Econstudentlog – a brief note on language acquisition and related matters

I made a profile on last autumn. I recently reached a major milestone on my account there, and I figured this was a good excuse for me to write a little bit about related stuff. The milestone reached was me reaching the ‘Walking Dictionary’ level/rank; on the site participants earn ‘points’ for working on their vocabularies, and if you earn enough points it means that you eventually level up – you level up fast in the beginning, then not quite so fast later on. You might call it the video game approach to learning languages. These kinds of mechanisms and structures seem to be employed by other successful online learning resources as well; Khan Academy has a somewhat similar system (which I’ve also dealt with), although that system is more complex. Walking dictionaries are likely somewhat more common on the site than they are in the real world, but even on that site they’re not that common; 19 people have reached that rank this year so far. The site has half a million registered users, so I’ve spent more time there than has the average user; I’m actually on the top 100 list of all-time point earners on the site at the moment (though not much more than that..). Reaching the walking dictionary rank certainly requires a substantial amount of time and effort, which makes sense – I had to master more than 5000 words* to get there:

I think I have talked about this before, but my motivation for starting to work on that site at least partly derived from the fact that I have felt very much ‘behind’ on these sorts of matters; since I left high school I’ve had very little ‘reason’ to learn new words, aside from very specific concepts used in economics and related topics, and so I simply haven’t spent effort deliberately and systematically improving my vocabulary as I felt that I had no reason to. One thing which is important to note however, is that I’ve gradually along the way come to the realization that although I have not approached language acquisition behaviours in a systematic manner, it turns out even so that I have actually been exposed to quite a lot of terminology which many ordinary people might be unfamiliar with, on account of having done quite a bit of work on many different fields over the last decade. I think I have a rather larger vocabulary than I’d assumed when I started out, and perhaps also a rather larger vocabulary than one might be given to expect considering my sort of haphazard approach to this stuff over the years.

I learn new stuff to a significant degree in order to see the world from new angles, in order to understand it better. Someone who understands both rudimentary physics, geology, biology, history and psychiatry will, it is my contention, have a better understanding of the world than will the guy who only ever spent time on physics – and that’s even if he’s a lot better at the physics stuff than is the other guy. A closely related observation is that someone who has a more well-developed language will be better able to talk about the world s/he inhabits. Knowledge and language are closely connected as a lot of the stuff people learn throughout their lives they learn through the medium of language, so one sort of implies the other to some extent (I know that people have written books about this kind of stuff, but I haven’t read those books – so I apologize for not ‘talking textbook’ here… However I have read stuff on related topics and would like to remind you here that language is many things). A related observation is that a poorly developed vocabulary may sometimes be accurately interpreted as a strong indication of a lack of knowledge. Which of course means that if you’re the sort of person who cares about how others perceive you (i.e., you’re a human being) and you’d like to be perceived of as knowledgeable (this preference is not universal, I gather, but it should be particularly common among people reading along on a blog like this..) – or at least would prefer not to be perceived of as ignorant – it may make sense to put some effort into improving your language (…and conversational skills, I add, because I know that this aspect is particularly relevant to one of the people reading along here). There are many reasons other than those relating to self-presentation strategies and similar stuff for learning new words and concepts and adding stuff to your vocabulary, but these kinds of things tend to matter and there’s not in my mind any good reason to pretend that they don’t.

Going a bit more into the specifics of the knowledge-language connection, an example would be the following. Assuming that you know some stuff about demography and related topics then you’ll also know what a population pyramid is; and if you don’t know what stuff like population pyramids are it may both be correct to infer that you don’t know very much about demography, and it may also be correct to think that you’ll be likely to have problems talking about topics related to demography and demographics. I could have mentioned statistics or medicine as well – these are perhaps more common ‘problem areas’ where people will be tempted to talk about subjects about which they know nothing, perhaps often without realizing that that’s what they’re doing. This last bit is incidentally part of what makes language deficiencies seem particularly insidious and troublesome to me; you don’t know what you don’t know, and you don’t know which words and concepts you’re unfamiliar with – so it’s easy to think you have the tools to talk about a subject even if you really don’t. Without a well-developed vocabulary you’ll miss details and you’ll be forced to use imprecise terms which may not be efficient – and you won’t know that that’s what you’re doing unless you’re told. One personal observation of mine, though, in relation to this, is that I may actually not have been particularly ‘unstructured’ in the way I’ve improved upon my vocabulary in the near past, in the sense that I have tended to (implicitly) try to learn new concepts related to specific knowledge substructures, so as to be able to talk about (well, mostly write about, but…) them in greater detail and understand the details better. I didn’t learn the new words just because they were new words to be learned; I learned them because it was necessary to learn them in order to figure out what other people were trying to tell me about what was going on in fields of inquiry which I found to be interesting. And as long as you’re mostly limiting yourself to talking about topics where you’ve spent time learning at least part of the vocabulary, you may do reasonably okay.

