Tag Archives: vocabulary

Vocabulary 101

Activity Being Avoided: Lesson prep for the week
Music In My Head: Highway – David Francey
Tea Being Drunk: I can’t get any tea because I’m lying on my stomach and there’s a cat sleeping on my back
Books Being Read: Mama’s Boy — David Goudreault, Her Body and Other Parties — Carmen Maria Machado

When I was a child–about six or seven years old–my sister and I were in the back seat of the car, insulting each other.

“You’re despicable!”

“No, you’re despicable!”

“You’re despicabler!”

My parents were ignoring us; my uncle, whom we had just picked up at the airport, (I assume our performance was for him) had one eyebrow raised.

“Do you two know what that word means?”

“Yep! It means you’re pregnant!” (My sister would have been four or five.)

“It means you’re really bad. But we can say that word and Mum doesn’t get mad.”

Where had such young children learned that word? From Daffy Duck, of course. He said it to Bugs Bunny all the time. It was a great word that came with an optional saliva-spraying lisp.

I think about situations like this when I get a new student. New students are always asked why they think they need an English tutor. The answer invariably involves some variant of “I want to improve my vocabulary”. They have lists of SAT words and vocabulary workbooks. They set goals such as learning 100 new words per week.

I didn’t have SAT word lists or vocabulary workbooks when I was growing up. I had the illicit Batman TV show that we watched at a friend’s house, during which the Joker taught me “Foiled again!” and “You have thwarted my nefarious plans for the last time!” I had Rudyard Kipling and his ‘Stute Fish. I had Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things that gnashed their teeth.

I had a mother who, when I didn’t like dinner or my sisters or the way my life was going, asked, “Are you being persecuted?” If I answered, “Yes”, her retort would be something about it putting carbuncles on my soul.

I had a father who said, “That’s ludicrous!” rather than “You stupid child, what were you thinking?”

As Albert Cullum points out in Push Back the Desks, children in Kindergarten pick up on the language that’s fed to them. If you drop a sheet over your head and say, “I’m a friendly apparition”, they’ll make the ghost connection in a couple of minutes. If you flap your arms and say, “Pinions”, they know what you’re talking about. The concept of waiting until a child is “old enough” before we speak to them in an intelligent manner is particularly short-sighted.

Growing up, there were people I would purposefully listen to because I admired their linguistic skills. When I ask my students whose vocabulary they admire, I’m met with blank stares.

What goes in, comes out.

Sometimes I get a student who clicks right away, and they’re able to focus on the best voices available to them. Their vocabulary improves within six months or so.

Other students are convinced that word lists are still the way to go. They remember the words for a couple of weeks, and then the words are gone. I have the students read Calvin and Hobbes comics, and watch Corner Gas and Brit-coms. Eventually, they might see the light and embrace Stephen Fry as their linguistic deity, but we’ve lost valuable time.

We want our children to be “above average”, but we only give them access to mediocrity. It seems to me that in our crusade to make children’s culture entirely educational, positive and uniform, we’ve forgotten to include versatile language.