As I mentioned in a post, a book that I’d read easily as a child, Mr. Revere and I, now has a glossary for its readers, an addition thought unnecessary when the book was originally published. The second incident was a comment made by a friend. She tutors high school students who are prepping for the SAT. The most difficult part for her students is vocabulary. “They don’t know words,” she said. Then I came across an article with the observation that Oxford University Press had cut words from an edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary. The lost words, deleted because they “were no longer relevant” to today’s children, included adder, beech, cowslip, and kingfisher. Words such as attachment, bullet-point, blog, and broadband took their place. Reality moved indoors and became ever more virtual.
That article led me to a UK study, which postulated that vocabularies were shrinking because of our dependence on smart phones, tablets, and laptops. These devices are visual rather than auditory, but we need to hear new words and imitate correct pronunciations to successfully add them to our vocabularies. The result is that most children today learn fewer words than previous generations did.
As vocabularies shrink, and writers and publishers recycle an ever smaller pool of words, our children’s world shrinks too. Paucity of description leads to a paucity of thinking and imagination. Also, when description becomes more generic, when adder becomes snake and cowslip becomes flower, then it’s hard to talk precisely about the natural world and harder yet to care about it, much less protect it.
How to combat the spread of the incredible shrinking vocabulary? It may sound simplistic to say we need to talk to each other, but it’s a start. Let’s model all those words for the children in our lives. Read aloud together. Encourage them to go beyond today’s bestsellers, to read more poetry, more classics, and older books from earlier generations. Spring is here—the perfect time to grow new words.