Monday, September 27, 2010


The excitement engendered by a vocabulary exercise – i.e. words; rechristened to make them look more with it – in the case of the healthy English teacher is rather hard to fathom for the uninitiated. Assuming that the readers of this paper do, in fact, belong to the former category, I would like to demonstrate. At this point, the correct thing to do is to ask the subject to recline on a sofa or day-bed, close his eyes and listen to the sound of your voice; however, until that wonderful and somewhat maddening program “Dragon Dictate” (thanks James!) also starts reading out loud on tap, that is not going to be possible so instead, just get yourselves a cuppa or your favorite poison and read the following: there is this dear little grid divided into these charming little boxes and down the left, you have the root form of a word; in the little boxes, you have the adjective form, the adverb form, the verb form and the like. There is a neatness and intrinsic beauty about this that the layman just doesn’t seem to understand. Then, you hear someone else whispering in your ear: “economics, economical, economically, economize…” You whip round and say, somewhat feebly:”Satan, get thee behind me!” This remark, you must admit, carried far more weight when it was initially uttered. Satan, who has been at this far longer than “the vocabocholic”, knows very well when someone actually means something so he settles down for a cozy chat: “you can always put words together; you could be the world’s greatest vocabulary creator” he croons; “curtain-twitcher, jay-walker, rubber-necking” he adds – after all he is the Devil. “Bottle opener” you volunteer; “Light bearer” Lucifer responds slyly and you start down that slippery slope. Before you know it, prefixes and suffixes all come tumbling out in a torrent and you are both chanting together:
Singing in class!
Singing in class!
What a glorious feeling!
It’s vocabulary again.
I am dancing with words…
“Sign on the dotted line” he says sweetly – I am pretty sure there must be a dotted line – “No pens necessary; this is really very simple.” he adds before clip clopping off with your soul. This is not the end of the story though; it is only the beginning. You will get a far better seat in that pit and even be given your own pitch-fork if you can procure converts so enter the eighth deadly sin: you need to spread the word.
Did Oscar Wilde get it right?
Have you ever wondered whether Oscar Wilde would have written “Lady Windermere’s Fan” in quite the way he did, had he been an English teacher? It occurs to me that he probably would have scratched out the word temptation, for one thing, and said “I can resist everything except vocabulary exercises.”  Many would, in fact, approve of this revised version of Lady Windermere’s words and the proof of the pudding is in the eating: a casual glance along the book shelves of any reputable store and you will see the plethora of vocabulary books. The reasoning that led to vocabulary books spreading across book shelves like a rash goes something like this: words are the smallest units in a sentence – electrons and atoms; cells and tissue; you get the picture – so analysis of the said units will guarantee comprehension of the sentence they all come together to form, which when dissected and examined under an electron microscope, will enable perfect understanding of the text as a whole. If you believe that, you will believe anything; sorry folks.  The human mind grasps the whole, the general, the complete unit first; the details come later – not the other way round. Playing lab technician with sentences or words will have a most undesirable result: lack of comprehension, intense boredom, lack of motivation, a healthy hatred for “vocabulary books” and consequently, little learning. The use of one of these books in class does have some benefits however, in that the teacher leaves the class replete; as if he has just downed a frightfully healthy but supremely insipid meal. He feels he has done right by the students, which, after all, is his mission in life. In short, he feels GOOD. There are a few other people in the class, the masochists; i.e. the masters students, who share the same delusions as some teachers and writers of vocabulary books and who think they “ought” to be feeling good. They have, after all, been through the rather scholastic and painfully mind numbing state education system. However, unlike the teacher, they don’t feel satisfied; they feel bored but guilty about it, and convinced that they will never learn the language. That frightfully healthy but insipid meal gives them indigestion. The rest of the class probably passed out as the teacher introduced the tedious text that particular unit started with. It is my experience that a lot of writers of vocabulary books seem to have gone to enormous trouble to make the reading texts as soporific as humanly possible. One universal favorite, for instance, is “Language Change and Development of English”.  A vocabulary book is yet to be printed that doesn’t cover this topic. There is always some hopelessly out dated text on computers; the reasoning being that students “like” such things.  The list goes on and on… Another one I recall concerns the history of telecommunications; riveting you must admit.  What follows the text is a set of little grids followed by neat little bunches of words which need to be placed in dear little three or four sentence paragraphs and similar stuff.  The whole thing is rounded off with a “delightful” little writing task which nobody ever does.
