March 03, 2010

Words Are Our Friends....(Really)

Each year that I teach Freshman English, I notice that my students have fewer and fewer words in their vocabulary stockpile.  Not only are they acquainted with fewer words, but they are indifferent to, and intimidated by the use of multi-syllable, "big words."

It's not that they had not been exposed to age appropriate vocabulary as they approached the end of their high school careers.  They were simply not encouraged to use that vocabulary as tools with which to communicate and evolve.  Many of my students have fallen victim to rote memorization of the old "spelling list".  Then, five minutes after the Friday spelling test, the words fell from their memories like so many items on a grocery list.  If high school teachers are encouraging students to use advanced vocabulary in their written and spoken discourse, the students never take them seriously.  Instead, they recede back into the 6th grade vocabulary of their texting and Facebook world.

When they become college freshman, their writing suffers because of their inability to use complex words to express their complex ideas.  Their ideas have outgrown their language.  As a result, students struggle, needlessly, to meet the expectations of college Humanities courses that require thoughtful, cogent prose.

Most of the lamenting, hysteria, and gnashing of teeth (as it were) that goes on in college Writing Labs and Writing Studios is a result of a discomfort with and a lack of words.  Writing professors and writing tutors spend a great deal of time remediating and attempting to unscramble, interpret, and clarify student writing because the students lack the words to do this work for themselves.

After all, we already have the "ideas", the "things", the meaning, the signified.  Then, we create the words that express the ideas, the signifiers.  Therefore, the words give us a language, a discourse.  For many of us, language sets us free, gives us a song, illuminates our perspectives (of course, Lacanians would take issue with this over the course of several hundred pages).  Nevertheless, freshman writers are struggling to find their voices, but they are intimidated by the academic discourse in which they suddenly find themselves immersed.

I remember once, one of my students sat with folded arms and frowned face complaining that the author we had just read in class didn't need to use all of those "big words" to get her point across.  The student accused the writer of purposely trying to "write above" the reader.  Although there are some writers throughout history who infamously wrote to obscure (uh...hem...t. s. eliot), most writers strove for clarity.  I told her that the purpose of multi-syllable, so-called "big words" was to express in one word what it might otherwise take five words to say.  To this, she shrugged her shoulders.  But by the end of the semester, she too strove for clarity using multi-syllable words.