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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Teaching Vocabulary, Daddy Style

One of the challenges of moving a family from an English-speaking country to Israel has been ensuring that our kids grow up fully bilingual.  Obviously this involved getting them plenty of help with Hebrew after we first arrived... but it also means working hard to continue developing their English skills.

To that end, even though we encourage our kids to speak only Hebrew outside the house... we are careful to speak only English at home.  We also encourage the kids to read English books and newspapers in addition to the standard Hebrew fare.  But even with all this, it kind of took us by surprise to find our children, who speak perfect unaccented English*, suddenly casting about mid-conversation for a word, and occasionally giving up and tossing in a Hebrew substitute when the correct English word eludes them.

After I'd witnessed this a few times, I decided that I needed to find a way to ensure their vocabularies continue to expand (or at very least, don't shrink). 

So now whenever I hear them searching for a word or using a Hebrew substitute, I stop them and offer them the correct word... making sure they repeat it a couple of times and know how to use it correctly.  And when I hear them using a 2 cent word where a 50 cent word would be more age-appropriate, I stop them and offer them the better word choice.

But anyone who has children knows that you can't just tell them something and expect it to stick.  This is especially true with teenagers since they are at an age when pretty much everything goes in one ear and out the other... whatever the language! 

So in order to have the best chance of having them retain something as slippery as vocabulary, I've found it helps to frame things in such a way that they aren't likely to forget.

Here's an example from this past week:

Gilad wandered into the kitchen and said, "Abba, what does 'linger' mean?".

I have no idea whether he'd read the word or heard it on TV or in a movie... but 'linger' is certainly a word he should known at his age.   So I wanted to do something to make sure he'd retain the definition rather than just using it to make momentary sense of whatever he'd heard or read, before discarding it.

I could have told him about a lingering kiss or the way a person might linger after class if they wanted to speak to the teacher.  But I suspected these would be lost on him, so I made a split second decision and offered the following:

"OK, you know how if someone farts in an elevator or a small room, and then you come along a few minutes later, you find that the place still reeks?  Well that's because a fart sometimes lingers in the air even after the person who cut the cheese is long gone."

Gilad, being 13 years old, collapsed onto the kitchen floor in a fit of giggles and donkey laughs.

Zahava, who had been standing at the sink washing dishes, turned around and transfixed me with one of her patented 'you've got to be kidding me' glares... the kind she saves for when something I do or say makes her feel like she suddenly has an additional child to look after.

I just smiled sheepishly, gestured in Gilad's direction and said, "I know, I know, don't say it... but look at it this way; he's never, ever going to forget the definition of linger, right?"

Zahava just shook her head and turned back to the dishes.  She hates it when I'm right.

*  All you Brits can stop sniggering... it's just rude!

Posted by David Bogner on July 12, 2009 | Permalink


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Posted by: Mark | Jul 12, 2009 10:26:36 AM

Is the '2 cent word vs a 50 cent word' concept something you invented? I like it.

Posted by: the sabra | Jul 12, 2009 10:28:58 AM

Great example but I doubt I could use it in a classroom unless I wanted to ruin my reputation!

Posted by: Ilana-Davita | Jul 12, 2009 10:59:22 AM

Mark... I'm trying to figure out if you are talking about my definition or Zahava's reaction to it. :-)

the sabra... The concept of a 'fancy' or 'erudite' word choice being described as a '50 cent word' (or '2 dollar word') has been around in the US for a long time... especially in the rural south and south west, and other places not renowned for 'book learnin'. I had actually wanted to use the term SAT word, but was afraid many outside the US wouldn't be familiar with this test that requires students to work very hard on their vocabulary in particular.