Sylvia Plath got it right!
Latterly, some vocabulary books have been produced which are vaguely “doable”. The books that work are more akin to reading books than anything else, which is as it should be. “Focus on Vocabulary” is such a book and does work although I personally don’t see the need for it, provided there is a well thought out, balanced reading program. There are also innumerable books which include vocabulary games and puzzles; one word of caution though: these books are time fillers rather like songs and although useful and fun, don’t constitute the core of the program. Peter Watcyn Jones’ wonderful series of five books printed by Longman would constitute a good example for such books and I have used them at the ends of hours or to keep those good students who complete their work early busy. I must confess though that in all my years of teaching, I never, ever used a vocabulary book of the sort described in the previous paragraph in class; even when it was part of the syllabus. I agree with Sylvia Plath that on their own, words are “dry and riderless” (see the poem Words out of The Colossus). Words have shades of meaning that only become obvious in the right context with the help of which the reader can “feel” the word as well. This latter function of context is especially important in the case of the English language with its rich and varied vocabulary. I would like to demonstrate what I mean by this with a series of examples involving words I have selected randomly the first of which involves the teaching of the word mute. The Longman English Dictionary states that the word mute means “silent, without speech”, which seems straightforward enough but now take a look at a section of this brilliant little poem by Thomas Hardy:
Snow in the suburbs
Every branch big with it,
Bent every twig with it;
Every fork like web-foot
Every street and pavement mute:
Some flakes have lost their way, and grope upwards when
Meeting those meandering down, they turn and descend again.
On reading this poem and observing the use of the word mute, one suddenly realizes that there is a lot more to the word and it only becomes obvious in the correct context. The silence of the snow is something we can all relate to; it isn’t just any silence. Before discussing what exactly is meant by the correct context and how to determine it, let us consider another word: intimidate for instance. The Longman English Dictionary states that the word means “to make someone fearful enough to do what he wants”.   The word means a good deal more than this though as becomes obvious on reading the following diary entry concerning a visit to an elderly relative:
I have always hated having to visit Great Aunt as we called her; none of us really knew her name. We found her terribly intimidating and would drag our feet all the way to her house. Her house was full of dark, cumbersome furniture which seemed to share her grim view of life. The long heavy drapes came right down to the thick dark carpets so that the house was dusky even at mid day. Great Aunt was a giant and towered above us all. I remember she was always dressed in black as she had never recovered from seeing her son hanged….
It is true that intimidate does mean to make one fearful but the relationship between the victim and the source of the fear only becomes clear on reading this entry. The author of the diary is a child and the source of the fear is a fearsome, elderly relative. A junior clerk may be intimidated by the boss; a new recruit may be intimidated by a vicious drill sergeant or a first former may be intimidated by a sixth former.  This unequal relationship only becomes obvious in the correct context.
The last word is eerie and is clearly stated to mean “causing fear because strange” in our trusty friend The Longman English Dictionary. Now consider, if you will, the use of the word in an appropriate context: The New Yorker magazine describes this section of Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries as eerie. ” (The last section of the Motorcycle diaries is eerie.)
I knew that when the great guiding spirit cleaves humanity into two antagonistic halves, I will be with the people…Howling like a man possessed, I will assail the barricades and trenches, will stain my weapon with blood and consumed with rage,  will slaughter any enemy I lay hands on.
This quote sends shivers down one’s spine and most certainly dispels any romantic image of the man. The latter is, however, beside the point; what it also does, according to The New Yorker is correctly exemplify the word “eerie". There is simply no other word that better describes the feeling produced by this quote.
