Vocabulary, teaching, and being understood


English is a crazy language, with an exceptional number of grammatical conventions, and required exceptions to the conventions. And that doesn’t even explain the senselessness of pronunciation.

There are many ways of saying the same thing, with different shades of meaning. By choosing words carefully, we can increase accuracy and precision of meaning.

This can present a dilemma while teaching, and interacting with students. (And, I guess, interacting in general.) Especially in an academic setting and with people from different backgrounds, it is important to express ideas very clearly so that they are not misunderstood. Bigger vocabulary leads to more accurate communication. But also, using a bigger vocabulary increases the probability that others might not understand your words.

If there are students who aren’t understanding your words — assuming the words are clear — I see two potential causes. The first is that the students are English language learners, including international students as well as many US residents. The other is that some people just have a smaller vocabulary than others. Because many students don’t tend to read that much, then it follows that they might not have a huge vocabulary.

There are probably some (very few) professors who try hard to sound erudite and use an overstuffed vocabulary just to be impressive. [Meanwhile, looking back at that sentence, I realize that the use of ‘erudite’ might be seen that way. I didn’t use it for irony; I just think it’s the most apt word that came to mind for the occasion.] It’s more common for professors to unwittingly use unfamiliar vocabulary without realizing which words are not as accessible as others. If you’re a regular reader here, then I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m choosing my words to be exclusionary or to sound exclusive. I merely want to be clear, and that’s easier to do when you can select from a bigger menu of words.

Of course, when I use technical words, like vicariance or microsatellite or homometabolous or genetic drift, I need to take into account the preparation level of my audience and make sure that I use the right words or explain concepts when necessary.

I don’t ever intentionally use words that I think someone won’t understand. But on the other hand, I also don’t make a serious attempt to avoid the use of any non-technical words. And I do this with everybody. When talking with my kid, even before he was verbal, I talked to him just like I would any other person. When I’m talking with someone who clearly has a limited vocabulary because they do not use English often or are new to the language, then I try to avoid saying things that could be confusing, but usually it’s to avoid a cultural misunderstanding, rather than a linguistic miscue.

I am wondering how much, or in what way, I need to deal with this. While it’s my job to teach scientific content in my courses, my overall teaching goals are broader and more ambitious. I suspect that if I self-censor my vocabulary that I’d be hurting that goal in some way. I don’t like the idea of speaking down to my students, and because I can’t regularly wear their shoes, I wouldn’t even know which changes would be beneficial. I don’t like the idea that choosing to use a big vocabulary is part of some kind of aspirational teaching environment, but I equally dislike choosing against what I experience as a normal vocabulary. Of course, student learning and development is the biggest goal in my class. I’m just not sure about the best way of approaching that goal.

Aside from scientifically technical matters, do any of you choose to say things in a more simple way with students than you would in conversation with people outside the classroom? Any other thoughts?

5 thoughts on “Vocabulary, teaching, and being understood

  1. I definitely don’t make an effort to dumb down, but when I use a word and it occurs to me as I’m saying it that it might be beyond the vocab of some students, I will usually stop, write it on the board, and ask someone to define it. If I know the etymology, I write that on the board, too, to help them understand where the word comes from.

    Thinking about the reverse, I often learn new words from reading articles in the New York Times. When I don’t know a word, I look it up. Getting students in the habit of doing this is difficult, but I will say that if the NYT dumbed down their vocabulary to “reach a wider audience,” I would be poorer for it!

  2. I often use simpler language, relatively speaking, when students are first learning a tricky science concept. Their cognitive load is already higher at this point, and using a potentially confusing or unknown word can cause them to miss the forest for the trees. Or, if I use a harder word for precision’s sake, I make sure they understand what I mean by rephrasing what I said.

    Despite my best efforts, though, I still unwittingly use bigger vocabulary, so it’s a constant balancing act. :)

  3. I never try to dumb down anything to anyone. If I’m speaking to an ESL student, I’ll simplify my sentence structure and pay more attention to ennunsasion. When I’m teaching, I consider my audience. Does a 5th grader or native plant hobbiest need to know the scientific name of a plant? Probably not, but my university students do. I often use nonessential participle phases: this plant has perfect flowers, both male and female on the same flower. This seems to work with everyone from my 4 year old nephew to grad students.

  4. I think is it also important to identify those words in English that mean something different when used in a scientific context “significant” “adapt” “fitness”.

  5. The ‘erudite’ example was hilarious, as I had to look it up. Anyway, as a non-native English speaker, vocabulary is just half the problem, the other being accent. I encourage teachers to speak clearly and slower in class than when talking to a friend.

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