Ilana-Davita... I'm not suggesting using primarily scatological examples for your vocabulary lessons. But if you have a student who is struggling with retention, it might help to use definitions tailored to his/her sense of humor or experiences.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jul 12, 2009 11:56:47 AM

David, you are the man, you have given me the chance to justify why I studied philosophy and linguistics all those many years ago:
The phenomenon you describe is extremely common and is called "code mixing". Basically it means using words from different languages in the same sentence. Ladino and Yiddish are formal examples of entire languages that are all the richer for their code mixing. There are many other examples, of course.
I actually wrote a term paper on the subject which highlighted a single word that was comprised of elements of three languages.
"Shvartzmeyenik" literally means "of the black hundreds". Shvartz - black (German), Meye - hundred (Hebrew), Nik - a Russian suffix which have several uses but has been incorporated into both English and Hebrew. The Black Hundred was a reactionary group that existed at the beginning of the last century in Russia. Antisemitism was part of their agenda and they perpetrated numerous pogroms.
My Aunt's father z"l, a businessman, would conduct transactions in 4 languages at once: Hebrew, Ladino, Greek and French. And everybody understood him.

Posted by: QuietusLeo | Jul 12, 2009 12:24:16 PM

Brilliant! I unfortunately (for the students, I think) taught Hebrew school to 6 year olds a few years ago. I struggled constantly to come up with ways to teach them concepts (and the Aleph-Bet!) so they kids would remember them. I came up with some doozies, but never thought to go the fart route.

Although I could just imagine *that* conversation when Mom & Dad ask little Shifra what she learned in Hebrew school today.

Posted by: Alissa | Jul 12, 2009 1:10:02 PM

Just to be sure, next week ask the young man what linger means. I'm betting it will mean "smelling a stale fart".

Posted by: Bob | Jul 12, 2009 4:31:33 PM

You sure we're not related?

Posted by: Elisson | Jul 12, 2009 5:00:36 PM

Great post! Great memory trick. (It's all about painting a vivid "word picture")

'2 cent word vs a 50 cent word'
That's a new one. My sister likes to call it using "kitchen English" i.e. words that might be used around the kitchen table.......

Posted by: G6 | Jul 12, 2009 8:08:31 PM

Mark... I'm trying to figure out if you are talking about my definition or Zahava's reaction to it. :-)



Posted by: Mark | Jul 13, 2009 5:02:37 AM

A MOUNTAINEER took his son to a school to enroll him.
"My boy's after some larnin’. What dya have?" he asked the teacher.
"We offer English, trigonometry, spelling,..." she replied.
"Well, give him some-a that thar triggernometry; he's the worst shot in the family."

Posted by: Dina | Jul 13, 2009 8:30:18 AM

I think the term "fifty cent words" comes from the era when newspaper journalists would get paid per word that they wrote. As the newspapers wanted articles to get filled with meaningful words and not just meaningless fillers, they paid more for big words than for little words.

According to some user submitted content at Merriam-Webster.com (http://www3.merriam-webster.com/opendictionary/newword_search.php?word=fifty) the word has a negative connotation today, but I'm not sure I agree.

(Has even Merriam-Webster.com gone Web 2.0 following urbandictionary.com? Shame on them. I expect definitions at reputable dictionary sites to be reputable, not some user submitted questionable stuff.)

Posted by: Michael Kopinsky | Jul 13, 2009 8:35:15 AM

That is fantastic! I must admit also that when the word 'linger' was introduced in your post, something along the lines of your explanation entered my head first - and I'm 38!

IlanaDavita - I encourage you to use this in school - your students will love it :)

PS - Perfect, unaccented English doesn't exist in England, so don't worry about that!

PPS - Permission to join your latest WalkerTracker competition...


Posted by: Rachel | Jul 13, 2009 10:41:32 AM

I read this to my husband and we both had a good laugh. I am not sure which amused him more, your explanation or Zahavas reaction. I think that all wives share that same look. What amused us before we had children now causes us to shake our heads. What happened, is it something in the prenatal vitamins? : )

(my first blog comment, ever)

Posted by: Lisa | Jul 13, 2009 4:14:01 PM

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