I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
“Far too many students come to school with small vocabularies. This is a big deal: the size of a child’s vocabulary is an accurate predictor of academic achievement and even upward mobility over the course of a lifetime” (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development). Child development specialist Professor Tom Nicholson echoes this statement: “If you want your child to be successful at school across all subjects, then building a good vocabulary is critical.”
According to the BBC “Some children start school knowing 6,000 words, others just 500.”
Low Income Is a Key Indicator of Word Poverty
Canada is a rich country with a highly educated population, and yet the charity group First Book Canada tells us “Almost 25 percent of Canadian households don’t have a single book.”
Those bookless homes are almost all low-income and the poor literacy levels in them keeps the cycle of poverty going.
Save the Children notes that “only about one in three American fourth-graders are proficient in reading? By fourth grade, if children can’t read at grade level, they’re unlikely to ever catch up.” For the fourth-graders from low-income families, the literacy rates are even more dismal.
If words are missing from the mental cupboard of our minds we find it very hard to learn new skills or absorb knowledge.
Why Is Vocabulary Declining?
The best way to fight word poverty is through reading. But, Tom Nicholson says that “Young people are reading less and failing to build vocabulary amid a sea of text messaging and cyber chat.”
As the amount of screen time (yes, that again) increases, the amount of reading time declines. A person cannot improve her or his vocabulary through an hour of playing Mortal Kombat; the player will only learn how to misspell the word “combat,” and possibly develop carpel tunnel.
So, as the bad guys die like flies on the screen, books lie unopened. Here’s Christopher Ingraham in The Washington Post (June 2018): “The share of Americans who read for pleasure on a given day has fallen by more than 30 percent since 2004, according to the latest American Time Use Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“In 2004, roughly 28 percent of Americans age 15 and older read for pleasure on a given day. Last year (2017), the figure was about 19 percent.”
Pew Research Center and Gallup also have found quite dramatic book reading declines. Between 1978 and 2014, the number of people not reading a book during any given year has tripled.
Video games and social media don’t get all the blame for this because the decline in reading was observed before either of those became a thing. A study in the Netherlands going back to 1955 says television is the culprit. And, TV watching has gone up in the United States between 2004 and 2017; the average American watches two hours and 45 minutes a day of TV and spends just 17 minutes reading.
The Primary Cure for Word Poverty
Building vocabulary starts in the home. Reading aloud to children from an early age, even before they can talk, is crucial to their development later in life.
Writing for PBS Deborah Farmer Kris says that “brain scans show that hearing stories strengthens the part of the brain associated with visual imagery, story comprehension, and word meaning.”
And, reading aloud to children delivers benefits far more than just improved literacy.
Dr. Alan Mendelsohn is an associate professor of pediatrics at New York University School of Medicine and lead author of the 2018 study Reading Aloud, Play and Social-Emotional Development. He says that children who are read to “learn to use words to describe feelings that are otherwise difficult and this enables them to better control their behavior when they have challenging feelings like anger or sadness.”
Waiting until the kids are in school to start reading to them is way too late.
Word Poverty and 1984
There is a powerful connection between language and thought. Without a rich vocabulary a person will be incapable of processing even mildly complex ideas.
George Orwell in his futuristic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four showed how word poverty plays into the hands of totalitarian regimes. As educator Vicky Tuck tells us “the way to control the mind and suppress subtle, independent thought is through the systematic reduction of vocabulary.”
Without the linguistic repertoire to think profoundly, creatively and critically, we cannot be free.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Ministry of Truth develops Newspeak, described by one of its architects as “cutting the language down to the bone.” The goal is to eliminate words that will enable people to think about criticizing the government; what the ministry called thought-crime.
So, the Newspeak creator says “In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”
Word Poverty and the American Presidency
In his book 2008 book, Deer Hunting with Jesus, Joe Bageant makes the case that the American education system has been deliberately starved of funding in order to dumb down the minds of its graduates. This, says Bageant, has created a permanent under-educated underclass that can be easily manipulated by politicians.
Others have made similar observations.
Those with vocabulary challenges are the very constituency that has been courted and won over by U.S. President Donald. He famously said that “I love the poorly educated,” and persuaded them to vote against their better interests.
Trump’s Republican Party favours the interests of big business over those of working people. But, the under-educated lack the critical thinking skills to see through the deception and are bamboozled.
The same ruse was used in Britain in 2016 by politicians campaigning to leave the European Union. The under-educated bought the phony bill of goods the people who favoured Brexit were selling; better-educated people analysed the trickery and saw through it.
Word poverty is costing Americans, Brits, and the rest of the world dearly.
Yes, that all sounds like cultural elitism, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong.
According to the Global Language Monitor, the English language added its one millionth word in June 2019, excluding chemical and biological terms. For example, there are 600,000 different types of fungus alone.
A new English word is created approximately every 98 minutes; blogosphere, page view, punditocracy.
British linguist Professor David Crystol says that a person with no post-secondary education will know about 35,000 words although they will not use them all in written and oral communication and “A reasonably educated person about 75,000.”
So, he goes lol, and I’m like we are bff.
- First Book Canada.
- “Child Literacy Programs in the U.S.” Save the Children,
- “Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War Paperback.” Joe Bageant, Broadway Books, June 2008.
- “Language as the ‘Ultimate Weapon’ in Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Jem Berkes, May 9, 2000.
- “Leisure Reading in the U.S. Is at an All-Time Low.” Christopher Ingraham, Washington Post, June 29, 2018.
- “Vocabulary on Decline Due to Fewer Books.” Massey University, September 20, 2010.
- “Why Reading Aloud to Kids Helps Them Thrive.” Deborah Farmer Kris, PBS, May 15, 2018.
- “Reading Aloud to Young Children Has Benefits for Behavior and Attention.” Perri Klass, M.D., New York Times, April 16, 2018.
- “America Is Divided by Education.” Adam Harris, The Atlantic, November 7, 2018.
- “Brexit Has Exposed Our Education Apartheid.” Matthew Goodwin, UnHerd, March 22, 2019.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on August 11, 2019:
"The way to control the mind and suppress subtle, independent thought is through the systematic reduction of vocabulary.” We ought to take this seriously and make an effort to re-establish reading and good conversation in our homes. Thanks for highlighting this need to read.