The Importance of Vocabulary
Today’s frontier is knowledge. Brain has taken precedence over brawn; our physical struggle for existence had been replaced by intellectual struggle, and a knowledge of words has become a most valuable tool. The more vocabulary we possess, the more efficient are these tools of thought. With a good vocabulary, which indicates scope of knowledge, we grasp the thoughts of others and be able to communicate our own thoughts to them.
As early as the 1930s, the HEL found a close relationship between a large, precise knowledge of English words and achievement in life. Worldly success, earnings and management status correlated with vocabulary scores. In follow-up studies of persons tested as much as twenty or thirty years ago, a limited vocabulary is proving an important factor in holding men and women back from achieving the position which their aptitudes showed they should have gained. The truth is that low vocabulary decreases the effectiveness of inborn gifts in any civilization.
Youth, with its idealism and enthusiasm, probably has always wanted to change the world. Perhaps there is only more evidence of this desire today. But those with limited vocabulary never can alter the world.
Frustration about inability to express thoughts in words too often results in physical aggressiveness. It is interesting to note that the Laboratory has found that the nation’s vocabulary level has been decreasing for some years, while crime has been increasing. Strong aptitudes and low vocabulary can spell trouble. This is especially true for those with high inductive reasoning. One in nine teenagers scores high in inductive reasoning but low vocabulary. With high vocabulary and inductive reasoning, law, diplomacy, editorial work and government can be outlets. Without vocabulary, the same aptitude gropes angrily for ideal forms of government, social justice and reforms, and may find expression in violence, protestations, and rebellions of many kinds in an attempt to realize hopes envisioned by this strong aptitude.
For any individual, a low vocabulary is a serious handicap. Ambitious and energetic persons can push ahead in their jobs just so far, but then they reach a plateau caused by low vocabulary. They never advance. And while youthful zest and high aptitudes can enable us to forge ahead despite low vocabulary, when we become mature the world expects us to know something and we are judged on knowledge rather than our possibilities. The world doesn’t see our aptitudes, but it pays for knowledge that can be seen. There is a relationship between the length of time a man stays with a job and his aptitudes, the money he makes and vocabulary. Laboratory studies show that at middle age the low-vocabulary persons are less likely to have gained a promotion. Furthermore, when big companies have their shakedowns and mergers, too often the low-vocabulary persons find themselves out on the street. Too often they place blame on prejudice, inside politics, and personal antagonism when the truth can be traced to low vocabulary. One man had earned a fat salary salvaging nearly bankrupt organizations, bringing them to a point where less talented men could carry on the work. He was forty-two when he came to the Chicago Laboratory to take the tests. The tests themselves were a gift, for he was out of work and dependant on friends for support. He had brilliant aptitudes, but scored at the bottom in English vocabulary. Starting work when he was in his twenties, on the strength of strong aptitudes and unusual vitality, he had tackled and solved complex problems of decrepit corporations which others could not seem to do. But aptitudes decline with age, the age of decline differing with each aptitude. Memory aptitudes, for example, decline first, followed by reasoning aptitudes, and the declines should be offset by vocabulary gains. Mr. O'Connor pointed out, "Any man or woman who succeeds in work and in life by the application of extraordinary aptitudes alone, by the use of brilliant inherent ability, begins to lose standing soon after age thirty and by forty sinks noticeably. If at thirty or thirty-five, accumulated knowledge of the English language is below the born aptitudes on which one has depended on for success, performance deteriorates, not suddenly, but gradually, at first almost imperceptibly, until it declines to the level of one's vocabulary." On the other hand, he said, "If sometime after thirty, when aptitudes start down, but English vocabulary is as high as the aptitudes one has been using, knowledge picks up, offset weaker aptitudes and the world sees no decline in performance."
For the above mentioned individual, his low vocabulary was at fault. But like similar persons, he blamed the outside world for his failure, for not appreciating his achievements. He was resentful that he was not made president of one of his companies he had rebuilt. But the human engineers have found that presidents and vice-presidents average higher in vocabulary than any other group tested- higher than lawyers, professors, doctors, scientists, writers, or others one would assume would be at the top.
The encouraging fact is that there is hope for the low-vocabulary person since vocabulary is acquired not innate. Expanding a vocabulary may be somewhat easier for the person who scores high in the language learning aptitude (silograms) because of a natural ability to learn and remember unfamiliar words. But the Laboratory has developed ways for anybody to build vocabulary rapidly at any age. Evaluation of artificially-acquired vocabulary shows no difference from one gained otherwise.
