Learners' vocabularies

The Wart did not know what Merlyn was talking about, but he liked him to talk. He did not like the grown-ups who talked down to him, but the ones who went on talking in their usual way, leaving him to leap along in their wake, jumping at meanings, guessing, clutching at known words, and chuckling at complicated jokes as they suddenly dawned. He had the glee of the porpoise then, pouring and leaping through strange seas.
T.H. White, The Once and Future King

I came across five episodes of the BBC radio show My Word this week. I was surprised and delighted, and downloaded them right away.

Listening, and paging through my dictionary (as one must), I began thinking about my learners and their difficulty with unfamiliar expressions and terms. I'm not talking here of ordinary words used in a specialist way - "The party chose to table the act until they were called back in the fall" - but words they simply do not know.

We talk about words a little in class. I sometimes ask them if I sound precocious or, worse, sesquipedalian, simply because I choose to be verbose - loquacious rather than laconic, as it were. A few of the newer learners always laugh uneasily. The rest just roll their eyes.

But there is a serious issue here. To read well, to pick up on tone and implication, to recognize what words connotate as well as what they detonate, one needs command a mature vocabulary.

What to do about words?

Once or twice a season, someone asks if I think it would be a good idea for them to read the dictionary. I always demur - I can scarce imagine the reaction from my peers if it got out that I was telling my learners to read the dictionary.

But the uncomfortable truth is that I often read the dictionary - in fact, several dictionaries - when I was young. My favourite, pictured above, was Volume Three of The Reader's Digest Great Encyclopaedic Dictionary printed in 1965. This dictionary presents two photos in it's front-piece: one of a scrap of Greek writing, the other the craved Roman letters on Trajan's Column, both from the 2nd century A.D. Inside, the reader can find the specialized vocabulary of modern science, the arts, law (including Scots law), mythology, and more. I'm not sure what happened to our family's copy of this book, but a few years back I was delighted to find all three volumes in a yard sale. Of course I bought it immediately, and gave it a place of honour between my 2001 Canadian Oxford and my Young's Analytical Concordance.

But, no. I can't see me recommending that people read the dictionary.

So what to do about words?

I listened to a Librivox reading of Algernon Blackwood's The Wendigo a few weeks back. It is not one of my favourites: I far prefer The Willows. But listening, I was taken by the richness of the language he used. I thought, briefly, of passing out CDs of the reading - maybe along with audio readings of Arthur Conan Doyle's Terror of Blue John Gap and H. P. Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror.

But, no. Handing out audio recordings of wordy short stories written a hundred or more years ago is probably a silly idea. You can't impose vocabulary upon people. Language learning has to be organic and self-directed. Anyway, there is a chicken-and-egg sort of thing going on here: I suspect I get to know words when I enjoy their luxuriant use in a story or essay or poem; but also that I enjoy the poem, the essay, and story because it makes good use of words I already know.

Assimilation and accommodation - was that Piaget? We learn more what we already know, fitting the new to the old like a jigsaw puzzle.

I have a learner who occasionally shares or asks about a snippet of rap - that's real learning. Sadly, the rappers he listens to have a pretty limited vocabulary of their own.

What to do about words?

The only idea I've come up with is to have a sort of "word of the day" going on. Obviously, it would limit us to about twenty words a month - maybe two hundred for the year - so it would be more an encouragement to think about words than an actual educational tool. But, in lieu of a better idea, that's my plan for the fall.

And maybe, well, I'll just, you know... pile the dictionaries in easy reach on the tables.

Just in case someone wants to take a peek.

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