Wednesday, September 01, 2010

From the archives: "It Pays Makes-Some-People-Very-Nervous-That-You-Want To Increase Your Word Power"

2010 update: The Deputy Headmistress has been posting about community hymn sings and the issue of whether or not we should still sing older hymns with unfamiliar vocabulary; and in her links back she mentioned her 2007 post "The Language Wars in Our Hymnals", which linked to some things that we posted here around the same time. After following this around a bit, I decided to repost this one.

Okay, have you had time yet to read the Big Words article? (First mentioned here.)

Is it undemocratic and elitist to celebrate words? Should those who do have large vocabularies back off and shut up because it might make the less erudite feel bad? (erudite: characterized by great knowledge; learned or scholarly: an erudite professor; an erudite commentary.) Did you catch that first line of the article: "With the Lord of Loquacity on trial in Chicago and schools playing down language to level the playing field...." [italics mine]

How long ago was it we were talking about that example from The Incredibles?
Helen: Right now, honey, the world just wants us to fit in, and to fit in, we gotta be like everyone else.
Dash: But Dad always said our powers were nothing to be ashamed of, our powers made us special.
Helen: Everyone's special, Dash.
Dash: [muttering] Which is another way of saying no one is.
But that whole angle of level playing field, undemocratic, elitist is just missing the point. It's not about a few people having talent for words and time enough to enjoy them (I still love Burgess Meredith). Our collective gift of language is one of the most democratic things we have (please take "democratic" as a positive idea there). It is being able to read and understand the greatest ideas that have been written, and express our own as well, that keeps us from slavery--including slavery to propaganda. What kind of a Brave New World would we be living in if we were limited--by political correctness or any other such foolishness--to using "story" for "narrative," "very big" for "prodigious," and "teach" for "instruct?" (See the "Forbidden Words" sidebar in the article, about OISE professor Clive Beck, who believes that "teachers should avoid unnecessarily big words so that they can 'talk on the same level' as their students.") With such spavined vocabularies, we would be locked out of some of the most influential books ever written--like Common Sense (thank you, DHM). (spavined: adjective 1. suffering from or affected with spavin. 2. being of or marked by a decrepit or broken-down condition: a spavined old school bus abandoned in a field.) What's democratic about that?

How do you teach or learn new vocabulary--by endless drills, by writing out definitions? I can think of several more effective ways:

1. By listening to those who use language powerfully--and that would, we hope, include the teachers Clive Beck wants to limit. (Can you imagine getting "bleeped" for using a phrase like "nefarious villain?")

2. By reading what those same people have written--and though that road may end with books written for adults, it begins much earlier. If we wanted to limit our children's literary menu to books using the easiest and most commonly used words, we wouldn't have read them A.A. Milne, Beatrix Potter ("I am affronted," said Mrs. Tabitha Twitchit), William Steig, the Bible, Jacobs' English Folk and Fairy Tales, Lewis Carroll, Graham Oakley...or Melissa Wiley.

Our Crayons [just turned six when this was first posted] is reading Anne of Green Gables to herself--she doesn't want it read to her. The motivation was that she found a small porcelain Anne doll at one yard sale, and then a copy of Anne at the next one. We already owned two copies, but she wanted this one for her own self, to go with her doll--and it was her quarter. She sits in my grandfather's little rocking chair with her doll beside her, and reads it while Mr. Fixit reads the newspaper. It's way beyond her vocabulary and experience, and I didn't expect her to get past the first couple of pages--but she has read eight chapters already (and did allow me to read her the ninth). I'm sure she skips what she doesn't understand, but she can still tell you a lot about the story, particularly about Anne's imaginary friends. Would she be better off with an adapted version? Define "better off."

3. By reading books that lead us gently through unfamiliar territory--like Melissa's Martha books, set in Scotland in the 1700's. And then there's the whole sad business of their current state of abridgement, which is itself a perfect example of where all this is taking us.) (2012 update: sorry, both of those links are now defunct.) Again it was Crayons who first asked to be read these books. She's now acquainted with box bed, waulking wool, governess, kirk, peat, spindle, flax, loch, dustgown, Hogmanay, and pianoforte. When I asked her if those were hard words, she said (I quote): "Kids know DUST and kids know GOWN so you just put them together and make DUSTGOWN." What's a governess? "A lady who takes care of you." No problem.

