The Limits of Our Vocabulary Reflect the Limits of Our World

Anna Brix Thomsen I Education I Analysis I August 6th, 2014

"Truth is that we all need facts we cannot continue to eat only the food that is given to us. Sometimes we have to feed ourselves otherwise we set our self up for dependency on the wrong nutrition without realizing that we were being poisoned the whole time. [sic]" - R. Lewis

Those who have it, tend to take it for granted as a natural part of their cognitive capacities. Those who do not have it, most often are not aware of how many 'doors to success' get slammed in their faces because of it. It is one of the most surreptitious mechanisms in the industrial-education-machinery as it perpetuates social and economic inequality, acting like a secret handshake that, once you know it, allows you access into positions of privilege and power. It is the triteness of vocabulary.

Most of us rarely consider how the words we speak determine so much in our lives; from the ability to express oneself, to effectively communicate in relationships and how the words we know affect the social and professional opportunities that are available to us. The more expansive and comprehensive one's vocabulary is, the more one is able to interact with, and gain access to various cultures, social circles and professional groups. What this means is that an expansive vocabulary elicits choices: the greater the vocabulary, the more access to a variety of life and living.

Imagine that life is like a big house with many rooms that each represents certain life styles or living conditions. Each room is locked and has to be opened with a key. That key is vocabulary. The more keys you have, the more rooms you can unlock; the more choices you have in life. Now - also imagine that in order to, for example, get access to the upper levels of the house, you first must have a key that opens the doors to the stairwell. Without this key you are conditioned to remain on the ground level or even in the rooms of the basement. With only a few keys, you have limited access to the house and as such: with a diminished vocabulary, you have less social mobility.

An example of this could be how a law student during his studies at university has gained access to the vocabulary that eventually will make him a lawyer. It is the vocabulary of law that gives him the ability to one-day work as a lawyer. But even before his university education, he would have had to develop a prerequisite vocabulary that enabled him to go into law studies in the first place; for example, through a high school education and, even before that, through developing a prerequisite vocabulary that enabled him to successfully go through high school. This process starts even before we learn our first words.

Vocabulary as a Socioeconomic Determinant

Research has shown that vocabulary development is closely linked to socioeconomic status. A 1995 study by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley titled Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, for example, showed that children from 'professional families' heard 382 words per hour, whereas children from 'families on welfare' only heard 167 words per hour. Similarly, a 2012 study from Stanford University revealed that already at the age of 2, children of 'low-income families' are 6 months behind peers from 'professional families' and that the same children at the age of 5 are more than 2 years behind when it comes to vocabulary development. This disparity in academic performance that tends to increase, as children grow older, becomes what is referred to as an achievement gap, and vocabulary plays a big part in determining the opportunities children have as they grow up.

In their 2009 book Teaching vocabulary with hypermedia, Susan O'Hara and Robert Henry Pritchard highlight how the achievement gap is perpetuated because: "enriched environments promote vocabulary development. Good readers read more, which in turn helps them become even better readers with even larger vocabularies. Poor readers read less, which contributes to their becoming poorer readers with more limited vocabularies. In effect, "the rich readers get richer and the poor readers get poorer."

When looking at what creates the achievement gap in relation to vocabulary development, researchers often discuss the lack of cognitive stimuli that is prevalent in low-income households due to the academic, social and even emotional incapacity of parents. What is not often discussed is how that lack of stimuli and the 'dumbing down' it perpetuates is generational and cyclical, and that it is propagated by the very education system that claims to attempt to minimize the achievement gap.

Adults who are unable to provide their children with an expansive vocabulary have themselves not been introduced to an expansive vocabulary. It is not because they are 'bad parents' or ill equipped at parenting, but in many instances it is simply because they themselves have been limited in terms of how many words they have had access to.

