Monday, April 25, 2011

Big Random Words

I like big words and I cannot lie.

La Professora is known to use what I call "S.A.T. words" in lecture because the dumbing down of a college education has been more than just an oxymoron. In my classroom, the expectation is that the students will either already have a working college-level vocabulary or will use those bits of technology they lug to class to look up something useful such as the meaning of a word they don't know, rather than finding out that their BFF's latest MyFace status is "functionally drunk".

Likewise, my love for big words encompasses small words with big meanings. If you can easily spot the nuances between "You cannot go" and "You can not go", or between "You like him more than I" and "You like him more than me", then you too must have a love for small words with big meanings. Unfortunately, those who know the difference are becoming rare.

The push to national standards in writing has left this country with students who studied for "The Test" and who have no real skills when it comes to the English language. I've met students in other countries whose vocabulary in English -- a foreign language to them -- puts the OMGing students here to shame. We are left with American students who cannot differentiate between "then" and "than", let alone between "effect" and "affect".

However, it is not just the national standards and the teaching to the test that are to blame. Technology has its own share of the culpability for the limiting of our national lexicon. Once upon a time, the telephone was cursed for ending the skills of letter writing; emails, it was said, would bring that back to the fore. It was not to be. Texting is now the mode of communication favored by the young and some of the not-so-young, and "text-speak" has become the mode of information dissemination -- a form that is bemoaned by instructors around the world, regardless of primary language.

English is such a rich language with a myriad of ways to communicate the hardest of concepts with the simplest of words, or the simplest of notions in the complexest of political double-speak. Yet our students limit themselves to endless rounds of "like" and "y'know?".

This nescience is due, in part, to the lack of any real reading. Students marvel at the fact that La Professora can devour a novel at a rate of between 60 to 90 pages an hour. What could explain the marveling is a poll done in 2007 that found that 1 in 4 Americans -- 25% for those not so mathematically inclined -- did not read a single book within the previous year. The average number of books read by the other 75% was seven. No wonder Borders Bookstore is going out of business.

La Professora's first semester teaching at the alma mater was the first encounter with the limited vocabulary of the students. Off a group of them went to grumble to the chair of the department that the instructor was using "Big Words" in the research methods course. The chair was laughing when he told me that the exemplar the students had given him in their complaint was "parsimonious". This was the beginning of the expectation that students in all my courses will expand their vocabulary.

So it was, during an average day of teaching 2 semesters ago, that a student raised his hand and asked the question: "Where did you learn all those Big Words?!" I modestly responded that "I read". There was a moment of silence, and then the student asked, "What's the name of the book." Before I could recover from the fact that he had assumed that I had read only one book, another student blurted out, "Dude! It's called The Dictionary!"

I like big words, but never realized that "knowledge" had become one of them.

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