Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Vocabulary, Education and Success - How Are They Related?

Origins of the English lexicon, based on a com...
Origins of the English lexicon, based on a computerized survey of roughly 80,000 words in the old Shorter Oxford Dictionary (3rd edition) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Lee W Reed

We are told that the average high school graduate has a vocabulary of 10 to 12 thousands words.

I usually tell the middle school students I teach that they most likely have a vocabulary of about 8 thousand words.

That's probably about right, though we can't help but wonder what texting is doing to our kid's vocabulary.

Research done some years ago indicated that the average phone call used no more than 800 different words. How this research was done, I don't know, but it is an interesting factoid.

College has a profound effect on our vocabulary. There we have to read a great deal of the writings of highly intelligent people with great vocabularies and that has the effect of increasing our list of words we use.

As a matter of fact, there is a stereotype of a newly minted college student who returns home and wishes to impress his/her friends with a host of new words.

Eventually we learn that the real purpose of our speech is to communicate and we put aside the fancy words in place of those that will be effective with our audience.

Nevertheless, by the time a student graduates from college they should have a vocabulary of close to 20 thousand words; nearly double what they had when they graduated high school.

All this talk of vocabulary begs another question: Exactly how many words are there in the English language?

As it happens, English may be the richest of all languages when it comes to words. We have borrowed words from other languages and added many of our own until the Oxford English Dictionary lists 615 thousand words in our language.

By comparison, German has just 185 thousand and French just 100 thousand.

Winston Churchill is said to have had one of the greatest vocabularies of our time and he probably knew far fewer than half the total (perhaps close to 80,000.) Shakespeare had an exceptional grasp of the language and use over 60 thousand in his works.

Some people who have particularly large vocabularies, especially those who read and write a great deal, have in the neighborhood of 60 to 80 thousand words. Typically, they make a game of learning new words, so to them, finding a new word they can use is like finding buried treasure.

One of the astonishing things about vocabulary is the number of words students have to learn in medical school. I mentioned that the average college graduate knows about 20 thousand words. The average medical doctor possesses a 40 thousand word vocabulary.

Another doubling of the words they use in just a few short years. This is indicative of the intense learning these students do as they work their way through medical school.

There are number of voices out there that will tell you that people who have large vocabularies tend to be more successful than those who do not.

The implication is that your paltry word skills are holding you back and if you just memorized more words you, too, could be successful. This is shaky logic at best.

I suspect the reason that many people who are successful have large vocabularies is because they have graduate degrees to go with them. They also tend to read a great deal.

Simply learning all the words these folks know will not give you their wisdom or judgment, which is why they were given there positions of authority in the first place.

One of the amazing things that is happening on the Internet right now is that prestigious schools are beginning to offer their coursework for free online.

MIT was a pioneer in this area as the posted all the classes necessary to earn a degree in engineering from their school, online and free of charge.

Of course, you would still need to buy the books, and they are not cheap, but you could ostensibly learning everything an MIT grade knows for a small fraction of the cost.

By this method, you could not only learn all the words of a graduate, but also learning the principles that go with them. What you would not get for your efforts is a degree. For that you would have to pay all the usual matriculation fees.

It's an interesting thought; what could you do with an engineers training, but no degree? The jury is still out on that decision, but several students are giving it a try. It will be interesting to watch this trend in the future to see how things work out.

One thing is certain, many other school have followed MIT's lead and are offering similar courses, including Harvard, Berkley, McGill and a host of others. It's a trend worth watching.

Lee Reed is a logophile, word lover, who has a respectable grasp of the English language and loves to write about it as well as the interesting things he has learned in his numerous travels. You can find more of his words at: http://teachingadayatatime.wordpress.com/

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