Saturday, June 23, 2007

Thoughts on a Large Vocabulary

I really enjoyed reading Mama Squirrel's post at Dewey's Treehouse titled "It Pays Makes-Some-People-Very-Nervous-That-You-Want To Increase Your Word Power". Once upon a time, I used to read voraciously, and being the linguaphile I am, used to actually use the rather extensive vocabulary I had acquired [Linguistics.: to achieve native or native like command of (a language or a linguistic rule or element)]. And I used to love Reader's Digest's Word Power section. I took a bit of pride in knowing most of the vocabulary on those tests.

These days, well, let's not get into it. Once in a while I do still surprise myself at the delight I take in having chosen just the precisely correct word for the occasion.

At any rate, the meat of the problem of a diminishing lexicon in younger people (or anyone else) is in not reading enough books of a wide variety and with challenging words. This can be easily (facilely) redressed by reading more. Fiction, non-fiction, magazines on different subjects, poetry, Shakespeare and other authors of earlier writing periods. This is also the theme that author Jim Trelease discusses at great length in his speeches and in his book The Read-Aloud Handbook. I must concur.

The English language has an extensive vocabulary compared to most other languages. (The Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary has over 315,000 entries.) This article by Paula Mear is an interesting read on how this has come to be and how it has affected English speakers, native and as a second language.

Just to plug learning foreign languages, when you study a foreign language, you are forced to think about the exact meaning of the English word you want to translate or learn the foreign word for, and vice versa. (I won't get into the grammar aspects, which are equally amazing.) I think that helped me with my vocabulary as well. Did I ever mention that I have studied, in approximate order of amount of time actually spent studying, the following languages:

  1. Russian--9+ yrs(5 in high school and 4 in college)--can't speak it anymore;
  2. German--5 yrs (4 in h.s. and 1 in college)--probably can speak it better than Russian;
  3. Italian--3 yrs formally (in college) and 6 months in Italy--speak pretty well, could travel and live there easily enough;
  4. Latin--1 year in high school (wish I'd had the opportunity to study it longer)--dead language, not Catholic, so no need to speak it, but I can't say I remember how to read it, any longer, either;
  5. Japanese--1 semester in college--uh . . .
  6. Chinese--in 6th grade I attended for a few months a Saturday language school for children of native Chinese speakers, to say my brother and I were at a disadvantage is a gross understatement!--even less than #5;
  7. French--1 semester as an adult--understand a bit if spoken really, really slowly because of my Italian and Latin, wouldn't attempt to speak on pain of death;
  8. Spanish--1 8-week community course through the park and rec dept, plus I'm supposed to be using my Rosetta Stone program but have dropped the ball--went well for about 5 months, though--I'll get back to it, I promise!--really, really want to learn to speak it, and the similarity to Italian can be both a boon and a stumbling-block (stumbling block –noun: an obstacle or hindrance to progress, belief, or understanding. [Origin: 1580–90], also: This term originally meant "a tree stump over which one trips." Its figurative use dates from the early 1500s.;
  9. ASL--short course in Cville as an adult--remember the alphabet and a few signs;
  10. Korean--Pimsleur's short course on tape and taekwondo-specific words, nothing useful for travel, though.
Each language studied (even the non-Romance languages) brings you new words to add to your English vocabulary, helps you expand the number of words at your disposal. And sometimes, the word your brain is searching for, because you know it would be the perfect one to use, isn't English. Such as "po moyemu." That'll confuse your friends and family, but maybe it will prompt them to learn a language. Who knows?

(HT to Why Homeschool)

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