4. By actively seeking out the specialized vocabulary that we need to learn to do the things we want to do! Sometimes for pleasure, sometimes out of necessity. Pod in The Borrowers Aloft has a very short time to learn the vocabulary (and thus the technology) of building a hot-air balloon [actually it was gas-filled]; his understanding of words like "ballast" and "envelope" is what allows his family to escape from their kidnappers.

From Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH to Roald Dahl's Matilda, the key to freedom has always been reading, reading, reading--and those are just the fictional examples.
Books fall open, you fall in,
delighted where you've never been;
hear voices not once heard before,
reach world on world through door on door;
find unexpected keys to things locked up beyond imaginings.
What might you be, perhaps become,
because one book is somewhere?....
--David McCord
Consider what happens if we lose the ability to look beyond our own place in time and space. We become small-minded, small-souled, wrapped up only in our immediate interests...and vulnerable because we are unable to think clearly.

"But they couldn't do it,
for their poor brains were such
That they couldn't think often,
and hadn't thought much."
--Virginia Kahl, The Duchess Bakes a Cake

Freedom lies in our ability to discern truth and choose right actions. Leadership, courage, hope, conscience, character, faith, critical thinking, magnanimity--all those things are available to those who take and read--but only if we develop the vocabulary to understand.

P.S. Clive Beck responds here, but I can't get a link to the full text--sorry. This link takes you to a few other letters in response--also just the beginnings, though--I hate these subscriber-only newspaper sites! I liked Eileen Reardon's comment: "My first reaction on reading the list of 'unnecessarily big words' Clive Beck would like to remove from teachers' mouths was: Nuts! (Simple enough?) Then I started the cryptic crossword and had a horrible thought: If Prof. Beck has his way, he won't merely be gutting the language of nuance, he'll be taking the fun out of crosswords. Egad!"

P.P.S. One more comment here, linking to the Common Room post "Interesting comments".

4 comments:

Lindsey in AL said...

I find this quote from the original article interesting:

"The reality is," Ms. Brand insists, "God gave us spell-check. And what is spelling? It's about precocious kids, most of whom are home-schooled. A vocabulary competition, on the other hand, is just very different and special. It's literally going to improve their lives. So it's a much more practical skill than a spelling bee."

Do home-schooled kids not count? And does Ms Brand think that home-schooled kids won't be dominating the National Vocabulary contest? In my experience, home educated children read and are read to much more often and with much better quality books than their government-schooled counterparts. Which is probably why they keep winning the spelling bee and why they'll start wiping out the vocabulary competition as well.
And that's just one more reason why we home-school. We can decide whether and how our kids learn vocabulary, spelling and grammar. I was blessed to have an English teacher in the early 90s who issued weekly vocabulary lists and tests (we had to spell them correctly as well) and I still bless her in my mind from time to time. My kids and I get out the dictionary (or hit up online dictionaries) very regularly. There is no shame in not knowing a word, and even less in looking it up and learning it.

Lindsey in AL said...

By the way, do y'all like the Melissa Wiley Little House books? I love the originals so much that I am afraid the newer ones will leave me feeling a bit like the TV series does. I'd love to hear your thoughts about them. I trust you :)

Mama Squirrel said...

Yes, we like Melissa's books about Martha and Charlotte very much. Not the abridged ones with the photographic covers, but the original versions that have gone out of print. Look at the library or used-book sources. Small warning: there are some scenes, particularly in the Charlotte books, that may be too intense for young children (illness and death). The Charlotte books would be good supplementary reading if you were doing the War of 1812.

We read some of the Caroline books, which are by another author, but we quit partway through that series (I felt Crayons was a bit young then to handle a whole cholera epidemic)...we may pick those up again later.

The Rose books I've tried a couple of times, but I am not fond of them. They seem to have a very strong feminist viewpoint.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you completely! We don't back down from encouraging a child to learn challenging sports skills (hockey, soccer, figure skating, dance, swimming, etc.) because it will be too hard for them. We urge them to keep trying and work to ultimately master those skills. Why should we back down from teaching them a broader vocabulary in order to better express themselves, not to mention open doors to the ideas of brilliant people who have gone before? This is a pet peeve of mine and I'm glad to see I'm not alone. :>
Sonya

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