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Words matter in making kids smarter

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David Allen David Allen

David Allen is a columnist for The State Journal. He lives in Clarksburg.

The average SAT verbal test score peaked in 1967 and has never recovered. Yes, it is true. Your college-bound son is dumber than his predecessor who drag-raced his Pontiac GTO on Saturday nights. All of the excuses that have been made to rationalize lower SAT verbal scores have been debunked.

Writing in the Winter 2013 issue of City Journal, E. D. Hirsch Jr., a professor emeritus in education at the University of Virginia and the founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, offers an explanation of lower SAT verbal scores in his essay, "A Wealth of Words." I recently read in the Wall Street Journal that UVA boasts an 87 percent four-year graduation rate. Therefore, I take Dr. Hirsch's remarks seriously.

Dr. Hirsch's philosophy is that a strong vocabulary is all important when it comes to learning and intelligence. He also stresses that the way we teach students to build a vocabulary has changed for the worse over the past 50 years. Hence, the dumbing down that we can no longer rationalize, or worse, ignore.

In my experience, I have noticed that the first vocabulary a child learns is dependent on the local vernacular. If you were raised in West Virginia, you probably learned that the grassy strip between divided highway lanes is the medium. The correct word is median. West Virginians have generally referred to the road shoulder as the berm. No matter where one lives, the local vernacular has a strong influence on children.

Once in school, a child begins to learn the English vocabulary. This is a necessary step. We need to learn the English vocabulary and its proper usage if we hope to communicate with people who live outside of our neighborhoods.

And then, we learn the vocabulary of our trade or profession. From jargon to technical terms, every vocation has a specialized vocabulary. "Stuff" and "things" might get you by for a while, but your job demands that you know specific words for specific objects or tasks.

A doctor once told me that he counseled an illiterate, male patient who was suffering from spinal meningitis. The patient later told his wife and family that the doctor told him he had "shinin' mighty Jesus." The patient almost certainly recovered because he believed Jesus had intervened!

Dare I digress to remind you of the importance of a second opinion?

We are well into the digital age. We have Google. Most likely, a math-brained nerd invented "google" thinking he wrote "goggle." Goggle, a wide-eyed stare, is what the nerd thought. But to the nerd, a word requires no etymology or derivation. In the math brain, a word is nothing more than binary code, a unique set of ones and zeros. Google was born a bastard and will live and die a bastard.

As a nation, we have two full generations who are deficient in vocabulary. What will our nation's future be if we have three such generations? The world won't end, obviously. But society will regress. How far we regress and the severity of regression cannot be predicted.

In the not too distant future, I see our dumbing-down affecting even the BBC—the stalwart purveyor of classical English drama. As the demand for shows like "Downton Abbey" and "Upstairs, Downstairs" dissipates because viewers can no longer comprehend the dialogue, the BBC will most likely be privatized. New programming will be attuned to the digital age, not to the past. 

"Upstairs, Downstairs" will be re-made. The upstairs people will text the downstairs people for all their needs instead of ringing bells, or orally communicating their whims to the butler. The downstairs people, of course, will serve the upstairs people. The sequel will be called "The Dumbwaiter of the Baskervilles."

I have always believed that the English language is civilization's greatest achievement. There is nothing to compare to it because it builds on the best words from all languages. The British Empire was not shy about Anglicizing foreign words. For example, anglicize comes from the Latin "anglici."

As well, I have always been fascinated with words. My aunt Mary, an English teacher, gave me a collegiate dictionary in 1962. It served me well — I took the SAT in 1967. My dictionary, now 50 and held together with duct tape, still sits on my desk.