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Advice on learning vocabulary

11 Dec

From Fluent in Three Months:

Learning new words is dull as dishwater unless you get a bit of context, and the best advice I know is to get input that you can understand. I always teach new words in context through pointing them out in texts, repeating them with lots of examples or telling a little story. In fact, storytelling is the most useful way of finding new words and putting them to use straight away so that you will remember them.

There’s a really useful set of vocabulary acquisition and revision guidelines over at Omniglot, in which Simon recommends that intermediate and advanced learners should start working with parallel texts (books that are printed bilingually, with a language on each page or each side of a column). I do this a lot, it’s the literary equivalent of watching original films and shows with your own language subtitles.

Don’t turn your nose up at having the translation so nearby – it’s practical and helpful for understanding stories, and what’s interesting and fun will keep you going. Other great materials for early learners involve short stories and children’s literature, even picturebooks.

How little information is enough to guess social class?

6 Sep

It turns out not very much.

Researchers from Yale University and the University of California-San Francisco published their findings in the May issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science. The data from these studies showed that participants were able to guess the approximate income level of another person using one of three cues: a 60-second video of their behavior, 20 photos from their Facebook profile, or recordings of them speaking seven standard, isolated words.

You can read the original paper here. Here is the abstract:

By some accounts, global economic inequality is at its highest point on record. The pernicious effects of this broad societal trend are striking: Rising inequality is linked to poorer health and well-being across countries, continents, and cultures. The economic and psychological forces that perpetuate inequality continue to be studied, and in this theoretical review, we examine the role of daily experiences of economic inequality—the communication of social class signals between interaction partners—in this process. We theorize that social class signals activate social comparison processes that strengthen group boundaries between the haves and have nots in society. In particular, we argue that class signals are a frequent, rapid, and accurate component of person perception, and we provide new data and analyses demonstrating the accuracy of class signaling in 60-s interactions, Facebook photographs, and isolated recordings of brief speech. We suggest that barriers to the reduction of economic inequality in society arise directly from this class signaling process through the augmentation of class boundaries and the elicitation of beliefs and behaviors that favor the economic status quo.

Does Tyler Cowen have a limited vocabulary?

16 Jun

In a recent blog post, Tyler Cowen wrote  “I think of myself as commanding only a limited English-language vocabulary.”

I am very skeptical of this claim.

Cowen has a Ph.D. from Harvard and higher education is positively correlated with vocabulary size. Cowen is also a famously fast reader of complex academic texts. I do not see how such a reading speed would be possible without good sight reading knowledge of a very large vocabulary.

Here is Cowen’s advice for reading fast.

And here is his trip to The Strand with Michael Orthofer.

Memory and lexical apartheid

6 Apr

While the case for memorization may be clear for learning a second language, what is its role in learning English vocabulary? While it is true that we learn much of our vocabulary from context, rather than explicit instruction , it may be that many English speakers would benefit from direct instruction of English vocabulary.
This is because English is a diglossic language, in the sense that it contains two vocabularies. In a diglossic language, at least two versions of the language exist, each associated with different positions in the social hierarchy. In some cases, such as English, the language contains two vocabularies that reflect social stratification, with one acting as the language of ordinary people and common interaction and the other vocabulary being the words of prestige and power.
A number of languages are diglossic. For example, Hindi-Urdu, sometimes called Hindustani, is a diglossic languages spoken in the Indian subcontinent. The name Hindi-Urdu identifies the two dialects of the same language. Hindi and Urdu share many words and essentially the same grammar. While they have different writing systems, for everyday conversations they are effectively the same and Urdu and Hindi speakers can communicate without difficulty. However, when one wants to discuss topics outside of ordinary interactions, say education, economics, or science, the languages diverge substantially. That is because their higher vocabularies draw on different sources. The higher vocabulary for Hindi comes from the ancient liturgical language of Hinduism; Sanskrit. While Urdu’s higher vocabulary comes from Persian and Arabic.
Arabic is also a diglossic language with an everyday dialect and literary dialect. Research has found that for many Arabic speakers learning the literary dialect is, in some ways, like learning a foreign language. The Arabic of the schools and books is different from the Arabic of home and this may contribute to lower levels of academic achievement.
English also can be said to have two vocabularies both rooted in its historical development. Anglo-Saxon English was established in England by the early Germanic invaders. Latin words were introduced more slowly beginning with the Roman invasion and continuing as a consequence of the spread of Christianity. A major shift occurred with the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The Normans spoke a dialect of French that became the language of the ruling class. This meant that the British aristocracy spoke a Latinate language while the common people spoke Anglo-Saxon English, a Germanic language.
This division still persists in our vocabulary. There is an English that everyone learns to speak, this is the English of everyday interactions and its origins lie in Anglo-Saxon English. There is also an academic English, the English of science, literature, and education. This English is largely Latin and Greek in origin and includes words that were imported into English from the Norman Conquest and, later, during the Renaissance. This difference is illustrated by two great works of English, both written around the same time, the King Jame’s Bible and the works of Shakespeare.
The King James Bible was written in Anglo-Saxon English, and while it was originally published in 1611 it still largely comprehensible to most native English speakers. Indeed, it remains the preferred Bible for many Protestant churches.
Shakespeare, on the other hand, is a Renaissance author and students often find his writing difficult. Many English words borrowed from Latin and Greek are first recorded in the his plays.
Some linguists believe the Renaissance was the biggest period of vocabulary growth in the English language, primarily because of the importation of Graeco-Latinate words.
Educational arrangements in Elizabethan England served to perpetuate class distinctions in language. Schools for the poor and lower classes, when they existed at all, taught only the rudiments of reading and writing in the Anglo-Saxon English, while schools for the children of the elite taught Latin and, sometimes, Greek. Some elite schools required students to speak exclusively in Latin. In the 19th century literature we find a distinction in the use of Latinate words between high and low status characters in the novels of Jane Austen.
David Corson, professor at the University of Toronto, claimed that that English continues to contain two incompatible vocabularies, one Anglo-Saxon the other Graeco-Latinate. The Anglo-Saxon words are used for the concrete while Greek and Latin words reserved used for more abstract discourse. Graeco-Latinate words are used in higher education and specialist vocabularies
Some English speakers, generally those with better educated parents, learn the Graeco-Latinate lexicon from exposure at home. Those who come from homes where only concrete Anglo-Saxon words are used enter school with a real disadvantage. Corson  describes this disadvantage as the “lexical bar” and, even, “lexical apartheid”.
In order to function at the levels required by higher education one must be able to penetrate the Latinate vocabulary of the academy. Our failure to teach this vocabulary, dis-empowers students and locks them out of the central discourse of our culture. Corson  argues that “children’s differences in language ability, more than any other observable factor, affect their potential for success in schooling” . For example, we know that reading comprehension is closely correlated with vocabulary ability. Indeed, the correlation between vocabulary and comprehension is so high that vocabulary tests are good substitutes for comprehension tests. Psychologist Edgar Dale argued that “all education is vocabulary development”.