But there’s the specific stuff, and then there’s the rest. Along the way I think it’s safe to say that my more ‘general vocabulary’ – the parts of it that didn’t refer to, say, subdivisions of a cell, or ways to classify rocks – probably hasn’t improved as much as might have been optimal. The ‘technical’ substructures are all nested within a superstructure which needs to be developed as well; I see no reason to assume that systematic effort towards improving upon this superstructure would not be advantageous as well. One particular problem in this context is that words we don’t use tend to ‘go out of fashion’ in a way, in the sense that they get harder to recall, and thus harder to use in conversation. Although ‘constant vigilance’ is probably a bit much to ask for, it makes a lot of sense to at least have in mind that words you don’t use very often may eventually be in practical terms lost to you; it’s presumably a very common experience for people who’ve learned a second or third (or fourth, or…) language in school – a language for which they had no need, and so rarely spoke – that they over time lost so many words and concepts that the remaining ones became of very limited value to them. likes to occasionally ask you about words you’ve already mastered in order to counteract such effects, which to me seems like yet another good reason for keeping on using the site.

*The ‘real’ number is lower – the site contains quite a few words which are very ‘closely related’; I’ve for example mastered both the word ‘nutrition’ and the word ‘nutritious’ – there are many similar examples, although I don’t have a good overview of how many of those sorts of sets there are. I decided early on to perceive of such semi-duplications as mostly a positive, rather than a negative, feature of the site, in that such derived forms are at least helpful in terms of increasing exposure to the word mastered first.

As for the site itself, perhaps I should add a few remarks here. First, it isn’t all good. Some of the questions are really poor; sometimes there’s no right answer, sometimes there’s more than one correct answer, sometimes the ‘right’ answer certainly seems a lot like the wrong answer when you look the word up elsewhere, and relatedly some of the supposed meanings of the words on the site do not match the meanings of the words when you look them up in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary. I’ve experienced a particularly infuriating variant a few times where a question would have as the correct answer a synonym to one of the other meanings of the word; a meaning of the word which had nothing to do with the sentence in question at all – such ‘guess the teacher’s password’ problems are occasionally there, and I hate those on principle. The flip side of this is of course that the site is thorough; you’ll never master a word until you’ve encountered it in all its various manifestations, and when you’ve mastered a word you’ll really have a good idea what it means, and you’ll be prepared to use it in more than one context. This is an interesting aspect of the site; I’ve encountered many words where I ‘sort of knew’ what that word meant, but where a lot of additional details popped up along the way while I was ‘mastering’ the word – I remember reading that this aspect, ‘breadth’, is actually a parameter which they do focus on. It’s not just that they want you to learn as many new words as possible; they also want you to know about all the different ways you can use words you already know, many of which you may well be unfamiliar with despite having some (‘superficial’) familiarity with the words in question (I’m too lazy to look for a link, but I’ll note that they’ve talked about this aspect on their blog before). One specific problem I’ve had a few times when answering questions I should incidentally note that I do not feel I can blame them for at all – this problem is related to questions where you’re asked to judge which emotional response/reaction would be most likely, considering a given social situation. As long as such questions are simple (would he laugh or cry?) I do fine, but occasionally such questions have caused me a lot of problems even though I knew the meaning of all the words involved. Anyway the site is far from perfect, and if you’re like me a bad question can make you profoundly annoyed, but all things considered it’s actually pretty good at what it does. With much more than 100.000 questions, it’s unavoidable that some of the questions among them are of questionable quality. They incidentally recently implemented an improvement in the feedback mechanism which one may employ in order to indicate problems with specific questions, which signals that they care about the quality of the questions and are actively trying to engage in process optimization – which is nice.

June 1, 2014 - Posted by | personal


  1. This link might interest you:

    Comment by Manfred Bühler | June 1, 2014 | Reply

    • Thanks for the link.

      It was a little bit thought-provoking, but I have to admit that I do not think I agree very much with the author. When I look up stuff in a dictionary, I want a precise, concise definition of the word; I want to know what it means, and I want to know what it means in all relevant contexts. I don’t want some longwinded load of blather about what is the true meaning of beauty (or pathos, or whatever). The ideal coverage might perhaps include (short, concise) examples where this might be useful, but more than that is certainly not required.

      The fact that the closest thing to the type of dictionary of the kind he’d like is one which was written more than 100 years ago indicates to me that my preferences are not uncommon and that his preferences are. The role of the encyclopedia has changed over time, with Wikipedia dramatically changing how we approach encyclopedias – to the extent that I even understand what the author wants to be different (he’s not very clear about this), I do not think a different approach to dictionaries along the lines the author would prefer would spark a similar development there.

      His criticism seems to me to be at least partly inspired by romanticism; the Good Old Days where a single writer had to toil away for decades and work hard on this stuff, learning many new languages along the way in order to make sure that he was providing accurate coverage, in order to publish a dictionary. He claims to like Webster’s dictionary from 100 years ago in part because it provides slightly more detailed/accurate coverage than does the modern one – I’d add, ‘in a few examples he could find’. My guess would be that such examples are the exception, and my baseline assumption would be that the more emphasis the ‘explore language’ part gets in a dictionary, the more errors will creep in and the less trustworthy the dictionary’s entries will be. He would clearly disagree as he argues that you can have both a more aesthetically pleasing (to him) and more ‘functional’ (accurate, precise) dictionary at the same time – which indicates to me that he may not truly appreciate the tradeoffs involved here. I think it reasonable to assume that to the extent that ‘dictionary builders’ are able to find ways to work around tradeoffs like these (more pleasant to read and more accurate), they already have done this, as they have powerful incentives to explore options like those.

      Comment by US | June 2, 2014 | Reply

      • I should perhaps note in case you were not aware of this that actually has an associated dictionary which seems to really try to emphasize the ‘enjoyable to read’/’you should explore these words’-variable compared to the competitors. It’s very different from his conceptualization of the optimal dictionary, but it’s probably the modern version of it. For a couple of examples, see the entries for the words flamboyant and enunciation.

        I dislike that dictionary on principle, but as mentioned this may be the modern version of the type of dictionary he conceptualizes. One lesson to draw from this is that if he wants people to use dictionaries to explore the language, he can forget about Shakespeare quotes; that’s not the way to do it, at least these people don’t think so (and they know better than both he and I do). This is mostly what I meant by the: “I do not think a different approach to dictionaries along the lines the author would prefer would spark a similar development there” -quote. I don’t think it’s necessarily that unlikely that a new/different approach to dictionaries may inspire more people to ‘go exploring’, but I do think it unlikely in the extreme that the sort of approach he’d like would accomplish that (and as already mentioned I consider it unlikely that such an approach would not come with a cost). Lots of people like to be able to say they’ve read Milton or Shakespeare – but only few people actually like reading those guys.

        Comment by US | June 2, 2014

      • “I want a precise, concise definition of the word; I want to know what it means, and I want to know what it means in all relevant contexts. I don’t want some longwinded load of blather about what is the true meaning of beauty (or pathos, or whatever).”

        I agree with this, though I also have sympathy for the view outlined in the link I pasted. I would read Webster’s Dictionary the same way I read a novel by Austen; but if I didn’t already know what ‘sport’ means, finding out that the definition is ‘a diversion of field’ would be excruciatingly annoying to me, because it brings me no closer to understanding what it means.

        Comment by Manfred Bühler | June 2, 2014

      • “I would read Webster’s Dictionary the same way I read a novel by Austen”

        I smiled when the thought occurred to me that ‘in a way’ you have this preference in common with a lot of other people; there are presumably many people besides you who’d also prefer to read Webster’s dictionary the same way they read Austen. (I.e., not at all…)

        Comment by US | June 2, 2014

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