25 June 2013

Vocabulary predicts success: word power equals life power

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The size of your vocabulary will usually determine the size of your bank account. Robert Kiyosaki, author of the popular book Rich Dad, Poor Dad, wrote, “If you want to be rich, you have to have a rich man’s vocabulary. Words can make you rich, or can make you poor.”

Or as Ed Hirsch, Jr. wrote in a recent article entitled A Wealth of Words, “the key to increasing upward mobility is expanding vocabulary.”  He further elaborated,

“The reason is clear: vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities—not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history, and the arts.”

The number of words you know is also the best predictor of language ability in second language acquisition. That is why at LingQ we have made the known words total such an important statistical feature.

To be clear, I refer to the passive knowledge of words, the ability to understand the meaning of words when you hear them or read them. The more words you understand, the more complex content you can listen to and read. This means that you can learn about more complex subject matter while at the same time increasing your vocabulary even further, without deliberately studying these words.

As Hirsch points out,

“If vocabulary is related to achieved intelligence and to economic success, our schools need to figure out how to encourage vocabulary growth. They should understand, for starters, that word-learning occurs slowly and through a largely unconscious process.”

Unfortunately schools in general — and language instructors in particular — are less concerned with word power and more concerned with vainly trying to develop certain specific skills arbitarily chosen by the teaching establishment. In the case of language instruction this usually means an impractical early focus on grammar and correct output from a limited vocabulary base. In the general education system, it often means trying to teach politically loaded concepts such as critical thinking, anti-bullying, or environmental activism.

While there is nothing wrong with these concepts, it is a matter of priority. Students first need to learn how to read better, whether in their own language or in a foreign language. If they can read widely and understand, their other language skills will naturally develop. They will also be in a better position to form their own opinions on those issues where the teacher is trying to inculcate teacher-centered values.

When I was at school we always had books, starting from the earliest grades. Now my grandchildren get a variety of printed sheets instead of books. Their learning is scattered.The result is described by Hirsch in his article:

“And between 1962 and the present, a big segment of the American population began knowing fewer words, getting less smart, and becoming demonstrably less able to earn a high income.”

The economic cost of poor literacy in the US is enormous. This is true for native speakers and even more so for people whose first language is not English, as pointed out in this study financed by the Melinda and Bill Gates foundation. One of the solutions that this study proposes is increased use of mobile technology, especially cell phones. However, the learning programs proposed for these mobile devices are based on the same old ESL concepts of teaching grammar, and output in a narrow range of work-relevant subjects. I believe that this will not significantly increase the learners’ word power, and will condemn them to low paying jobs or unemployment.

The most effective mobile learning device is the book. The next most effective moblie learning device is the MP3 player, especially if the audio matches the reading material. A combination of text and audio can help struggling readers increase their word power. For those who have access to computers, a well structured system like LingQ, which combines text, audio and vocabulary acquisition functionality, can be one way of helping low literacy citizens improve their employment prospects. I would love to see LingQ used in this way, one day I hope.

2 Comments

  1. James Chalmers
    Posted June 29, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    It’s good to see that you have mentioned your grandkids literacy education compared to your own. Do you believe in the more expanded view of modern literacy that takes into account the various modes of communication? For example, James Paul Gee says that learning to play video games is learning a new literacy. Lots of the younger generation actively engage with these platforms of literacy and quite a lot of young people learn a lot of language through things like playing computer games, a much more interactive way of learning. What’s your view on this?

  2. Posted June 29, 2013 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    Literacy to me means reading and writing, especially reading. The power of words will not change. Computer games and other technical skills are different from reading and word power. Not related in my view.

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