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10 Aug

On page 294 of The Narrow Corner, Maugham uses the word “rhodomontade” as a single word sentence.

I had no idea what it meant. Now I do.

Vocabulary and social class

3 Jul

You may recall the advertising slogan “people judge you by the words you use” for a vocabulary improvement program called Verbal Advantage. This slogan hints at an essential truth; there are well documented vocabulary differences and these differences have social consequences. School and career success are correlated with vocabulary size.

Vocabulary differences are linked to social class and may play a role in perpetuating income inequality. Betty Hart and Todd Risley,  of the University of Kansas, found large social class differences in the vocabulary to which children are exposed. In their research, they observed 42 families with children for more than two years. The families were from three socioeconomic categories; professional, working class, or welfare. Hart and Risley observed and tape recorded parent-child interactions one hour every moth.

Extrapolating from their observations, Hart and Risley  found that in a professional family an average child would be exposed to 215,000 words a week. The average child in a working class home would be exposed to 125,000 words. In the family where welfare was the main means of support an average child would be exposed to only 62,000 words per week.

Not surprisingly these differences in exposure were correlated with measures of vocabulary size. Children exposed to more words developed a bigger stock of words. Without educational intervention, these early differences set the stage for life long differences in vocabulary.

The Weschler Adult Intelligence Scale is a widely used test of cognitive ability. It has been standardized on large representative samples. Joseph Matarazzo  published the percentage of adults between the age of 16 and 65 who could correctly define some of the test’s vocabulary items in its 1955 standardization sample. Not surprisingly, everyone could define common physical objects such as a bed or a penny. As words became more abstract, the percentages dropped sharply. Only 65% could define the word “domestic” and only 20% knew the meaning of the word “ominous.” The majority did not know the words “calamity,” “tranquil,” or “fortitude.” The word “travesty” was only known to 5% of the sample. As Gottfredson  pointed out “none of these words is esoteric; anyone who has attended U.S. High schools or read national newspapers or magazines has surely encounter them. Vocabulary tests gauge the ease with which individuals have routinely caught on to new and more complex concepts they encounter in the general culture.”

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