How the School System Perpetuates the "Achievement Gap"

Parents are seen as culprits when it comes to explaining the achievement gap and school is then supposed to be the place where children, no matter their background, gain equal opportunity to make something of their lives. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. Rather, schools are designed to be optimal learning environments for students who are good at reading, following instructions, sitting still and processing abstract and arbitrary information. In order to be successful at school, students have to be good at handling extremely high levels of noise and chaos as they navigate through grueling and complex social hierarchies. They have to be able to receive information passively; information that often has no relevance to their actual lives. They have to know, not only when to not ask questions - but also what questions not to ask, in order to stay out of trouble. Vocabulary is thus taught randomly, often without context, and the development of creativity and critical thinking skills is virtually non-existent.

So as should be evident by now - it is very few people whom actually benefit from and succeed through the current educational environments; and the disparity of vocabulary development plays a big part in determining the opportunities students have later in life. Because: the further children go in the education system, the further they will fall behind if they don't fit into the cookie-cutter model of what comprises a 'good student'.

When it comes to ' equal opportunity' being provided by the school system, it is hypothetical, meaning: it is something anyone, in theory, could have, but that not everyone, in actuality, has . The amount of opportunities that are available to us are therefore inexorably determined, virtually from the moment we are born, through the 'sins of the fathers' where our parents lack or abundance of vocabulary and social mobility will be directly transferred to us. The school system further perpetuates this, tacitly as well as explicitly, by promoting socioeconomic segregation through its very structures.

At the Mercy of "Experts"

The problem with a diminished development of vocabulary is however not only that it causes a segregation between individuals into different classes in society, but also that it creates a stark disadvantage for the majority of people who do not have access to professional vocabularies; for example, within law or medicine. When most people seek out medical advice, they do not have the same vocabulary as a doctor, which means that the doctor - for all intents and purposes - knows more about their body than they do. Because of her advanced vocabulary when it comes to medicine, she is therefore an authority on their body; and without any ability to cross-reference the information being given to them, most people credulously accept what they are being told. How many people, for example, read through legal agreements before signing them? Consider the 2007 subprime loan mortgage crisis that left thousands of people in the US homeless due to having agreed to taking mortgages on their houses that were in no way viable. Or how, when advertisers cleverly use a combination of words and images designed to evoke specific emotional responses, most people do not realize that they subconsciously respond to the predictive programming within an urge to buy something they don't actually need.

The diminished development of vocabulary is therefore an overarching societal problem that polemically, it can be argued, is socially engineered to widen not only the achievement gap between the elite and the general population, but also to placate the general population into a permanent state of apathy. Journalist Chris Hedges describes, in his 2009 book Empire of illusion: the end of literacy and the triumph of spectacle, how:

Functional illiteracy in North America is epidemic. There are 7 million illiterate Americans. Another 27 million are unable to read well enough to complete a job application, and 30 million can't read a simple sentence. There are some 50 million people who read at a fourth-or-fifth-grade-level. Nearly a third of he nation's population is literate or barely literate - a figure that is growing by more than 2 million a year. A third of high-school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives, and neither do 42 percent of college graduates. (P. 44)

This epidemic of functional illiteracy is not happening because people are stupid or lazy; it is happening because the school-system is, as John Taylor Gatto puts it in the title of his 1992 book: Dumbing us down.

Gatto argues that the incessant dumbing down of children is deliberately built into the mechanics of the school-system specifically because: "… the very stability of our economy is threatened by any form of education that might change the nature of the human product schools now turn out: the economy school-children currently expect to live under and serve would not survive a generation of young people trained, for example, to think critically". (p. xxxv)

Gatto's critique of the deliberate dumbing down taking place in the school-system stands in stark contrast to the propagandized call for competition in the battle of the global economy, where schools arm their students with knowledge as weapons to fight for survival on the global market. Gatto says:

What is currently under discussion in our national hysteria about failing academic performance misses the point. Schools teach exactly what they are intended to teach and they do it well: how to be a good Egyptian and remain in your place in the pyramid. None of this is inevitable. None of it is impossible to overthrow. We do have choices in how we bring up young people: there is no one right way. If we broke through the power of the pyramidical illusion we would see that. There is no life-and-death international competition threatening our national existence, difficult as the idea is even to think about, let alone believe, in the face of a continual media barrage of myth to the contrary. (P.14)

Competition in the global economy is presented as though it is an absolute and as though it, in itself, justifies a school system that bases its entire foundation on the premise of the survival of the fittest . If your parents are uneducated and cannot help you with your homework, it is just too bad. If you can't keep up in class, then shut up or apply for a vocational program so society can at least make some use of your human capital.

