Econstudentlog

(10.000) Words…

“The language denotes the man. A coarse or refined character finds its expression naturally in a coarse or refined phraseology.” (Christian Nestell Bovee)

10.000

(Click to view details/full size)

Doff, pabulum, astringent, enervate, mountebank, argot, sluice, sequin, indite, vitiate, simper, tarry, casuistry, saturnine, sidle, meretricious, fugacious, esurient, scabrous, disquisition, winsome, sedulous, badinage, abeyance, effrontery, minatory, synecdoche, lubricious, adjure, asperse, encumbrance, careen, desuetude, syllepsis, limn, bathetic, surcease, taut, tribulation, chrysalis, farrier, vane, virago, rictus, gewgaw, vituperate, curdleichthyology, abrogate, stultify, approbatory, intrepid, nugatory, contumacious, append, vociferate, tenebrous, arrogate, vermilion, descry, sententious, repine, procrustean, undulate, abstemious, palter, iniquitous, endue, lugubrious, obloquy, obdurate, importunate, apotheosis, obviateperegrinate, sacrum, …

In a way it makes absolutely no sense for someone like me to spend as much time on this stuff as I have over the last year or two; I almost never engage in conversations with other people as I rarely interact with other people at all (and also tend to avoid conversations when I do because conversations are usually unpleasant), and when I do both interact and converse with other people I only rarely engage in conversations in English as my first language, and the first language of most of the people with whom I interact regularly, is Danish. If the aim were to improve my vocabulary in order to hide my stupidity (‘make me look smarter’), I’d do a lot better by learning some more fancy-sounding Danish words. As it is, I can’t even remember the last time I last looked up a word in a Danish dictionary, but it’s been at least a few years (if not much more than that). Of course on the other hand I do read a lot of books, and I only read books in English. So it’s probably not a complete waste of time. But I’ve been thinking lately that I might derive a lot more benefit from these sorts of activities, in the sense that more words would ‘stick’, if I actually had to interact with other people in English on a daily basis. It seems to me likely that in a sense my language production capabilities might not be improved as much by these activities as are my language consumption capabilities. What I mean by this is that I frequently encounter new words I’ve worked on in the books I read, but at the same time I’m very rarely forced to ever actually use any of them in conversations with other people, so I don’t. I don’t know enough about linguistics to tell if this distinction between production and consumption matters, but it seems to me that it might. On a related note I’ve recently had the idea that my activities in these areas might implicitly be lowering my opportunity costs of book-reading, compared to personal interactions with others, because these activities make it easier for me to read books but does not at the same time much improve upon my social skills (e.g. conversational skills; though I’m on a related note open to the suggestion that conversational skills and vocabulary size are in some contexts relevant to this discussion in fact perhaps best conceived of as orthogonal variables (which doesn’t help at all…)) – which is hardly what I would conceive of as a desirable outcome. Oh well.

As you should have been able to infer from the screencap above and/or the post title, I’ve by now reached another major milestone (here’s the first one) on the vocabulary.com site as I have now ‘mastered’ more than 10.000 words on the site – I figured it made sense to make a post about this and related matters, and this is the post in question. In the time that has passed since I wrote the post to which I link above the site has undergone a few minor changes, but actually most of it works pretty much the same way it did last year; if you’re curious about how the vocabulary.com site works and you have not heard about it before, go have a look at that post before reading on. As I have noted before I don’t fully trust the vocabulary.com dictionary; or at least I like Webster’s online dictionary better, which is why the links above are all to Webster entries. I’ll often ‘check out’ particular words which I’m curious about after having encountered them on vocabulary.com, because sometimes specific interpretations of the words in question are simply wrong, or at least so I would argue; if the site is trying to tell me that a specific word means X, but I ‘know’ that it doesn’t and the Webster entry also provides zero support for this specific usage/interpretation – or actively ‘disagrees’ – then I go with Webster and I’ll get annoyed at the people behind vocabulary.com (again). One thing to note when making comparisons here is that in general I believe that the vocabulary.com dictionary has a greater ‘range’ of meanings covered, which also means that if you look up the entries to which I link above you might fail to appreciate how many different types of questions that might be required for someone to ‘master’ the words on vocabulary.com; if the word has some rare meaning in a very specific context, you can expect vocabulary.com to ask you about that before you master the word (and you can expect a subset of those questions to be poorly worded, making you angry at the programmers behind the site). This also means that even if you think you know a word, the site may still cause you some challenges along the way.

I’ve used the site pretty much every week during the last year, though in some periods I used the site very little; the relative inactivity meant that I dropped out of the top 100 list for a while, but over the last weeks I’ve done some more work on the site, and I’m now back in the top 100. So I seem to focus more on improving my vocabulary than do most users on the site, which I actually find somewhat curious given that this tool has apparently been introduced to thousands of children throughout the US. On the other hand I’ve put in a lot of hours when you add them all together (the site actually logging the hours you put in is incidentally a new feature which was not present when I posted my first couple of posts about the site a year ago; I actually didn’t like this feature to start with, in part because I realized how much time I’d spent on this stuff).

