Bumblebees see ultraviolet light.

The fact seems almost trivial until you stop and think about it.

Ultraviolet is a color that we cannot perceive. We can’t even imagine what it’s like. We can take those wavelengths of light and translate them into something we’re familiar with, but the experience is not the same. In fact, the universe is full of phenomena our minds can’t even imagine.

Fascinatingly, our inability to see ultraviolet light is caused by a lens that filters the light we see. Some people need to have this lens removed due to cataracts or other vision issues; these people acquire a condition called aphakia that grants them the ability to perceive the color ultraviolet. Those of us who are a-aphakiac cannot imagine the sensory experience, but we can communicate about it. We understand the idea of a new, ineffable color, even if we can’t perceive it ourselves.

Such is the power of language. 

The Power of Language

Such is the power of language that if we lack a word for a phenomenon, we lose much of our access to that idea. The members of the Himba tribe, for instance, for years lacked a word for the color blue. In tests of their perception, most members failed to distinguish a blue dot in a field of green ones. However, they have a more nuanced vocabulary than English does to discuss the color green; most members can, with very little difficulty, spot a dot that’s a slightly different shade of green than those around it, even when most English speakers fail to tell them apart.

This is not because of any anatomical difference. There’s no difference in the configuration of cones and rods in our eyes relative to theirs. The difference is solely linguistic; because they lack a term for “blue,” blue doesn’t exist. Because we lack another word for a shade of green, we can’t tell the difference.

This phenomenon manifests itself all over the world. Languages that incline speakers to connect with the future? They produce higher rates of savings. Students at a boarding school who developed their own language lacked certain reasoning skills until their language developed the capacity to discuss them. Language shapes us in profound ways — ways we can hardly perceive, because language largely defines the way we think.

This has incredible implications for the classroom. Education is, largely, about changing the way students think. If language circumscribes thought, vocabulary instruction is the heart of education.

Wonderful Wordsmiths

Richard Skemp described two types of mathematical understanding: instrumental and relational. Students instrumental understanding know what to do; students with relational understanding know why. We can use a similar principle with vocabulary instruction; traditionally, we’ve taught students definitions. We’ve told them what words mean. But students learn words best when they get to see them in action. Here’s how to build a deeper understanding of vocabulary words.

  • Abstain from definitions for examples: Instead of saying that lethargy is a state of condition of fatigue and inactivity, introduce words by saying “lethargy is when you’re feeling really tired and sluggish, and you just want to lay on the couch. When have you felt lethargic?” We don’t learn through definitions; we learn best through examples — so leverage that fact to teach new words and new ideas.
  • Help students see the words in a myriad of contexts: We’re largely visual learners, so show them multiple pictures, and have them find their own. Google Images is a great tool for finding pictures associated with a word. Look up lethargic dogs, cats, and polar bears for a plethora of visuals. 
  • Have students think critically about the words: Have them rank the pictures you find form most lethargic to least lethargic. Ask them when was the most or the least lethargic they’ve ever felt. Have them connect the words to other ideas; in what ways is lethargy similar to and different from laziness?
  • Encourage creativity: Have students draw their own pictures, or act the words out. Pictionary and charades are powerful vocabulary tools.
  • Teach content through vocabulary: Identify the most salient concepts of every unit you study and treat them as exercises in vocabulary development, exercising the techniques mentioned above. You’ll be amazed at how it transforms student learning.

Cultivate a classroom full of vocabulary lovers. Encourage students to collect their own favorite words, or to add words to a wall of wonderful terminology. Relish the act of discussing and exploring the language — because by helping students love words, you’re helping them learn to love ideas.

And that’s kind of a big deal.

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*Photo by Jon Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons.