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Thursday, 15 September 2011

What's in a Word?

I have always been fascinated by words. Where they come from, how they evolve, how they break down into smaller bits (roots, suffixes, prefixes, parts of a compound word etc.), and most importantly all the baggage they carry. Each word conjures up a host of associations, flavours, and moods. The very idea of connotation fascinates me. How is it that a word, one little word, can say so much? And how is it that we can all understand all that baggage, all the history, all the stories that each word tells?
Why are words so important? How do they define and delineate the parameters of thought? Why are our thoughts so constrained by a lack of vocabulary but so liberated by a rich and varied vocabulary? Although a number of linguists have supposedly proven that thought is possible without language, I’m not totally and fully convinced. I’ve read Steven Pinker’s books on this particular topic, and I’ve heard his view reiterated by a number of other linguists, but I’m still fairly certain that most thought, if not all, is possible only when we have the words to think with. And definitely, having the right words helps to clarify, organize, articulate, and understand thoughts in meaningful ways.  The greater our vocabularies, the more sophisticated and complex our thoughts can be.
Last year, my students did an exercise where they tried to come up with alternatives for highly clich├ęd words like “sad” and “nice” and “mean” and “happy.” What we found, as a class, was that our alternatives were not just fresher, they were always more nuanced. Sad is a generic word, but dismayed, on the other hand, describes not just sadness, but a certain type and degree of sadness. Similarly, melancholic, miserable, and depressed all convey very specific types and degrees of sadness. The broader the range of vocabulary, the more accurately and effectively we can think and the more clearly we can articulate a thought. Quite phenomenal, if you ask me.
Given the enormous role that words play in our ability not only to comprehend what we read  but also to think critically and deeply about the world around us, I think that helping students expand their own vocabularies is a critical part of teaching. A staggering statistic: the average school child acquires between 2500 and 3000 new words each year. Most of these words, obviously, are learned incidentally. This year, I’m teaching a seventh grade course, a ninth grade course, and a tenth grade course. It is amazing to me how many words my seventh graders do NOT know: words like portray, anecdote, and peril. Most of my ninth graders know these words. I’m always impressed by the size of my high school students’ vocabularies. The fact that in two years, my seventh graders too will have these sophisticated high school vocabularies is incredible, to say the least.
What are the best ways to teach vocabulary? I think that using a sophisticated vocabulary is possibly the most natural and effective way to expose students to new words. Instead of dumbing down my vocabulary when I speak with teenagers (or even my own, much younger, children), I very intentionally use complex and nuanced words. If students ask me what the words mean, I will discuss the words. If not, I’ll just use the same word often, with the hope and expectation that my students will learn the word incidentally, just from hearing it used in context on multiple occasions. Additionally, I think that direct instruction is probably important. However, I find it hard to make the time to teach vocabulary in an explicit way, and I also find that these teaching sessions are not as productive as the more natural method of merely using more complex words. Students may be able to define a word that has been explicitly taught, but they often have trouble understanding it well enough to use it effectively. They don’t get the word; they don’t get all the connotations, all the baggage that the word carries, until they hear or read the word used in context often.
As a teacher, however, I can only do so much. Vocabulary acquisition has to start early, and it has to start in the home. The words that a child encounters from infancy onwards will determine not just how well the child does on reading tests down the road but also the child’s ability to think and communicate. If there’s anything a parent can do for a child, it is to expose the child to the richest array of words possible.

The Stories We Tell

Over the last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the impact that foundational stories have on people. By foundational stories, I mean those stories that most children in the culture are familiar with: the religious, mythological, and more contemporary stories that all children in a culture grow up hearing.  The more I think about the role that stories play in shaping a child’s understanding of self and society, the more I’m convinced that at a very early age (maybe 3 or 4),every young child already has a worldview based primarily on the stories he hears.

Take, for example, the stories that a typical child growing up in India hears. Even very young children hear about Rama, Lakshmana, and Sita, in the Ramayana. Through this story, they learn the tremendous importance of filial piety since Rama is revered for obeying his stepmother, Kaikeyi, without any questioning or resistance, even when she demands that he give up his kingship and live in the forest for 14 years. Rama is idolized for both obeying his stepmother without question and for ensuring that his father is able to keep his promise. The ideal son, Rama willingly gives up everything for his parents. Additionally, children learn about the responsibility and duty that siblings (brothers, particularly) have for each other. Lakshman accompanies Rama into the forest, and Bharatha only rules in Rama’s name. Finally, children imbibe a host of ideas about gender roles through this story: men fight, women need to be rescued, women should be chaste etc.

 Once an Indian child understands this basic storyline with all the values it carries, he will then encounter other stories through the Indian media, all of which reinforce and re-play these same themes and values. Every Bollywood story and Hindi soap will idealize the family in much the same way, and they will all emphasize and reinforce the centrality of these familial relationships. Without even realizing it, the Indian child, early on, will have been taught that the purpose of life is to uphold the family structure, no matter what the personal costs of this might be. Filial piety, unquestioning obedience towards one’s parents, a deep responsibility towards one’s siblings, and a certain patriarchal view of the world would have been etched in the child’s mind.

In contrast, the average Western child hears a different genre of stories. The stories don’t deal with the theme of filial piety; they centre instead on the individual, who must overcome obstacles to achieve an independent victory. Most Western children grow up either with religious (Biblical) stories, with fairy tales, and, if they’re lucky, with more contemporary classic Children’s literature. The Little Engine (that could) is not only kind but also courageous as she chugs up a very large hill so that she can help the dolls and toys get to the children on the other side of the mountain. Animal characters like Curious George and Franklin are the heroes of their own stories because they take risks, have adventures, and learn something.

 Even ancient Western myths like the Iliad and the Odyssey are about the individual’s quest for greatness. Biblical stories and parables also focus on Jesus’ life and his miracles. The New Testament is largely the story of an individual’s journey to help and save others. By the age of three or four, the average Western child has decided that the main purpose of life is to seek fulfilment and greatness on an individual level. You become great because you overcome obstacles as an individual, not because you make sacrifices for the sake of your family and community. Furthermore, the characters in all these stories tend to help strangers rather than family members and relatives. These themes of individual success are, of course, reinforced by the Western media in cartoons, movies, and sitcoms. Therefore, the worldview that the young child develops is then reinforced and strengthened as he grows up.

I often have conversations with my students about fairy tales, myths, and other foundational stories. How have these stories shaped the way we understand ourselves? How do they shape the way we understand the world and our place in it?  What value systems are embedded in each of these stories? What kinds of scripts do they give us for our own lives? We may think that children’s stories are merely for entertainment and academic enrichment, but I think that the role they play in socializing a child into his/her own cultural context is tremendous. Additionally, from a literary standpoint, these foundational stories often give us the original scripts for all later literature and film.