The site is in my opinion very bad at explaining how to properly use the site to learn new words in the semi-long run, so I should probably explain why I recently came to ‘rediscover’ my joy of using the site. The main factor rekindling my interest was that I discovered how to use ‘lists’ to focus on new words. If you play the challenge without any bells and whistles and never add lists or anything, you’ll at some point get to a situation where you may well be given 500 questions without ‘mastering’ more than one or two new words; the site will recycle and recycle, asking you hundreds of questions about words you’ve already mastered and occasionally ask you about a new word which you’ll never get enough questions about to actually ever master – this is incredibly frustrating, to the point where I last year decided to send the vocabulary.com staff an email suggesting they make changes to the algorithms, because this just seemed insane and probably killed the motivation for a lot of users. You’d put in 20 hours almost without being allowed to actually achieve mastery of any of the new words, then suddenly you’d ‘master’ more than a thousand words one after the other because now suddenly the site could be bothered to finally allow you to show that you’ve mastered those words the site last asked you about last April – or whenever. Or not – I have a suspicion that a lot of users have given up before this point was reached and just said ‘screw this’ before getting to the mastery questions at the end of the line, and that stuff like this may be part of the reason why I’m in the top 100 list now. If this is true it’s sort of sad, because it seems like such a big missed opportunity; what you’d ideally want is not just a site useful for learning a few thousand words after which the way the site is coded will contribute strongly to making many people sick of it, but rather a site which mixes new words and old in an optimal manner which might encourage users to keep using the site in the long run. People may argue about what’s an optimal mix, but I don’t think you can argue with a straight face that the current configuration is anywhere near this point – and if the perceived optimal mix is different for different people, why not allow users to have an influence on this variable in the first place? In a way the site implicitly does, in an admittedly roundabout manner, give people some influence on these sorts of variables via the lists, but I remained unaware of this for a very long time so a lot of users presumably don’t know this. Either way I certainly think I’m justified in assuming that far more care has been taken to optimize the user experience early on than has been taken to making sure the site remains useful even to people who’ve already mastered a lot of words; I’d argue that the site has an excessive focus on review questions, compared to questions about new words, and from personal experience it has seemed to me that this problem seems to get bigger and bigger the more words you learn.

Adding to the problems mentioned above it also does not help that some of the review questions – not many of them, but some – are so poorly thought out that you can’t really tell what the right answer is supposed to be despite knowing very well what the word means, so you risk getting stuck in loops where a substantial proportion of the questions you’re asked are about words you already know at least in part because the questions are bad (if you answer a tricky review question like that incorrectly, you’ll be given quite a few more other questions in the future about this word you don’t care about and don’t want to answer questions about anymore, because an incorrect answer to a review question is always taken by the site as an indication that you don’t understand the word as well as you should, and never as an indication that someone should seriously have a closer look at some of those shitty questions (again, there aren’t that many of them, but they’re very annoying to someone like me)).

So in short, if you’re contemplating using the site or already does, don’t do what I did – instead of just playing the basic challenge, at some point it becomes necessary to instead start exploring the lists. If you add a list to learn, the site will mostly (though not exclusively) focus on the words on the list you’re currently learning, avoiding the outcome outlined above. You can add more than one list simultaneously. I’ll put it bluntly – if you don’t use lists, this site will eventually kill pretty much all desire to use it, because you’ll eventually get to a point where you’ll feel you’re not making any progress and you’ll also at the same time have the distinct impression that the site actively refuses to give you any opportunities to making progress. I can’t be the only person who until recently did not use lists, and frankly without lists this site is a disaster waiting to happen. If you use lists well, it is however a very useful tool.

The site does not help you with grammar – if you know about a site that does, I’d be curious to know about it in the comments below. On a related note I thought I should end this post with this quite amusing quote from Jerome Jerome’s book Three Men on the Bummel, published in 1900:

“In the course of the century, I am inclined to think that Germany will solve her difficulty in this respect by speaking English. Every boy and girl in Germany, above the peasant class, speaks English. Were English pronunciation less arbitrary, there is not the slightest doubt but that in the course of a very few years, comparatively speaking, it would become the language of the world. All foreigners agree that, grammatically, it is the easiest language of any to learn. A German, comparing it with his own language, where every word in every sentence is governed by at least four distinct and separate rules, tells you that English has no grammar. A good many English people would seem to have come to the same conclusion; but they are wrong. As a matter of fact, there is an English grammar, and one of these days our schools will recognise the fact, and it will be taught to our children, penetrating maybe even into literary and journalistic circles. But at present we appear to agree with the foreigner that it is a quantity neglectable. English pronunciation is the stumbling-block to our progress. English spelling would seem to have been designed chiefly as a disguise to pronunciation. It is a clever idea, calculated to check presumption on the part of the foreigner; but for that he would learn it in a year.”

June 1, 2015 - Posted by | language, personal, quotes

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