial amount of my English vocabulary comes from teachers who chose to expand our vocabularies along with our knowledge of the subject matter at hand.

There is a lot to quibble with in Brown's article -- much of which is probably attributable to the difference between op-ed and scholarly writing. As a scholarly piece, it would never have been published (or, at least, not without much editing, fact checking, and adding of footnotes). The function of op-ed, though, is as much about the opinion as the education, and -- in the case of the weekend newspaper -- about giving readers (at least those of us who are not those of us who are not immersed in the scholarly study of -- in this case -- matters lexical, syntactical or rhetorical) something interesting to discuss over brunch. Given the breadth of comment on the Globe & Mail site, I'd say he succeeded.

Brett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brett said...

Anne, we may be saying the same thing in different ways. I agree that a large part of teaching subject matter involves teaching vocabulary. Often, as you learn about statistics, for instance, you learn what distributions are and how they can be skewed because somebody explains it directly to you. But for huge numbers of words, like pedantic and obliterate, you just work them out as you go along. Consider that the gap between an average teenage vocabulary of, say 15,000 word families and that of a Conrad Black, or even a fairly average adult is in the order of tens of thousand of words, far too much to be "taught".

Anne said...

I suppose it depends on how you define teaching. Can one teach oneself something? Can one learn something without someone, somewhere teaching (even if only by example)?

My presumption would be that if, between teen-age and adult-hood, someone's vocabulary increases significantly, it is because they learned new words. (Though, I suppose, they could just invent words, which begs the question if only one person knows what a word means is it really a word, or does wordness require meaning?) I know I can read something without learning the jargon it includes -- there's a whole Foucaultian logosphere out there that I've seen over and over again and have never bothered to attach to meaning. I can also read a new word and decide to learn it, adding it to my own internal vocabulary. When I make that choice, IMHO, "teaching" is happening. Whether it's me teaching myself, or the author of the book (or the dictionary I had to look the word up in) teaching me, I am being taught.

Perhaps, from a pedagogical (or parenting) point of view the important bit is teaching people to want to learn the meanings of words. The magic of human language aquisition will guarantee we learn words that are necessary (feed me!), and words that are interesting (the #%&*! words come to mind), after that, continuing to add to our own vocabularies seems to be a function of logovoracity -- not so much an aquired taste as a learned appetite.

Brett said...

Yes, teaching is many things, including motivating, setting an example, providing opportunities to learn etc. I was using a fairly narrow sense in reaction to Brown's comments about vocabulary quizzes, word-of-the-day type schemes, and schools in Paris deciding to "teach more grammar and vocabulary".