If you have high-vocabulary parents, you have a head start, for children of such parents almost always score high vocabulary, but not as high as their parents. Our vocabulary grows faster in our first years of life than in any other period. At about age ten it improves twice as fast as a few years later, and three times as fast as when we reach college age. But the Laboratory has found that vocabulary test scores rarely improve because of formal schooling, and for this reason it urges parents to encourage vocabulary building at an early age. This is extremely important, for a limited vocabulary leads directly to school and classroom troubles, and often college rejection or subsequent college failure. All this can leave a young person with strong feelings of failure and inferiority, and a lack of inner confidence that may have lasting consequences.
Building a large and exact English vocabulary does not seem so formidable when we realize we already know a great many words, and that only about 3,500 words separate the high-vocabulary person from the low. Yet these 3,500 words can mean the difference between success and failure. Te word order of English is, of course Anglo-Saxon, but the words that give subtlety and precision are Latin. Even though Latin is being dropped in school, the human engineers have found that the number of years of Latin study correlates with a large and exact English vocabulary which in turn correlates with earnings.
But building vocabulary does not mean the acquisition of a smattering of spectacular words that we can throw out casually in conversation in an attempt to impress others. After fifty of research, the Laboratory has formulated three laws of vocabulary learning that enable one to build a permanent, exact vocabulary, and not merely an assortment of fancy words that are soon forgotten.
The first law is that English words can be arranged in order of difficulty, that every word studied belongs somewhere on a scale that extends from the well-known to the almost unknown. If everyone in the country knows the meaning of a word it is easy; if few know the meaning of a word it is hard. The order of difficulty is based on calculating the percentage of people who know the word and arranging words in the order of that percentage. Even though the Midwest scores lower in vocabulary than the East, the order of words is exactly the same.
The second law is that our English vocabulary stops rather suddenly on the familiarity scale. Up to this borderline, we know most of the English words that exist, but beyond that very few. A difficult word beyond this boundary may be memorized but is soon forgotten.
The third law is that our rate of learning is greatest just at the boundary of our vocabulary level. Thus, in building vocabulary we need to begin at our borderline and work up from there, making sure each word is learned and understood thoroughly. The technique is to learn words in sequence, not at random. If a word is beyond one's present knowledge, it is not really understood and is soon forgotten. As Goethe said, "Whatever you cannot understand, you cannot possess." But the word for which one is ready becomes at once a working part of one's vocabulary. This order of difficulty does not apply to the foreigner learning English, for he learns first those words derived from his own language.
Vocabulary can also be improved by good reading which certainly adds to knowledge. But as we read we should keep a dictionary at hand to look up the words we don't know, and not just guess at their meanings. Some persons with little formal education have achieved high vocabulary levels through extensive reading and constant search for knowledge. But for more rapid vocabulary building and retention of words, the surest way is to learn in the order of difficulty.
Some youngsters, more than others, need an early start in building vocabulary. The child with strong structural visualization is more interested in things than in ideas; his desire to make things may so overshadow his desire to read and study that extra prodding and help building vocabulary may be needed. The child with low graphoria also needs an early start. Schoolwork is difficult for him; usually he is a slow reader and paperwork is hard for him. An improved vocabulary helps to decrease the difficulty and also builds up the confidence he so often needs. But the child with high graphoria also needs to begin vocabulary building at an early age. Schoolwork is easy for him, and he can get by too often without relay understanding his studies. Without vocabulary his lack of understanding eventually will cause him to fall behind. These examples are not theories, but facts that are proved in later life.
Although a large, exact vocabulary is of first importance if we want to make the most of our talents and get the most from life, we also need a specialized vocabulary for our particular work. Almost every field has its own jargon which we need to speak to be successful. This is especially crucial in the technical fields. In science and engineering, for example, changes are taking place so rapidly that knowledge up-to-date is essential to compete with recent graduates.
Two men recently tested illustrate this point. They had left their jobs in science and engineering, although they had perfect aptitudes for their work, and had gone into jobs completely wrong for their abilities. They had made the change not because they wanted to, but because they felt they could not compete technically with recent college graduates. They admitted they had not kept pace with current knowledge.
Most of us have two vocabularies to acquire- the general and the specific, job-related vocabulary. Books are essential and every effort should be made to build and expand a home library, both general and specialized. Second-hand bookstores hold many treasures for little price, and many desirable books are available in paperback. The important thing is to have the books we want readily available so that we can read or refer to them whenever we wish. Individual libraries built around work suited to the highest aptitudes and interests of family members are essential, for this library increases both vocabulary and knowledge in particular fields of interest.
Vocabulary building requires both patience and effort but is well worthwhile. Confucius noted, "Ignorance is the night of the mind, a night without moon or stars." The more we know not only helps to insure greater inner success, but the knowledge gives us greater inner resources and self-confidence, as well as a deeper understanding of the world in which we live.