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Building a Better Vocabulary: A Personal Horror Story with a Chunky Takeaway

One of the most vivid and traumatic memories from my primary school days came after a routine spelling test in Grade 3. Each week we had to learn the spelling of around twenty words which the teacher would then read out the following week for us to spell. On this particular week’s spelling test, I got absolutely none of them correct. A big fat zero.

After reading out the correct spelling, my teacher went around the class to see how we each did before scribbling her—RED—signature next to the total. This was paired with either positive praise or some stern words of her own stringing; I had to somehow dip away, dodge my teacher’s direct disappointment, duck the disaster I had created for myself.

Given where my teacher was in the class and how far back my desk was, I guesstimated that a comfortable stroll to the bathroom and back would be enough time to avoid the criticism that was surely coming my way. My perfectly polite phrasing and carefully crafted countenance were undeniable… but it was all in vain.

When I returned from that miscalculated bathroom break she was just finishing up praising the wonderful wordsmith next to me… now she’s lurching over my table and peering at my infinitely unimpressive results.

I watched frozen in the doorway: her face flooded with blood as she struggled to comprehend my differed success. Her ‘disappointment’ must have heightened her other senses—smell, in this case: fear—because her head snapped up and stared right through me chilling by the door. She stretched the sound of my name for a second or three longer than my parents intended, and concluded with a cruel crescendo that made sure I was suspended in the vanishing point of everyone’s gaze.

That precise moment, I’d later reflect, must be how Frodo Baggins from The Lord of Rings felt when he put the Ring on, when the fiery eye of Mordor saw him, saw straight through him.

If the ground itself had ripped open to reveal a volcanic pit of raging lava swimming with those giant silverback gorillas that used to roam my nightmares (retardant, unnaturally), I probably would’ve dived right in and called it an act of divine mercy. Instead, the red zero on my page and rings of rage in my teacher’s eyes were piercing: paralysed.

That catatonic state—my incurious and uninspired relationship with words—lasted almost a decade.

To spite the spirit of that horrible day, here’s one approach to learning new words I recently came across that’s worth paying forward. In Professor Kevin Flanagan’s Building a Better Vocabulary (one of The Great Courses) he lists five key principles for learning vocabulary, but before introducing them he discusses an important concept to keep in mind: the “dimmer-switch” phenomenon.

The basic idea is “learning words is not an all-or-nothing affair,” so just because you’ve encountered a new word and expelled energy looking it up, you shouldn’t expect it to suddenly be fully incorporated into your working vocabulary. Rather, learning new words is more akin to those dimmer light switches: “We first learn the dictionary definition of a word, then gradually become comfortable with how it’s used in various contexts as we try it out ourselves.”

The dimmer-switch analogy for learning new words is encouraging to anyone who’s felt frustrated because they struggle to remember all the new words they encounter, even when we go through the effort of looking up their definitions. It reminds us that learning something new, like all things worth having, really does required time and practice; there are many smaller steps on the path towards enlightenment (as opposed to instant illumination—so, less “Let there be light!” and more, “A little more, that’s it, more still, keep going…”). Get comfortable with this idea and you’ll find some of the pressure we put on ourselves dissolves and we remain motivated, engaged and faithful.

Okay, so what are Prof. Flanagan’s five principles for learning new words? Here they are:

Definition: After encountering a new word be sure that you first fully understand what it means, its definition. Most people stop here, don’t be one of them.

Context: As Flanagan says, “If you want to really know a word, you study how it behaves in its natural habitat [my emphasis]—sentences, paragraphs, and books [my emphasis, again].” Seeing how a particular word is used by an author in context (i.e. being cognisant of how a word is actually deployed) already gives us clues to its meaning, but context also helps us retain (record) new words and provides us with confidence to use it correctly in the future.

Connections: Connect the new word to your known concept of what it describes. This is where building your vocabulary really starts becoming your own. Often new words we encounter describe things we’re already aware of: you may or may not know what “factotum” means, but you probably know what it describes; namely, “an employee who does all kinds of work.” Do you know someone (real or imagined) who fits this description? Prof. Flanagan gives the example of Batman’s butler, Alfred, but by personalising the connection between the concept you already know (someone who can perform many tasks: a handyman, a Jack of all trades, a generalist, moms, etc.) and the new word that describes it, factotum, you give your brain a better chance of recognising it in the future. Connections are key!

Morphology: If you think developing an understanding of affixes and etymology is a step too far, you’re seriously missing out on a lot of lifelong learning. English, in particular, is an evolved Frankenstein language, and with an elementary understanding of how parts of words came to be you’ll be able to make more connections and remember, remember. Not only that, by exposing yourself to other words with similar morphologies and affixes you’ll be equipping yourself with the tools to breakdown and contextualise unknown words you’ll encounter in the future! When you understand that the ‘fac’ in factory comes from the Latin meaning “do” or “make,” for example, you’re well on your way to not only understanding the word “factotum” (‘totum’ means “all”), but also meaningfully incorporating it into your flow.

Semantic Chunking: Look up the meaning of a new word, contextualise it within a sentence you’ve encountered in the real world, make a personal connection with the meaning, and familiarise yourself with its morphology and etymology; but still, “how do we store these words in our lexicon—our mental library of word meanings—so that when we need to retrieve them for use, we know where to find them?”

Elephant, jam, cellphone, pencil, wasp, butter, app, ruler, cricket, wholewheat, headphones, eraser, jackal, knife, screen, sharpener: these sixteen words may be hard to remember as is, but if you can identify a pattern and ‘chunk’ them into meaningful (and so memorable) categories we can lighten our cognitive load. For example, the above list could be chunked as follows: animals (elephant, wasp, cricket, jackal), ‘making toast’ (jam, wholewheat, butter, knife), cellphone (app, headphones, screen), and stationary (pencil, ruler, eraser, sharpener). This places less strain on your working memory and nurtures a more complex and robust system for evolving your vocabulary. (To go further, try and create a story or scene with the words in each category, something that’s really visual you can easily imagine, the more absurd and funny the better.)

Here’s evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker writing about “chunks” in The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century:

“Human working memory can hold only a few items at a time. Psychologists used to think that its capacity was around seven items (plus or minus two), but later downsized even that estimate, and today believe it is closer to three or four. Fortunately, the rest of the brain is equipped with a workaround for the bottleneck. It can package ideas into bigger and bigger units, which the psychologist George Miller dubbed ‘chunks’ […] Each chunk, no matter how much information is packed inside it, occupies a single slot in working memory.”

Prof. Flanagan’s lectures are thusly divided into chapters around learning words in specific categories. In his third lecture, for example, he goes through some “Words for Lying, Swindling, and Convincing”: mountebank, sophist, specious, spurious, apocryphal, ersatz, skulduggery, machinations, and hornswoggle. Other lectures include discussions around words that relate to annoyance, disgust, fear, love, hatred, trust, thinking, teaching, as well as foreign words and neologism. But it’s important to remember to focus on personalising your learning by chunking accordingly, and—this almost went without saying—be sure keep a vocabulary notebook to track all your wonderful wordsmithing.


Chris Wheeler

14 October 2016

[IMAGE SOURCE: Hillsdale Library]

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