Vocabulary Lesson

As I was introducing a poetry lesson this week, S. was calling across the aisle to C., who was removing the foil from the shish kabob she’d bought (but not eaten) during her lunch break. Another student was working on an assignment for her next class, and still others were passing notes and whispering loudly.

“Ladies, could you please conduct yourselves with a bit more decorum!” I shouted above the din.

This caught S.’s attention. “Why you always have to use such fancy words? It gives me a headache.”

“Good question,” I said. “Why do I use such fancy words?” I wrote the word decorum on the board. “But first,” I asked, “what does it mean?”

“How should we know?” R. muttered.

“Because even though you may never have seen this word before, you know what I was asking you to do just now. What does decorum mean?”

“Acting respectful,” S. offered.

“And being polite,” C. added.

“Good behavior,” someone else added.

“See, you know what the word means.” I said. “Don’t worry if a word looks unfamiliar, you can still figure out its meaning.”

“But why should we use big words?” S. persisted. “I don’t like all those big words.”

“Because that way you can tell someone off and they don’t even know what you were saying,” one young woman suggested.

Fair enough. “Also, the more words you know, the more thoughts you can think. The more thoughts you can think, the more possibilities you have for what you can do with your life,” I offered.

Thus, this week during poetry class I’ve been focusing on vocabulary. For many of my students, who, shall we say, have not exactly felt welcomed into the hallowed halls of academia, new words sting, slap and burn. They’re evidence of what they don’t know. They are like signs that say, “No Trespassing.” “Do Not Enter.”

But for the poet, I told them, words are like treasures. They offer new ways of saying old things. They are new tastes. New experiences. Each one is a doorway into a new world.

I read somewhere that the late, great, poet Stanley Kunitz had the first hint of his calling when, as a child, he would skip through the woods repeating a new word again and again because he loved the sound it made in his ears.

When I took a poetry class with Lucille Clifton, she insisted we all stand up, hold hands, and each share one word we love the sound of.

Meanwhile, as my poetry class with S., C., R. and the rest continued, we added words to our list: gnash, unperturbed and ambiguous among them. I invited students to try to use at least two new words in their poems. C. wrote:

Inside the forest …

leaves gnash against each other

they feel like war

is coming toward them …

S., however, remained unconvinced. She didn’t finish her poem that day, and kept crumpling one piece of paper after another. But she did write the word “ambiguous” in big blue letters across the top of her page. Perhaps that was her way of having the last word on the subject. At least it was a brand new, multisyllabic one.


6 thoughts on “Vocabulary Lesson

  1. It feels like S. also created beautiful ‘visual poetry’.
    I love the image of the crumpled piece of paper with the word AMBIGUOUS in big blue letters.
    And the sound of the crumpling and un-crumpling of the paper. And the poem (ambiguous of course) with infinite meaning from one word.
    And the thought that you are letting a wonderful process flow.

  2. i echo everything Joanne said above ..

    would you please tell S that her forest poem is utterly SUPERB! that tiny poem is perfect as is … it’s as complete as any poem ever gets so she was right to accept that muse didn’t wish her to try and take it further … *wild applause*

    the crumpled paper/ambiguous moment was pure performance art – thank you S!

  3. “Also, the more words you know, the more thoughts you can think.”

    As a linguistics student, I don’t really agree with this.

    This idea is known as linguistic determinism — the idea that linguistic restrictions impose cognitive restrictions. A famous example is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

    Now it first appealed to me too (as a high school student), but there are many counterproofs against this idea. Take the process of child language acquisition and creolisation (spontaneous generation or borrowing of grammar and vocabulary by children), for one. For example, as we can see from history, if children from three different migrant groups are brought together on a colonial island (as has been the case for say, Hawaii, Haiti, Singapore etc.) most likely their parents would have taught them to either use pidgin, or the native language of the parents. But often the children end up not learning either — rather, they take the pidgin (being the working “common language” of that colony, at least for their social class), and augment it themselves (perhaps by borrowing further from each other’s native languages). The key is that it’s spontaneous, new grammatical categories *and* vocabulary are produced, and children whose parents are native speakers of Language X end up using features of Language Y that their peers would have borrowed from, but not their parents. Less dramatic forms of creolisation probably drive language change. No one taught children how to do these things. In fact, some cultures don’t explicitly teach their children how to speak at all. Their children still end up being fluent speakers by age 6.

    Both personal experiences and scientific evidence support the idea that we think in a sort of “mentalese” — a system of symbolic thought not based on any human language. Sure, we often get words that strongly correlate to our thoughts “inside our heads”, but that’s only because our linguistic centres (in Broca’s Area, Wernicke’s area, and other regions around the Sylvian Fissure of the brain) happen to be at a rather convenient juncture between the temporal lobe, the (non-primary) visual cortex and the frontal cortex. So our thoughts get converted into our L1 pretty efficiently. Most of the time when we pick up a language later in life (an L2 — which is not the same as second language as one can acquire multiple L1s in childhood), our thoughts do not get efficiently converted into L2 utterances, because the L2 is being stored in our general reasoning area — not as efficient and specialised for processing language (which is pretty complex!)

    I think a lot of us know the experience of *knowing* what we want to say, but not having the words to express it. Take for example, scientific and mathematical concepts… often I can identify certain ideas or patterns already — we just don’t know what to call them! But it doesn’t prevent us from knowing they are a particular concept that one is talking about…

    Anyway, I just didn’t want to see a great teacher fall prey to this common fallacy.

    The idea that “incompetent vocabulary –> incompetent thinking” has led to many shameful abuses over the course of history, such as discrimination against the deaf, perception of non-native speakers of English as “stupid,” and various injustices against children. (It’s also a rather problematic instance of the “correlation does not imply causation” fallacy.)

    For example, deaf people who were forbidden from learning sign language (because authorities arrogantly felt they should be lipreading — but how do you lipread without going through the traditional language acquisition phases?), end up not learning any particular native language at all, and this handicaps them for life. When they come across sign language, they sign in the equivalent of “really broken English” rather than in any regular system. Yet they’re perfectly capable of thinking as anyone else — it’s just that often communication with them is a bit more time-consuming. Except for language itself, they fare no worse at thinking in abstract concepts compared to the rest of the population — some were discovered to be rather good pickers of locks or exceptional students of logic and abstract algebra …

    Now it’s true that linguistic restrictions impose restrictions on the *communication* of cognition, but this is not the same as imposing restrictions on cognition itself.

  4. oh, and LOVED what you wrote and how you taught to the moment and focused on the treasure of words and saw the treasure in the one word expression of ambiguous and how you knew what words meant to those not privileged to them– and by the way, my favorite word to feel in mouth has always been “pie” and up until now, i didn’t know that others had favorite sounding words because people always laughed when i share my affection for the “feeling” (not the actual) “pie”

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