I just finished reading, with my composition class, a chapter in Ralph Fletcher’s book, What a Writer Needs, titled “A Love of Words.” In it, Fletcher talks about the power that language has with our memories and our psyches; how the utterance of a single word can bring back entire chunks of his childhood and how he saves really great words in reserve just hoping for an opportunity to use them later.
I’ve been thinking a lot about language and vocabulary as I try to guide my students through the second half of this semester, and I’ve come to see that it’s far more work than I imagined it would be to teach kids to really value – indeed, to treasure – language.
For most of my students, their language serves the singular purpose of getting their ideas across. They don’t want to learn new words because they believe that the words they already have are sufficient to their purposes. They don’t relish new and unusual words; they don’t seek out new ways to say something; they don’t recognize that learning a new word could be the equivalent of learning a new concept, or of seeing something old in a new and exciting way.
Their reluctance to even dip their toes in the ocean of words that we have available to us makes me a little sad for them. Fletcher, in his chapter, tells us that “our English language contains about 490.000 words, along with another 300,000 technical terms. No one, of course, not even the great writers, can utilize such richness. It has been said that Shakespeare had a working vocabulary of around 33,000 words. In 1945, the average American student between the ages of six and fourteen had a written vocabulary of about 25,000 words. Today, that vocabulary has shrunk to about 10,000 words.” I wonder: does this shrinking vocabulary also indicate a diminished ability to think? If it is true that we have – or, at least, that we use – fewer words, is it also true that we are less able to express complex ideas and, in true Orwellian, 1984 form, that our inability to express ideas means that we can no longer have them?
As I read, I also wondered what my vocabulary’s quantity would be. Of course, I’m not sure there’s any real way to measure such things – I suspect that Fletcher’s statistics were the best guesses of linguists and dictionary-writers – but I am still fascinated by the idea that it is a quantifiable thing. More to the point, I wonder how well I utilize the vocabulary I DO have.
As an exercise I invited my students to write their favorite words on the board. I tried to seed the cloud with expedient, recalcitrant, and particular. One student told me that he couldn’t put his favorite word on the board, recognizing that it was inappropriate for the college classroom. My best reader in the class declined my offer, claiming that she didn’t have any favorite words and only really appreciates the words she finds when she sees them in books. The two other kids who showed up today simply sat sullenly in their seats.
The wind got sucked right out of my sails. Regardless, I went back to the board and added devotion, compassion, intergenerational and obstinate to the list. They may not have a full appreciation for the beauty and power of their language, but I do.