440. Vocabulary

The English language, more than most languages, is full of words. Perhaps that’s partly because of the various people who have invaded England and partly because of the various people England has invaded. There are words that come from all over the place. English is supposed to be a basically Germanic language, but knowledge of Latin and Greek can help you figure out many English words.
Teachers frequently introduce children to words. I’ve seen this done most effectively when teachers have provided contexts for unfamiliar words. Children often like learning new words, and using them as soon as possible. They often like impressing adults, each other, and themselves with their vocabulary. This tendency often stays with a person throughout life. I’ve got it myself, and while I hope and believe that the average reader of my articles can read them without too much use of dictionaries, I enjoy being able to surprise myself and my readers with a well-chosen word.
But I’ve been somewhat bothered by Readers’ Digest’s “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power,” and some of the lessons some teachers give that attempt to teach vocabulary out of context. Sometimes I use a thesaurus, but only to find the word that means what I’m trying to mean – not to use an unfamiliar word just for the sake of using an unfamiliar word. Language is supposed to communicate, and it communicates less effectively if it’s used as an elitist secret code. I used the word “elitist” in the previous sentence, but only because “elitist” is precisely what I mean; I didn’t use it to impress anyone with my vocabulary (at least, I don’t think so).
Some teachers routinely speak to children in ways that inspire them to learn new words. Some include new words in their lessons in ways that make the new words feel like precious gifts. And children often like that; they can be proud and happy as they acquire new tools for communication. Such learning makes children want more; words can be very useful tools, and notwithstanding my objection to the Readers’ Digest approach, it does pay to increase your word power.
But I don’t like it when teachers give vocabulary lessons that lack context. I, myself, as a verbophile (I made that one up, I think), remember words I’ve learned in such lessons, but many children are bored to death by having to memorize lists of words. And my fifth grade teacher taught us the word “confiscate” in a way that was very effective, but not very nice. I spent a few weeks wondering whether things she’d confiscated from me had been destroyed, transformed, or what. Finally, I looked it up in the dictionary, and then immediately looked up “steal,” to try to understand the difference.
Yes, it does pay to increase your word power. But I think it’s got to be done in ways that really do empower.

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