So what is the problem? I hear you say; vocabulary books provide context too. Nobody disputes the need to contextualize; it is finding the perfect context that will give something close to an MRI image that is the problem.
The perfect context
Discovering the perfect context necessitates looking in the right place to start with but this is far from being sufficient: the teacher must also be able to recognize the perfect context when he sees it.  When a housewife goes to market, she can tell, at a glance, whether the fish is fresh or not. Likewise, a doctor can tell just by observing you as you enter his surgery that you probably have a thyroid problem – firsthand experience I assure you.  They are able to do this because they are experts and have had lots of experience. Getting back to our field of expertise, have you any idea how many phrases we have in English relating to the Dutch for instance? You have probably heard of Dutch ovens but how about a Dutch auction or a Dutch uncle? Did you know that speleology involves the scientific study of caves and has nothing to do with spelling? How about the word travesty? It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with transvestites I assure you. If you are hooked on scrabble and crosswords like myself and my family, you will run into these and a very odd assortment of other words as well. I remember some years ago, when I was back in the UK, I forget which daily suddenly decided not to run their regular crossword. The furore that followed caught the editor by complete surprise:  hundreds phoned in to complain – including yours truly – others descended on Fleet Street en masse. Needless to say, the crossword reappeared the next day with a note from a very contrite editor. I seem to have wandered off again; crosswords are a sensitive topic for the vocabocholics among us you see. Ideally of course, the good teacher needs to be an avid reader with a keen eye!   At this point, having realized what I am driving at, some of you may have started brisling but just hear me out. Did you know that educated native speakers use approximately 5000 words in speech and up to 10.000 in written communication? Did you know also that Shakespeare used 33.000? He was sort of special but how about this: the largest English language dictionary in the world is the Oxford English Dictionary and is 20 volumes; 20 volumes of vocabulary… Can anyone honestly claim to know anywhere near all of them? Yet, as English teachers, we do, at least, need to match the prowess of the educated native speaker. It is unfair and well nigh impossible to expect this feat to be accomplished by graduation, if the prospective teacher is training in a foreign country. Assuming that all learning is complete as soon as one lands one’s first teaching job is, however, sacrilege.  It is true that Doctor Johnson famously said “What I know not is not knowledge” Considering what he had achieved, that was, perhaps, acceptable; it most certainly isn’t for anyone else.  Sadly, there are many who have the very responsible job of educating the younger generation who have made little or no effort to better themselves in their many years at the helm.
Assuming that the teacher is an educated native speaker or as proficient as one, the next thing to do is to look in the right place. Logic dictates that one consults works where the chances of having misused words are slim.  The works of reputable writers or academics are a good place to start. Magazines and newspapers with strict standards are also good, safe sources of material; The Economist, the Guardian and The Times for instance.  The level of English in all these publications is of a certain standard and level of sophistication; they won’t let you down.  Then there is that parallel universe: the internet but one needs to remember that there is no editor there; what you see is what you get. It is a great mistake to assume that everything on the internet is correct or well written so the teacher needs to pick and choose taking on board what is useful and well written, and avoiding the gibberish or trash.  In short, we are surrounded by reading material galore so why have vocabulary books?
Off with their heads!
The Queen of hearts was a little too fond of summary executions perhaps, but I do honestly feel that a lot of writers of vocabulary books could make better use of their time writing decent reading books where the texts and tasks get progressively harder – not at snail’s pace but at a brisk trot. The market has been craving such reading material for years and no amount of plain speaking to publishers seems to help – believe me, I have tried. If such books were available, our job as teachers would be simple indeed as all we need to be able to teach vocabulary is decent reading material and the know how to work with it ( see the papers on the teaching of reading). That not being the case, it is back to the grind stone for us; we have to do it ourselves. Hopefully, one day, the penny will drop and we will have, at our finger tips, the ideal reading book. Now, wouldn’t you like that for your next birthday!  On that happy thought, I will leave you …

1 comment:

  1. You are sooo right - during my 35 years of teaching, vocabulary was always the sore point! Nevin