Last week I have been talking with our teachers about the power of vocabulary, about how we can help our students increase their vocabulary in order to be able to express themselves in the best way possible. As children grow and develop they also need to be able to describe every picture they see, to write about their lives, read about their lived reality and to speak into their lives their very hopes and dreams.
Imagine if you will a young boy of about 12 years old. He is from a very privileged background; he has his own nanny and his own driver. He wants for nothing, he has pretty much everything that money can buy. However, his parents don’t speak English, they both speak colloquial Arabic, his nanny is from the Philippines and she speaks only Tagalog, his driver is from India and speaks a little broken English but mainly speaks Hindi, at school the language of instruction is English taught by native English speakers and he has a lesson of classical Arabic everyday. You would think that this language environment would create outstanding provision for vocabulary development but sadly no, this child does not have enough exposure, practice or opportunity to develop any of the languages to which he is exposed, he has not developed true fluency, in fact he has such little fluency in any language that he does not actually possess a ‘native language’ at all.
The impact of this is far reaching for both the immediate and the more distant future. In school this boy is encouraged to develop a love of reading but the books that are suitable for his chronological age are not fully accessible to him, as he can only really understand about 60 – 70% of the text; what is hoped to be reading for pleasure becomes the very opposite. The gap between him and his peers who have a more established ‘mother tongue’ and have leaned how to express themselves with more and more specificity and subtlety, is widening. His disillusionment with formal education is growing, added to which he does not have the words to describe how he is feeling.
As we move forward in this boy’s life, he begins to form more and more important relationships in his life, his friendships are deepening and his interest in the opposite sex is growing. How now does he speak the language of love? How will he express his emotions and communicate his thoughts?
The development of a rich and varied vocabulary should be a life long quest; there are so many ways that this can be encouraged at home and at school some examples are:
- Have regular ‘proper’ conversations with grown up words, resist the temptation to dumb down your language
- Let your children tell the story
- Play word games
- Give alternate words for common verbs
- Share books, support the understanding
“The development of language is part of the development of the personality, for words are the natural means of expressing thoughts and establishing understanding between people.” Maria Montessori