The Better Vocabulary Project: The Beginning

I love new words. And I love reading. As a child, I kept my copy of Oxford dictionary handy while reading, and would look up the meaning of any obscure words that I came across. Armed with a new word in my arsenal, I would then try and look for someone to converse with. I wanted to show-off, by nonchalantly throwing this word around. I remember feeling quite smug afterwards. I also remember not being liked too much by my classmates in school.

My parents also insisted that my brother and I should develop an extensive vocabulary. We were asked to write down five words from the dictionary starting with the letter A everyday in an old notebook. We would serially move forward, numbering each word, copying down the meaning verbatim from the dictionary and then making a new sentence incorporating the word. I think I lasted in this pursuit much longer than my brother.

I have no recollection of why I stopped but today as I sat down (Who am I kidding?…Laid down) with my copy of Anita Desai’s The Zigzag Way, I realized I should not have stopped the exercise. I have already asked Google for the meaning of 3 different words and I have not crossed page 10. 3 does not sound like a lot now but I have taken the decision to embark upon this self-improvement project so onward and upward. Then there are words I constructed meanings for, based on their context (I know that might be a self-debilitating move). While I was never an Eminem or a Shakespeare, I have let myself slip. I can rationalize my behaviour by blaming my ineptitude on textbooks which I read, for they are written in a very simple language or the fact that the number of fiction books I read annually, has been on a downward spiral. But who cares? I want to be better. I do not want to be disconcerted by unfamiliar words thrown at me by my favourite authors. Nor do I want to struggle finding the right words while communicating. Having a great vocabulary has several perks.

What are the benefits of having an extensive vocabulary? You cannot count ‘fanning pretentiousness.’

The structure of the language affects its’ speakers world view of cognition, according to what is known as the Whorfian hypothesis. Benjamin Lee Whorf, a chemical engineer working in an insurance office for his day job and moonlighting as an Anthropology scholar, was of the opinion that you experience nature within the confines of your language. While this idea was eventually discredited due to its limiting view on cognition, it might be worth our time to examine whether vocabulary serves as a lens, making us pay attention to details, we might have otherwise missed.

In a research study led by Debi Roberson, of the University of Essex, English kids were compared with children of the seminomadic Himba tribe in Namibia, in terms of how they mentally organized colours as well as how they recognized different colour terms. What makes things interesting is that while English kids are taught about a minimum of 11 colours, Himba kids have five broad categories to label colours. For instance, when a Himba kid uses the term, “zoozu,” she could be referring to any of the dark colours — black, dark brown, dark purple, dark blue, dark green, or dark red.

In one of the experiments, the children were exposed to 22 colour tiles. The tiles were then concealed and one tile from the array was shown to the child. This tile was then put back in the set. In order to assess their colour memory, children were then asked to identify the tile they were shown from the 22 tile set. Himba kids were more likely to make mistakes while identifying the tiles showing a poorer colour memory. When shown the pink card for instance, the child may incorrectly identify a red card or even an orange card as the card they had been shown earlier since all these three colours are categorized as, “seraandu,” by the Himba kids. Meanwhile, the children are correctly able to accurately differentiate between red, orange, and pink when these cards are present in front of their eyes. This indicates that while there is no problem in colour perception, our ability to recognize colours comes from our ability to label it.

The role of vocabulary in our everyday lives can be understood better by looking at how our vocabulary, specifically around emotions influence our emotional intelligence. Dr. Daniel Siegel explains this idea with an interesting phrase, “Name it to tame it.” It seems obvious when you think about it. It is easier to understand an emotion, when you have a label for it. For example, one might report feeling angry about something, but using a specific marker like ‘frustrated’ or ‘resentful’ helps the individual to understand and communicate her emotions with greater clarity. Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence in fact, runs a programme called RULER (acronym for Recognition, Understanding, Labeling, Expression and Regulation of emotions) for improving Emotional Intelligence among school students. One of the methods of choice is equipping the students with an extensive emotional vocabulary that enables them to recognize the exact emotion they or others around them are experiencing, what could have caused it, and also what can they do to regulate it.

And this is exactly what I aim to achieve through this project-becoming more mindful of my experiences, emotional or otherwise. This will hopefully ensure that I do not only live each experience fully but also base my decisions on the complete range of information available to me.