Subverting the "Dumbed Down" Education System

One of the perhaps greatest secrets when it comes to subverting the inequality and dumbing down promulgated within and through the education system is that every single human being born on this planet has a natural ability to learn.

The physiological conditions of a human body, in terms of it ability to learn, is largely equal among the majority of the earth's population. Of course, things like poverty, pollution, poor nutrition and physical abuse are examples of environmental factors that negatively affect an individual's capacity to harness their natural learning ability; and there are small minorities of people who suffer from such physical and neurological disablement that their capacity to learn is diminished. However, generally speaking, everyone has a natural ability to learn equally based on his or her individual capacities - and therefore ought to develop an equally expansive vocabulary. There is no reason why schools should not be structured so that everyone learns to the best of their abilities. It can therefore be argued that inequality is deliberately perpetuated through the school-system and by the society that endorses it through its structures.

Returning to the allegory of life being a house with its rooms representing various living conditions and opportunities in life and vocabulary being the keys to opening the doors to those rooms: what all of this means is that very few people have access to all the rooms in the house. These are the people that go to the best schools and colleges. These people, because they have more mobility and because they know the ins and outs of the house, therefore also have the power to manipulate and control those with less access. Those who live in the basement for example, in dirty and dark rooms, are conditioned to believe that there are no other ways for them to live. They are conditioned to believe that this is their fate, that they belong in the basement or as it may be in reality: the poverty-stricken neighborhoods and shantytowns around the world. However, there are no logical or natural reasons why some have access to the entire house while others are confined to a few rooms.

The solution is thus to provide everyone with equal access to the house that we call life, with vocabulary being the key that, if given to everyone, will not only make equal opportunity a reality but also empower individuals with the ability to subvert the subjugating system that paralyzes them into apathy and inequality on a global level.

An equal vocabulary would level the playing field, so that no one can use cognitive disinformation and predictive programming to manipulate others into submission.

Understanding the world we live in - from the legal agreements we sign to the ingredient lists on our medicine bottles and the foods that we eat - is imperative for us to become sovereign individuals who are able to make informed and educated decisions about our lives. It is equally imperative to transform our education systems from being systems of enslavement that produce consumer-citizens to act as cogs in the wheels of capitalism, to a system that supports individuals to become authorities in their own lives who are able to take equal responsibility for the world we all share. Obviously, not everyone would have to know the entire medical library, the names of each tiny part in a car's motor, or every single law - but without being able to read or understand the most basic information that affect our lives, we are as individuals in gravely disadvantageous positions because a part of the world is closed off to us - we cannot access it without the key of vocabulary. As such, vocabulary is used to control and segregate millions of people into poverty and unemployment, simply because they do not have access to the words that are required to participate in a certain field or profession. Vocabulary is not the only factor involved in perpetuating poverty and inequality, but it plays a significant role that most often is entirely overlooked.

As adults, and as parents in particular, it is our responsibility to support children to develop and expand their vocabulary through expanding our own. This is essential as it will provide children with the self-integrity, confidence and critical assessment skills required to grow up and become adults who can not only make actual real choices about their own lives, but also become empowered in such a way that changing the world will no longer just be empty words uttered in a desperate hope of a different future, but something that they take upon themselves with absolute unwavering determination.

Our world is made up of the words we know; and without knowing the words, we do not know the world. But there is no reason why a majority of people should be excluded from these words that make up our world, and as such not be able to direct outcomes that are best for all life. If nothing else, that is what education should provide.


Gatto, John Taylor. Dumbing us down: the hidden curriculum of compulsory schooling. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1992. Print.

O'Hara, Susan, and Robert Henry Pritchard. Teaching vocabulary with hypermedia, 6-12. Boston: Allyn & Bacon/Pearson, 2009. Print.