Monday, June 2, 2014

Limiting Vocabulary

In 1960, Bennett Cerf, the co-founder of Random House Publishing Company, bet Theodore Geisel that he could not write a children's book using only 50 different words. Geisel undertook this task and under the pseudonym Dr. Seuss, he wrote the book Green Eggs and Ham. And yes, only 50 unique words are used in the entire book.

Theodore Geisel's Green Eggs and Ham is a perfect example of the TPRS mantra "Shelter/Limit Vocabulary, not Grammar," and it is this mantra which really rubs a lot of teachers the wrong way. "What? Shelter/limit vocabulary? A language does not consist of a few words and nor does it exist in a vacuum! The more words which a student knows, the better he/she will be able to communicate or to read!" And yes, there is some degree of truth in that: we do indeed want our student to be able to communicate and to read. The issue at hand though is that we overload our students with WAY TOO MUCH vocabulary all at once, while forcing them to learn language structures at the same time. The result: they end up knowing neither well. 

If you were to ask your students of any level of Latin which vocabulary words they knew best, most likely they would respond with words from the beginning weeks of Latin 1 - for my students, even if they were AP students, those words would be the CLC stage 1 words: pater, mater, servus, filius, canis, tablinum, atrium, culina, hortus, via, triclinium, est, scribit, bibit, sedet, laborat, dormit, etc. And though shocking at first since these students are three years removed from Latin 1 and have "learned" so many more words since then, at the same time, it is not surprising. Why? Because those limited words are repeated over and over in their readings in the opening weeks in various configurations, therefore, students really have no choice but to internalize/acquire them. After that, though, the curriculum becomes a mad dash of overloading them with a massive amount of new low-frequency vocabulary words while introducing new language structures. To quote my friend Evan Gardner, founder of Where Are Your Keys?, as a result, students end up "burning unnecessary memory bandwidth."    

Now focusing on a limited amount of vocabulary does not mean that no new vocabulary is ever introduced but rather, that the amount is controlled and that the choice of words is deliberate. This allows for continued repetitions and when that word is introduced in a new language structure, students can solely focus on the form - and if the context is comprehensible, it may not even be necessary for students to focus on the form, since the word just "translates itself" due to context. 

Just because the book picks various words for their "vocabulary list" does not mean that students must learn those particular words. On the average, CLC has around 35 words in its stage vocabulary lists - WAY too much, and in my opinion, around half of those words are not important. Though they may help a particular story, big picture, they are not used enough later on to merit having students know them.

So how does one limit vocabulary?
  1. Focus on high-frequency vocabulary first. I will leave you to define "high-frequency," because to every Latin teacher, that will mean something different. For some it will mean the most commonly used words in classical literature, while for others, it will mean words which are most frequently used in a particular textbook series or in a story, and yet for others, it will mean those words which are most commonly used in any language itself (words such as be, want, have, give, take, go, etc).
  2. Don't focus on cognates too much. Again, students can "burn unnecessary memory bandwidth" in learning cognates. Now if like French, the word is a faux amis (false friend) and not a cognate but looks like one, then definitely focus on the word.
  3. Once you determine the words on which you will focus, then these will be your foundation for TPR, TPRS, etc. 
  4. Once students have acquired these words, then these particular words will become the ones which you will use to introduce new language structures. Again, this way students will only have to focus on the form, not the meaning of the word AND the new structure.
Even though vocabulary has been limited, it is still possible to create engaging and compelling stories with a few words. Look at Green Eggs and Ham!

1 comment:

  1. excellent post ! I could not agree more.
    a good example of limiting vocabulary in English as a model are the Oxford Bookworms Readers

    an interesting reference people might want to look at is
    Vocabulary in Language Teaching


    Norbert Schmitt, "Vocabulary in language Teaching"
    Cambridge University Press, Mar 13, 2000
    (lengthy sections available to be read on Google Books)

    note in re French : "the word is a faux ami (false friend)" or "the words are faux amis (false friends)"

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