Word wise

A large vocabulary is a great advantage. Helping students acquire one should be an aim of education.

Taciturn. Eloquent. Loquacious. You may know what these three words, which are related to habits of speech, mean. Even if you don’t know, despair not. Here is what they mean, in common parlance: “light-lipped,” “well-spoken”, and “long-winded.”

The latter three are perfectly serviceable words, so why bother about the first three? That depends. While trotting out highfalutin words at every opportunity may reek of pretension and snobbism, this type of vocabulary does have its uses in certain contexts.

Not only do words like “taciturn,” “eloquent,” and “loquacious” enrich the English language immensely, but they can also redound to the credit of people who know their meaning and can use them correctly. Like it or not, we live in a world where a degree of sophistication, whether genuine or affected, is widely viewed as a mark of superior intelligence and erudition (“learning” in colloquial English). This is especially the case in the academic community.


An extensive vocabulary is also key to success in school, especially at competitive colleges and universities. Studies have shown that students with a more extensive working vocabulary tend to do better in their studies. Admittedly, correlation does not necessarily signify causation. It could simply be the case that students who are more learned and work harder do better in their studies and also acquire a better vocabulary at the same time.

Even so, however, a better vocabulary would still be to a student’s benefit. Yet a demonstrable correlation does exist between vocabulary and professional prospects, according to experts. “[T]here’s a positive correlation between a student’s vocabulary size in grade 12, the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income,” writes E.D. Hirsch, Jr, in an essay published in the New York-based public policy magazine City Journal, which advocates for education reform in the United States so as to improve learning outcomes equitably.


“The reason [for that] is clear: vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities — not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history, and the arts,” explains Hirsch, an American educator and academic who is professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia. “If we want to reduce economic inequality in America, a good place to start is the language-arts classroom.”

The same, needless to say, applies to Thailand as well. Primary schools, secondary schools, and universities in the country that equip their students with improved levels of literacy, both in speaking and writing, do these students a lasting favour. That said, vocabulary size is just one variable in a set of essential skills when it comes to levels of learning. Well-honed critical thinking and problem-solving skills are equally important.


“[C]orrelations between vocabulary size and life chances are as firm as any correlations in educational research. Of course, vocabulary isn’t perfectly correlated with knowledge. People with similar vocabulary sizes may vary significantly in their talent and in the depth of their understanding,” cautions Hirsch, who is founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, whose aim is to encourage increased factual content in primary school education to help students acquire strong educational foundations that will enable them to do better in higher education.

“Nonetheless, there’s no better index to accumulated knowledge and general competence than the size of a person’s vocabulary,” the educator argues. “Simply put: knowing more words makes you smarter.”