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Vocabulary, a challenge for students-in context

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November 28, 2016

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Vocabulary, a challenge for students-in context

Waning vocabulary among students is one of the key concerns raised by language teachers during all my interactions with them. The fading skill has been a unanimous motif in all the deliberations I have had with teachers to understand performance of students in languages.

Since it is voiced by so many teachers, this sounds like a real time problem which teachers acknowledge. On further pondering and discussion with teachers what surfaced was the direct linkage of the reading habit with the dwindling vocabulary among students.

I have always been interested in words and have always felt that they lend a hand in garnishing your imagination. Words have always had a similar effect on me like Madeleine (cake) had on Marcel Proust in Search of Lost Time. It acts as a stimulus to contrast involuntary memory with voluntary memory. Presumably this is a closer way of learning and responding to knowledge when we refer to meaningful learning. It connects through various schemes of facts or information thus helping us arrive at new knowledge through previously acquired knowledge with lesser impetus on memorizing or rote learning of information.

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No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.

—Marcel Proust,

In Search of Lost Time

Somehow I have always found words close to my heart as in many cases I remember where and under what circumstances I learnt certain words. A few examples to cite from my memory:

  • Dilapidated: I read this word when I was in grade 5 or 7 in a short story in school. Although I don’t remember the story but the word still evokes an image of cob webs and dampness in my mind.
  • Ahmak (fool/silly): Heard it from one of my uncles who tagged me with this name whenever I did something stupid. It was out of sheer love for me.
  • Austerity: Read it in a magazine in an article which was talking about Austerity measures in some ecological context.
  • Egalitarian: My cousin made a recommendation of this word in an essay in place of equality.

There are many more but I am citing these cases in order to think aloud and look at possible levers which helped me know a few.

‘Like everything metaphysical the harmony between thought and reality is to be found in the grammar of the language’. Ludwig Wittgenstein A recent practice which I find self defeating is to see learners presented with a list of a few words which they cram up to augment their existing vocabulary. No doubt you come across so many thwarted performances in vocabulary in a context as a skill. It is for this reason most of the things in the world have suddenly become awesome. From a glass of lemonade to a good performance of an actor to a good book- Everything is just awesome! I am sure it is not our inability to acknowledge and perceive the world but our frailty in aptly expressing our emotions.

Another trend which I have observed amongst learners is that the more difficult a word the better one is assumed to be having a command on the language. It’s in vogue to flaunt the list of words one mugged up painstakingly and perhaps morbidly over the years. One that fits is more important than the vanity it carries on the society. Brevity and comprehensibility should be stressed upon for the students to understand their value. There is nothing like a difficult or an easy word. A word is like a piece of jigsaw puzzle where it renders life to a sentence. It is the aptness of the word which will render beauty to communication than the length of the word.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’ -Lewis Carroll

I recently came across a textbook which had a story with difficult words underlined. The whole class mugged up those words and they were all assessed on these 7-10 words. What a ridiculous way of teaching vocabulary to children! It is monotonous, stressful and self defeating. Having mugged up I am sure most of the children will sooner or later forget these words which would depend on individual retention power.

Words are like a wheel to a cart. You tend to learn them once you understand their value. In fact in most of the cases we learn words when we find them as a hindrance to comprehension. Imagine a new word which does not let you comprehend an important letter from your employer, friend, peer or even the government. Will you not go back and open your dictionary as this word is a digit of your code to the important message. Thanks to the new idea advocated by many institutions where one has to understand the context, tone of the sentence, et cetera and skim through the passage to achieve the goal of some comprehension. This strategy works because there are badly framed multiple choice questions after this.

Using dictionaries is a lost art these days which has its own evident repercussions. Either the system allows you to ignore the vocabulary or it tells you to mug it up without understanding its relevance.

I strongly feel that vocabulary should be presented as a skill to students in a lively manner and not as formulae to mug up. The dictionary should be a ready reckoner in the classroom. When I say vocabulary I mean it for any language that children study. To ameliorate the present situation teachers should present narratives which are interesting to children. This will automatically augment their vocabulary. Vocabulary is an intrinsic tool to express and communicate. Not only through books but through songs, poems, advertisements there can be exploration of vocabulary by the students. Although it may vary from individual to individual but talking about etymology of words can also be great stories for students. At least a few may adopt this way of learning and choose to delve deeper. For others, there could be different methods.

Another important thing which I value as a lever in my learning journey was the role of grandparents. It is with them one learns and listens to folk tales, new idioms, and newer words. The idea is to interact with people of different age groups and varied cultures and professions.

Language like culture grows organically with interaction. It will develop more through open conversations instead of limiting ourselves to a compendium of certain words to mug up and be assessed on.

Prakhar is a management professional who has been working in the education domain and finds himself privileged to have this opportunity to have interacted with various stakeholders in the ecosystem. He is based in Dehradun. Writing is a hobby while reading is a habit which makes his day when he is not working. As a learner, the science of learning has always made him curious to understand the way learning happens from various angles and he is always seeking ways in which it can be ameliorated. He is keen to join discussions which are on science of learning, books or at least humorous, he can be reached on Pghildyal@gmail.com.

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