Can I read my way to a better vocabulary?

Perhaps, I could re-start the little assignment my parents had set for me as a child, in order to accomplish my goal. Learning a new word everyday and making a note of the same in a notebook. I could go high-tech and adapt this exercise on an excel sheet. I could do that. Maybe, I will try the game my father played with me as a child, where we made new words, adding one letter at a time. This seems like a good idea, but it would only serve as a tool for recall of words and not for registering a new word.

A quick search on the Internet throws spotlight on reading as one of the best methods for improving vocabulary. In the last week of December 2016, I signed up for a Goodreads Challenge which requires me to read 52 books this year. Since the beginning of the year, I have read about 3 novels (I am running behind schedule!) but I am not confident about remembering the new words I did look up the meaning for. Maybe, I will recognize these words when I come across them elsewhere but would I be able to cognitively locate them when I do need them to express something? I am not sure.

It seems like I need a mechanism that will help me encounter new words, keep the words in my long-term memory and finally, push them into action when need be. I also need that exercise to be fun, so that I feel motivated to stick to it. Craik and Lockhart’s idea of Levels of processing can help me here. Craik and Lockhart believed that the depth of processing information influences how well we remember information. On one hand, we can engage in shallow processing, wherein we pay attention to the structure of a word or its sound; or we can engage in deep or semantic processing. This requires us to:

  • think about the meaning of something,
  • think about how it relates to something else, and finally
  • think about its importance

Engaging in deep processing makes us think deeply about the information, increasing chances of it to be easily accessed. A fun way of operationalizing these requirements would require us to do three things:

  1. Combing out all the novel words one encounters while reading a book,
  2. Arranging these words on an excel sheet with their corresponding meanings as you read, and
  3. Upon completing the book, build a story using all these new words.

For example, imagine these are the seven new words, I learned after reading Pride and Prejudice:

  • scrupulous (characterized by extreme care and great effort)
  • surmise (infer from incomplete evidence)
  • countenance (the appearance conveyed by a person’s face)
  • fastidious (giving careful attention to detail)
  • censure (rebuke formally)
  • supercilious (having or showing arrogant superiority to)
  • pedantic (marked by narrow focus on or display of learning)

I could weave them together in a story like the one shared below:

When Elizabeth brought William home, her mother minced no words in expressing her displeasure. Anger dripped off her countenance. Elizabeth argued that William was married to someone living in this house and unless, her mother wanted her to leave too, she should make room for William.
Elizabeth often did things without thinking them through, when it came to her personal life. She could have been more scrupulous in selecting a groom for herself. Elizabeth’s mother surmised that the union would not last long. If they knew her behavioural pattern well enough, she would soon tire of him and send him packing. There was no chemistry. He will not be able to keep her engaged for long.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s fastidious mother censured her new son-in-law every chance she got at work. She had been managing her husband’s business since the past two decades. While she was not comfortable with the idea of giving William a job, she could not say no to her daughter. Moreover, it would be a good opportunity to keep a close watch on him. She assigned him to Mr Hurst. He was supercilious but she kept him on, because he was one of the only ones to stick with the company as it braved rough waters after her husband. His pedantic nature, would keep William on toes and he will voluntarily update her about William’s progress. That would be sufficient for now. She let out a sigh in relief, content with her plan.
In her preoccupation with how he fell short of what her daughter deserved, she did not pay attention to how similar he was to her husband William. The same William who was kind, quiet, and liked spending the majority of his time in his lab at the basement.

I did not promise a delightful read. The story we construct could be short or long, from any genre, sensible or ridiculous (like the one above). It just needs to include all the novel words we learn from the book.

To make it more challenging, maybe these new words could narrate a tale of the characters in your book, in a parallel universe. The idea seems fun and challenging! Hopefully, the process of thinking about the word with greater nuance and detail, and connecting these new words with each other would facilitate greater learning and memory.

Whether this exercise bears any fruits remains to be seen. My motivation to carry through this project is a question worth examining, and the answer will reveal itself only as time progresses. But I am ready to give this a shot. In kaizen, here is my attempt at learning something new. If you decide to give it a try, do share your stories and whether this exercise helped.

May the words guide you home!