Weak vocabularies leave students unprepared for college

23 Dec

A paper from Applied Linguistic Review,”Vocabulary size revisited: the link between vocabulary size and academic achievement”:

“The study in this paper uses the frequency-based vocabulary size test from Goulden et al (1990) and investigates the vocabulary knowledge of undergraduates in three British universities. The results suggest that monolingual speaker vocabulary sizes may be much smaller than is generally thought with far less variation than is usually reported. An average figure of about 10,000 English word families emerges for entrants to university. This figure suggests that many students must struggle with the comprehension of university level texts.”




Vocabulary size and academic achievement

27 Jun

A paper from Applied Linguistics Review titled: “Vocabulary size revisited: the link between vocabulary size and academic achievement”

Here is the abstract:

“Many researchers have tried to assess the number of words adults know. A general conclusion which emerges from such studies is that vocabularies of English monolingual adults are very large with considerable variation. This variation is important given that the vocabulary size of schoolchildren in the early years of school is thought to materially affect subsequent educational attainment. The data is difficult to interpret, however, because of the different methodologies which researchers use. The study in this paper uses the frequency-based vocabulary size test from Goulden et al (1990) and investigates the vocabulary knowledge of undergraduates in three British universities. The results suggest that monolingual speaker vocabulary sizes may be much smaller than is generally thought with far less variation than is usually reported. An average figure of about 10,000 English word families emerges for entrants to university. This figure suggests that many students must struggle with the comprehension of university level texts.”


Old words that need revival

9 Mar

Here is a post titled “13 Wonderful Old English Words We Should Still Be Using Today.” I especially like the verb “fudgel,” which means “Pretending to work when you’re not actually doing anything at all.”

I may add some of these to my daily Anki practice.

Here are a few words from the vikings:

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Linguist makes the case for vocabulary tests at spelling bees

21 Sep

Linguist John McWhorter makes the case for adding a vocabulary component to spelling bees.

I like this observation:

“loving your language means a command of its vocabulary beyond the level of the everyday.”

Here is McWhorter on the history of the plural word:

England: Bedtime stories in decline

16 Sep

From the Guardian a disturbing story that claims that reading stories to children at bedtime is in decline in England:

“The survey also found that in previous generations, parents who read bedtime stories did so more regularly than their modern counterparts. Only 13% of respondents read a story to their children every night, but 75% recall being read to every night when they were kids. On average, today’s parents read bedtime stories to their children three times a week.

The findings are all the more surprising since 87% of those polled believe that bedtime reading is vital to children’s education and development.”

I wonder what a survey of North American parents would show?

As Risley and Hart have shown, children’s exposure to vocabulary has important long term consequences.

Joshua Henkin on vocabulary

26 Aug

A nice piece in The New York Times by novelist Joshua Henkin on the importance of vocabulary. He says this about learning vocabulary words in a Kaplan review course:

“One day, Stanley Kaplan himself visited our class. I recall him as a kind of impresario, a Jackie Gleason-type figure who warmed the class up with a few jokes. And then he was gone, leaving me to my vocabulary words, which I kept on flash cards and which I would hum as I memorized them. It was the words themselves I was humming. It’s the same thing I do now when I write, a drone so reflexive I don’t even realize I’m doing it until my wife, who shares an office with me, says, “You’re humming again,” and I try to quiet down.”

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